Transforming Your Relationship
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Almost everyone wants a happy relationship. Few people know how to achieve them. Most individuals come to a relationship with old baggage of hurts, disappointments and anger that eventually color their current situation. Today’s research is studying happy couples to determine how they manage to live in harmony with each other given the number of stressors of daily life. System theory helps explain how some people learn to get along with each other in intimate relationship.
Why is learning about systems important? Because systems theory accurately describes how things work in relationships. A system is two or more people who interact with each other. Two friends, a family, a classroom, a school, a block, a city, a country and even our planet are examples of systems because there is mutual interaction. Your family is a system. How one person in the system acts effects the behavior of the next and so on. Members of a system are like the moving pieces of a mobile. The behavior of one person in the system effects the others just as touching one object of a mobile sets the whole system moving. One family member’s mood and behavior influence the others. System thinking goes beyond blaming others to seeing how things are for the whole group.
All systems have characteristics of being open systems or closed ones. Systems can be placed on a continuum from open to closed. Most family systems fall somewhere in the middle between open and closed. Systems vary from time to time in their ability to be open and closed. When more stressors come down on the system, they become more closed and rigid. The quality of life in your family, job or spiritual group system is generally based on the overall mental health of the most dominant member.
Certain behaviors and attitudes in system members make a system open. People are treated with love, respect and caring in open systems. Their needs are acknowledged. Learning to share feelings helps open up a system. Talk, trust and feel are the rules in an open system. The needs of the entire group and ways to break into reciprocal negative patterns are explored. Family members then share responsibility to make changes in their unhealthy behavior.
Closed systems are fear based. They function with techniques of control, manipulation and faulty finding. There is generally a hierarchy with the dominant member on top who dictates to others. Each person has a designated role which they are not allowed to deviate from. Closed systems function to keep the status quo by insisting that new information and change be limited. Dysfunctional behavior and addictions may be present. Abusive relationships are always closed. Tightly closed systems are authoritarian in nature where personal freedom and new information are suppressed such as Hitler’s Germany, prisons and cults.
|Safe Systems (Love Based)||vs||Systems Where People Feel Hurt (Fear Based)|
|Open to new learning and information||vs||Closed to new ideas|
|Communication||vs||Withdrawal/Hiding who you are|
|Freedom to express individuality||vs||Control over others|
|Open/Flexible||vs||Rigid, blaming the partner|
|Speaking feelings||vs||Ridicule/Discounting of feelings|
|Problem solving/Learning from mistakes||vs||Fault finding/Criticism/Punishment|
|Feeling good about yourself||vs||Feeling hurt, angry and ashamed|
|Individuals encouraged to learn and grow||vs||Keeping the status quo|
|Being allowed to question authority||vs||Keeping people caught in the system rigid rules|
|Healthy addictions (gardening, walking etc.)||vs||Misusing alcohol, drugs and other addictions|
When we were children we were not able to choose our family system. As adults, we get the systems we are willing to put up with. With all the personal growth options available, individuals can take the opportunity to learn about their behaviors which keep them caught in unhappy situations. When we learn more healthy behaviors, out systems change to reflect the level of our healthiness.
Making Your Relationship an Open System
Researchers are studying couples in happy marriages to find out what types of behavior makes up rewarding long term relationships. In doing so, researchers are finding out why relationships fall apart. People who have achieved happy relationships are skilled in creating open systems. They have developed a behavior repertoire that create openness in the system.
In transformational relationships the partners learn and grow and the relationship grows as well. Transformational relationships are open systems where each individual and the couple is encouraged to bring new information into the relationship. Let’s see what several researchers have found out about happy couples who have developed the skills to form an open system.
- Happy couples base their relationship on a strong, spiritual foundation. They sought out something greater than themselves and developed shared rituals to give meaning to their lives. They developed shared rituals to strengthen the bond between them.
- People in happy relationships shared positive values of commitment, cooperation, loving, acceptance, honesty, respect, responsibility and humor. They lived out these values in their relationship. They down played material success and achievement and defined their relationship in terms of their positive values.
- Happy couples were more likely to idealize and paint a rosy picture of their partner. They credited their partners with helping make the relationship work. With these positive beliefs, each partner was able to overlook many of the flaws in their partner. They were generous in spirit when they made critiques of their partner’s behavior. When crisis struck, they kept an optimistic outlook of the relationship saying We can handle this. We can work it out. Current research is saying that the willingness to be generous with one’s partners shortcoming and overlooking their weaknesses to focus on strengths is the key to a happy long-term relationship.
- The couples were equal partners in making the important decisions in the relationship. They learned to balance power in their relationship. Marital power was shared with each person doing what they had more expertise in that area. Household tasks were divided by who was good at the task, not by gender roles. They cut each other slack when certain expectations were not met.
- The couples who were happy together emphasized life long learning and personal growth. They saw problems as opportunities that the two of them could overcome. They had a sense of the coupleship that could deal with all the problems that life offered them. Happy couples put their relationship first. Their relationship with each other was more important than their relationship with their children, friends or parents.
- Contented partners developed good negotiation skills. They agreed to disagree and problem solve together to come to a reasonable solution for both. Each tried to hear the other person’s point of view during disagreements. They understood that respectful negotiation was the key to a rewarding relationship. They overcame their fears about confrontation and conflict and they use techniques of fight fair to settle disagreements. They were especially careful to repair their relationship after times of discord by providing extra nurturing for each other.
- Successful couples valued intimacy and encouraged mutual nurturing. The provision of support during stressful times was a necessary ingredient for individuals to feel emotionally safe during tough times. When outside stressors such as job change or financial trouble came up, the couple stood together. Lack of social support from one or both partners has been show to be a key predictor of marital problems. When there is a long time pattern of nonsupport, partners can feel left out and become resentful creating distancing and an impasse. Reciprocal comforting and nurturing is a balm that bonds the couple together in this stressful world.
A transformational relationship fosters growth for each of the partners and the relationship. For your relationship to survive and be rosy in today’s world, open up your system. Practice the positive skills that nurtures the relationship. Today’s couples can choose from a variety of options to learn relationship enriching skills. Today’s couple counseling provides many tools and techniques that can help move your relationship from closed to open.