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Relationship Guide
August 2004:
Turn Conflicts Into Closeness
by Claire Hatch
Claire Hatch, MSW is a licensed social worker and mediator who specializes in working with couples. She counsels people by phone around the world and in person in her Seattle area office.

Claire will be happy to answer your relationship questions in this column. Please send them to claire@clairehatch.com or call her at 425.823.2273.
Want more relationship help? Then The Bridal Sanity Workbook is for you. Claire shares wisdom from her pre-wedding counseling experience and her work with troubled marriages.

“The closer we get to the wedding, the more we fight,” said Nancy. “Sometimes we look at each other like, Do I really know you? It seems like we keep finding more and more things to disagree about.”

If your wedding is just around the corner, you may know just what Nancy is talking about.

You may find that the nearer your wedding, the more landmines you discover. By landmines I mean those old sensitivities that you manage to forget much of the time. They are buried but not defused, and an intimate relationship is just what it takes to reignite them.

As a teacher, Nancy made considerably less money than her fiancé Todd, a medical recruiter. Todd was happy to treat Nancy to nice dinners or more expensive hotels than she could afford on her own. Sometimes it made her a little uncomfortable, but they both agreed it made more sense than the alternatives. Todd didn’t want them to miss out on experiences they could enjoy and Nancy didn’t want to stretch her budget by trying to keep up.

But as the wedding drew closer, Nancy started getting scrappy when Todd paid for something. One night she referred to Todd as “Mr. Hot Shot,” to his astonishment.

Nancy made a classic relationship mistake that is probably familiar to all of us. Something hurt, she decided the reason was something Todd did, and she struck out at him. Of course, this sequence wasn’t anywhere near as reasoned and deliberate as this makes it sound. It all happened in a flash. And suddenly she had a very unhappy fiancé.

At moments like these, we tend to reach for communication skills to help us smooth out the bumps in the road. But what if these bumps are the road? Like many relationship counselors, I believe that the most rewarding relationships are about growth. A healthy intimate relationship is the way you defuse your old landmines, mend the cracks in yourself esteem and become a stronger, more fully developed you.

Of course, life provides other growing experiences as well, such as work challenges, friendships and family relationships, and transitions of all kinds. But nothing else in life makes you take such a long, searching look in the mirror. Nothing else makes you face your weaknesses and then reach deep, deep inside yourself to find strengths you didn’t know you had.

This is because in order to have a successful relationship, you have to become firmly attached to your partner and at the same time remain a strong individual. This is quite a trick. Just ask anyone who’s tried it!

For Nancy, becoming attached means that she lets Todd see her insecurity about earning less, along with all the meaning that holds for her. It means helping him understand the anxiety she felt watching her mother raise her and her sister alone as well as the messages she received about never depending on anyone. It means letting him see her fear that receiving gifts from him will lead to her depending on him. In short, Nancy needs to allow herself to be known.

Becoming a stronger individual means Nancy has to dig deeper to find her confidence in herself. It was easier to feel confident when she was single. But now she compares her salary to that of her fiancé, and comparisons are the shortest route to diminished self-esteem. Nancy can raise her self-esteem by learning to value her career in itself, regardless of anything Todd does. She needs to learn that her worth comes from other sources besides her earning power. And she can shore up her faith in the value of her non-monetary contributions to their relationship.

At the same time, she needs to explore her own values about money and earnings more than she did when she was single. Maybe her discomfort means that being a high earner is more important to her than she thought. Maybe she needs to consider a career shift.

Amazing where one snappish comment can lead, isn’t it? If you see it as an opportunity to learn, it can bring you increased intimacy with your partner, deeper self-knowledge, and a new level of confidence in yourself. As rewarding as this kind of personal work is, most of us won’t engage in it until we hit a bump in the road. That’s the great gift of a relationship.

So, the next time your feelings get hurt, remember that there’s a lot more to hurt feelings than first meets the eye. Try not to jump to the conclusion that your fiancé has done something wrong. Resist the urge to strike back. Instead, ask yourself: What can I learn about myself and my landmines? How can I find more strength and confidence within myself? And how can we understand and accept each other more, so that we strengthen our attachment?

If you do, you’ll be well on your way to a fulfilling marriage. And that means your wedding will be extra wonderful, too.

Read previous Relationship Guide articles


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