DREAM ADVICE COLUMN: COPING WITH RELATIONSHIP TENSION
Challenging schedules put a lot of stress on a relationship. It can be so hard to self-preserve under pressure, let alone think about someone else. The relationship can be easily de-prioritized when your own survival — keeping up with daily demands — is a full-time job in itself. This can lead to a sense of bitterness, irritation, and resentment of the other’s needs, or even at the other’s mere existence, as they become a living reminder of what’s being neglected. Whatever conflicts already exist in the relationship can become exacerbated when the relationship is under stress, which can leave you two in a vulnerable place. Looked at another way, what you have here is a golden opportunity for deepening your connection as these conflicts between you are highlighted and out in the open. In that way, you have an opportunity to explore them together. I know, I know, when are you supposed to have time to do that…?
My boyfriend and I have just gone back to school and we both have very challenging and hard school schedules. We’re both so stressed out and have so much to do, that our relationship is turning into us just staying up late and doing homework together and nothing else. When the rare occasion comes up where we do decide to do something other than study, one of us is stressed out and starts to bicker because we are both very serious about school and are worrying about how much we have to get done. I really do think I have the man I want to marry and I just wanted to know if you had any advice on how to work through this because I don’t want to lose the man of my dreams because of the stress of school.
In the most basic sense, it sounds like you and your boyfriend are in a tug of war over who’s more stressed out, who’s more serious about school, who’s needier, and most importantly, whose needs are going to be met. Competitiveness can start to characterize your interactions, leaving the relationship hungry for nourishment. A concept that has saved my own relationship is the realization that the relationship is not simply comprised of the two of us — the relationship is actually a third thing we create and maintain together. It is of us, yet independent of us, and we have a responsibility to take care of it. When the going gets tough, you might feel like shit, and he might be under a lot of pressure, yet is it possible to leave space to tend to that third thing? Thinking this way can help you each set aside your own stuff for the sake of the thing between you, not unlike having a pet, child, collaborative project, or something else precious yet demanding. I like to think of it as practicing good relationship hygiene, and becoming sensitive to when the relationship is starting to smell. I can’t say enough about couples therapy as a route to expanding relationship habits, looking at patterns, and inviting a sense of renewal into the dynamic.
Something my partner and I have found it useful to practice what we call a “10/10.” We set a timer, and one of us talks for 10 minutes while the other one listens, then we switch. We can’t interrupt, talk over, or give advice — it’s more about hearing into the other person’s world, but with a time limit. That way, no one has to worry about the emotional talk dragging on into the night, and on the flip side, it gives the more reserved party a chance to open up to fill the 10 minutes. My partner and I are talkers (both Geminis, both the youngest in our families), but you could also do this with something like 10 minutes of just physical contact, like massage.
Our partners can become so familiar to us that we start to think of them like family. The perks of this tendency — the relationship becomes a vital source of comfort, connection, and consistency. Yet, the shadow side is that we can be the worst to those we’re closest to. The familial aspect of intimate relationships triggers us to regress, waking up our abandoned inner five-year-olds and irritated inner 16-year-olds, each seeking for their old wounds to be healed. In this regard, it’s more like there’s not two, but six of you in the room! Pretty complicated, right?
Yet through it all, relationships seem to find their own equilibrium. It takes radical honesty, maturity, humility, and curiosity to transform these pain points into opportunities for growth and self-discovery. The good news, kind of, is that ruts are going to happen again and again over the course of a long-term relationship. It’s nice when a couple can recognize the signs they’re beginning to swing too far into it and take ownership of how they’re showing up — some people retreat when in distress and wall themselves off, others become needier and more upset (see my post from a few weeks ago on Turtles and Tigers). As much as we might like to avoid falling into ruts, learning how to dig out of them helps build not only the relationship’s backbone, but your own.
*DISCLAIMER: Dreamwork is a collaborative process that relies entirely on the associations of the dreamer to create a dream meaning. Without the dreamer’s input, I can only describe my personal associations and amplify the dream images as they exist symbolically on a cultural level.