Recently, I was working with a couple who were with me for the second counseling session. At the end, the fellow said:
"How long is this going to take to know if this relationship can get better?"
Big question with no answer. But, what it did highlight that I thought I'd share with you today is the differences in how folks look at their relationships. In this case, he is tapping his fingers looking for immediate return on investment. It seemed he had a great interest in cutting his losses, in whatever way he perceived them. Inherent in his question was:
"How much is this going to cost me, and can we cut it down and still get what we need?"
You know, counseling doesn't work that way. When one partner is focused on how much time, energy or money it is taking, it is difficult to focus on the process of assessing or improving the relationship. While I knew he needed an answer that was compelling enough to stay with the process, it was difficult to give him a prediction. So, I went this way:
"One thing we can take into consideration for sure is that you've been together for fifteen years, and it took all that time to bring you to consider counseling. The issues you've brought are not new to you, and they did not develop quickly. It seems fair to give it a while to find out what's possible, don't you think?"
The logic seemed to meet his needs. We slowly learn about each other, work to confirm our assumptions and insights about each other, and create patterns of interaction, helpful or not. It all takes time.
When something rears up and threatens our relationship, we want to know if it can be tamed, or if we should run. It's natural. It's an old instinct in our reptilian brain. (Really, we do have reptilian brains!)
The difficulty with relationships is that we have often been overlooking, or denying, the signs that something is going on, or coming towards us. And, you know, it is very difficult to ignore a rhino for long. But, somehow we're hopeful that it will disappear if we close our eyes. One reason we do that is that we don't think we are equipped to meet the rhino. Most folks aren't. That's why people like me make it our life work to provide relationship help. Taking on a rhino safely means getting the expert help of a rhino wrestler.
Can relationship help arrive quickly? Can relationship problems be solved instantly? The help can arrive, but it takes time to solve issues that have built up over time. So, the big advice I offer you is to not let things build up in your primary relationships. The earlier you get insights and explore issues, the more relationship help can do to solve problems and resolve issues. Quickly? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no.
Your relationship is important. It's worth investing time, energy and money in relationship help to make it the best it can be. If it isn't, why are you there?
Dr. Rhoberta Shaler is the author of nine books including Wrestling Rhinos: Conquering Conflict in the Wilds of Work. She works with couples in her office and through Skype video from wherever you are.