When we look at couples like Camron and Christa who appear to just be made for each other it's often difficult to realize that it took hard work to get where they are. Sure, they might be made for each other now, but most of the crafting they did themselves! As the two of them readily admit it is their challenges that shaped them into the couple they are today and bonded them together rather than pushing them apart. Overcoming together truly is a powerful relationship strength!
While these two are very close, part of their connection comes from realizing that they are still separate people. It seems counterintuitive, but as Camron and Christa showed, maintaining a sense of separation even while together is actually a relationship strength, not a weakness.
Most challenges will take time and effort to overcome. Think of climbing a mountain with a team or starting a business or solving a community problem. The first step is to get the team together, get on the same page, and decide you’re going to overcome it. The second step is usually learning, skill-building, and a lot of hard work. Relationships are no different. Even the really hard stuff is much easier if we begin by deciding to face it together. Add to that being willing to do the personal and couple-based work necessary to overcome and you’ve got a winning combination. Dr. John Gottman has found that for a relationship to be strong, both partners need to see difficulties as opportunities to learn and grow closer. He sees overcoming as a mindset, not an action. When we turn toward each other during difficult experiences, not just for support but also because we see ourselves as a team with the same hopes and goals, it changes the nature of the experience. Rather than taking relationship difficulties as evidence that we weren’t really meant to be together or that our partner is flawed (or mean), having the mindset of overcoming together sets us up to find and use our strengths as a couple.
Being Separate while Connected
There are a lot of paradoxes in relationships, but one of the most interesting is autonomy vs. connection. A lot of people put the emphasis on negotiation and learning to stand up for your own needs, but the most powerful key to doing autonomy and connection at the same time is personal growth. A stronger sense of self can substantially lessen the need to defend and negotiate.
Think of a martial arts master. He doesn't walk around tense and ready for a fight, but loose and relaxed because he knows he has honed and developed the skills and techniques to protect himself if danger comes his way. It's the same for us when we develop a strong sense of self. We then do not feel afraid of interactions that might challenge that sense of self, because we are confident in who we are.
So relax! When we are strong in our sense of who are we act as the best version of ourselves. We aren’t vulnerable to perceived slights or even outright insults. We don’t need to hustle for attention or validation. Our partner’s emotions and wants and worries won’t be overwhelming. We won’t lose ourselves in the storms of life. We can relax. This allows our partner to develop individuality AND a deep connection.
This requires understanding ourselves and our partners and figuring out how to handle different preferences and personal needs. Two strong individuals can let their guard down and “move-in”, really seeing and loving each other. As we work on being intimate and close while still holding on to a sense of being an independent self, we become more flexible. Pushing and pulling doesn't automatically lead to an argument. As we grow and circumstances change, we continually adjust and the interaction becomes more of a dance between true partners.
Think of a challenge you and your partner face. Just one to start with. Consciously choose to approach it as something to overcome together. If you are currently blissfully without challenges, set a moderately difficult goal. Before every discussion, before making any plans, before getting to work, physically turn toward each other and talk about your shared values and goals that relate to this challenge. Put yourselves on the same team. If you find yourselves disagreeing or working at cross-purposes, stop and set the actual problem aside for a minute and talk about what you do agree on and the fact that you are in this together.
Repeat this conversation often.
Potential Relationship Challenge Ideas:
Keeping the house clean
Finding time to meet goals (exercise, hobbies, etc.)
Dealing with an ongoing source of stress (demanding child, parent, boss, schooling, etc.)
Housing and auto maintenance and upkeep
Connecting with extended family in healthy ways
Nurturing romantic feelings and expressions
Let us know how the relationship challenge worked out for you in the comments section below!