Teeter Totters and Maintaining Healthy Relationships
Brooke Randolph, LMHC
Despite what Disney may have unintentionally taught us, happily ever after isn’t something that simply happens as we walk into the sunset. Relationships take work and an investment of time, energy, emotions, and thought. The rewards are big, but perhaps fairy tales should end with “and they worked on their relationship every day after.”
In times of stress, when things aren’t going well in your relationship, or you are irritated with your partner (for any number of reasons), it can be tempting to focus more on self-care rather than caring for your relationship and partner. It can be tempting to isolate, make selfish decisions, or even try to upset your partner. When partners move away from each other, it is like putting themselves at the far ends of a teeter totter; balance is extremely difficult, they are out of sync, and there can be lows and bumps in the ride. It can be exciting, but is it healthy?
As partners move closer to each other, closer to the middle, on a teeter totter, a greater balance can be obtained. As a child, were you ever able to hold the teeter totter in balance even with two people of different weights? It takes some adjustment, but we felt pretty accomplished when the teeter totter rested parallel to the ground. The closer we are together, the less dramatic the ride becomes.
There will still be some up and down and give and take in your relationship. The reality of relationships is that we do not maintain parallel long, but you are less likely to feel the bumps when you are sitting closer to the middle.
When your partner upsets you or irritates you, it is almost instinct to want to show them how upset you are, either by pulling away or by striking back in some way. This quickly becomes a self-fueling spiral, pushing each of you to the opposite ends of the teeter totter. It may not feel natural, but the only way out of the standoff is to “give in” and move in towards your partner.
Generally when couples or individuals contact me about relationship issues, the teeter totter of their relationship is out of balance. They may both be at the far end, or more likely one is in a more extreme position than the other. One person may be trying to move towards the middle while the other is stuck or pushing further away. Like a teeter totter, there will be times when things are up and down; however, you never want to send your partner crashing to the ground. We all remember how jarringly painful it was as a child when someone jumped off the teeter totter without warning. The only protection we have from that experience is to move closer to your partner.
It can be difficult to move away from the edge, it takes extra effort to move over the handle to get closer to your partner. It can be frightening to feel like you don’t have anything to hold on to and you are letting go of what protects you. Relationships are not easy, but dividends are paid from effort invested.
Many times it is helpful for couples to be able to make that extra effort to move towards their partner when I can help them truly hear and understand what their partner is trying to communicate. One of my important roles in couples counseling is acting as a translator. Despite our best efforts to communicate our thoughts and feelings, the message can get muddied with speech patterns, personal history, and the perception of your audience which is influenced by their own history and hurts.
When there has been a pattern of missed communication (not expressing oneself so your partner can understand and/or not fulling understanding what your partner is trying to express), these misunderstandings can create a rift and an assumption that one knows what the other is going to say, pushing you further and further apart. Some people need help to fully express all that they intend. Others need translation to help them understand what their partner is saying or trying to say.
Do you feel stuck on an imbalanced teeter totter or that you are not even sure that you want to move away from your end? Do you keep having the same fights? How can I help you and your partner to move closer together?
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Photography courtesy of Daniel Randolph / used as background image - These are the exact teeter totters I remember riding frequently in my childhood.
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