T. Trust: For many couples trusting each other is never an issue. It is a bedrock of their relationship and needs no discussion or repair. For others, it may either lurk in the background as something occasionally difficult to deal with, or it may be a frequent or chronic problem.
A key aspect of trust is that it exists in ‘the space between’ two individuals. It can’t be demanded or given by just one partner, but is negotiated by means of the behaviour and emotion of both partners. It’s not rational. It involves how each person sees their partner (perceived trustworthiness, perceived forgiveness), their ability to feel trusting and trusted, and their behaviour, and will have a lot to do with childhood and experiences in previous relationships.
Trust may be broken through dishonesty, infidelity, or mismanaging practical matters, or there may be external circumstances which are beyond either person’s control but which disrupt the couple’s ability to maintain trust between them. When broken, trust can’t be ‘willed’ back to life : it can and for many couples does re-appear, but only at the point when both partners agree that their feelings have changed.
When you’re ready to talk to each other about a trust issue, try to remember that apologising and forgiveness are necessary -but not always sufficient – when trust is damaged. Note also that feelings around betrayal are deep and painful ones, and the desire to defend oneself is strong – on both sides – so expressing them is inevitable as well as potentially very uncomfortable. Having rational discussions about compromise, negotiation, and the consequences of the issues giving rise to mistrust (eg jealousy or practical problems) should be tackled only when you are both calm/strong enough to do so.
It is not unusual for couples to feel that restoring trust after a disruption is out of reach, particularly because neither knows how long it could take, or if they want it. Seeking outside help from a professional person can make this easier. When there are likely to be long-term practical or financial consequences, it may be essential.
U. Understanding: Couples rarely admit that they don’t understand each other, preferring to locate the source of the problem in their partner – perhaps in a joking way. And yet as we’ve all grown up in different families and therefore differing backgrounds, perhaps it’s unsurprising that we don’t always talk the same “language” to each other? I am even conscious of this as I write these Notes: I can’t assume that what I say will make sense to everyone. For instance, there may be readers for whom my language is too abstract, or too simple, or that I’m stating the obvious, or my assumptions are unrelated to their world. The message I believe I’m delivering, is not necessarily the message being received- and so it is with couples.
Sometimes it is the ‘code’ we use to communicate that causes misunderstanding. Women seem often to make coded relationship-oriented statements which then elicit problem-solving responses in their male partners, for example she might say – ‘‘I’ve been really tired the last few days” and he says “Why, what have you been doing?” or “why not go and have a lie down?” She may really mean ‘please pay attention to my needing some emotional or practical support from you… ’ She may resent his not recognizing that asking her a factual question, or offering a suggestion, is not ‘appropriate’ to the ‘language’ she is speaking in. It is a misunderstanding, where neither is to blame. Another example of coded communication is when one person implies they want their partner’s opinion, but has an expectation of agreement, eg “Shall we get the shopping done this morning?” . This causes misunderstanding if the questioner ignores or disputes their partner’s reply – ie s/he ‘politely’ appears to be open to negotiation, but in fact is making a statement of intention.
Though these appear small misunderstandings, they remind us that we may have conversational habits or ‘codes’ that we’re unaware of. It’s important to recognise differences of this sort to avoid communication patterns that undermine our ability to understand and empathize with our partners.
V. Vulnerability: Living in this time of strangeness, we need to pay attention to unfamiliar dynamics in our partnerships, and unexpected moods and behaviors in ourselves. I have often commented in these Notes that “it’s normal to feel abnormal.”
Although I can only generalize here, I list below some of the areas in which there is increased likelihood of feeling ‘abnormally’ depressed, angry, confused and scared. Individuals and couples will vary in the degree of vulnerability they feel in each category. There is financial insecurity, existing health problems (minor or serious), being predisposed to anxiety or moodiness, sexual difficulties, constant tiredness, a clearly structured work life having now disappeared, children and other dependents at home all the time, an overall worry about your future, no longer able to rely on sport/social gatherings/outdoor activities to sustain you mentally… and many more.
The effects are widespread and varied, but if we make it ok to acknowledge feeling emotionally vulnerable, and talk to our partners, family and our friends about it, the less shame and isolation people will feel, and the less fear we’ll all have of being ‘abnormal’. (In my view this is perhaps not adequately addressed in either the news or social media).
Many of us are having to face such issues as couples now, with an increasing need to understand each other’s moods and vulnerabilities. My motivation to write these notes is partly because although I believe ‘lockdown’ provides some frightening challenges, it also turns out to be a time for increasing intimacy, resilience and strength for many couples.