The Pandemic, ongoing national and international crises continue to strain our coping resources to the limit. Our individual and collective resilience is being tested in unprecedented ways. Resilience, or the ability to learn from adversities and emerge stronger is a great goal in theory yet often tough to carry out in practice. We hear how meditation can decrease our anxiety, and a healthy diet, good sleep and plenty of exercise help us rebound from a multitude of stressors. While certainly useful advice, what we hear much less about is the way our relationships contribute to our ability to be resilient.
The meaning we make of our experiences, the stories we tell in and about our close relationships are actually the building blocks of resilience. Rather than building stories of blame, despair, hopelessness and disconnection, you can use your life experiences and the unanticipated challenges as opportunities to re-story your relationship in ways that focus on what matters most. Creating stories of the possible are the beacons of hope, the North Star to guide your way. Love stories-created, recovered and made anew-are the essential ingredients of resilient relationships. Couples who can find their stories, share them first with each other, then with family, friends and a larger community are more likely to preserve a vision of partnership that sustains and nurtures through the most challenging of times.
Here are the key ingredients or pillars of individual/relationship resilience.
A Big-Picture Perspective
Taking the long view encourages you to put problems in a multi dimensional context-unique and specific to your personality, biology, spiritual values, historical time and to your current phase of life. What might look like an insurmountable obstacle in the moment may prove to be a building block to stronger repair(abilities) in the future. Or what might look like incompatibility or a character flaw may also and perhaps more deeply be a moment of development that invites change. When we shift our focus from feeling happy in our relationship to looking for purpose and meaning, we’re more likely to define the challenge as manageable, even positive. The joint pursuit of meaning and purpose can also help overcome problems because partners change at different rates. Individual partners always bring varied levels of resources and skills to manage a challenge at any given time. Thinking about our lives in full and our past and present stories helps to better shape an intentional future for our relationship.
A “We” Attitude
Couples with a team (we) approach to life challenges show greater satisfaction with their relationship and better physical and mental health. The qualities of We-ness: Safety, Empathy, Respect, Acceptance, Pleasure, Humor, Shared meaning and vision or SERAPHS (the higher angels of our relationship) can be cultivated so you can learn to think and act with the best interest of your relationship in mind. A We attitude represents a sense of mutual identity (who we are) and affirms your commitment to being connected in mutual care (how we love). We-ness gives your relationship a storyline that prioritizes your connection and helps you act in ways that benefit the team rather than either individual. It is a mindset that helps you take joint responsibility for issues you’re facing. Partnerships then become anchored in friendship and sustained by intentionally created networks beyond the partnership. Trust is the cornerstone of resilient relationships; love is remembered and honored.
A Culture of Gratitude
Viewing disagreements as inevitable and focusing on what goes well, even in the face of challenge proactively creates positives. Relationships, just like our muscles, strengthen through a recurring process of stress and repair. Repair requires the capacity to be vulnerable-to say “I’m hurting” and to hear “How can I help” and “What can we do to make it better”? Approaching differences with curiosity, not seeking the “truth” but rather to understand each other’s perspective is key. Practice a charity of interpretation and give more positive feedback than complaints. Empathize, invite care and offer emotional support to yourself and one another. Focus on the positive contributions your partner is making and express appreciation on a regular basis. That habit will go a long way when times are the toughest.
Openness to Change and Growth
As in nature, we change when time and conditions are ripe. However, we can nudge and nourish both processes along, and once repair and renewal begin, there is no going back. Like all other worthy endeavors, growing your resilience takes attention and nurture. No matter how tempting, resist “settling” and aim for growth and change, not accommodation. Partners who help us become a better version of ourselves become more valuable and important to us over time. Different phases of the lifecycle as well as different kinds of challenges offer different ways to expand.
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