Steering the Tides of Your Relationship

Today you have a choice. Actually, you have many choices. We all face decision points throughout our day—many of these decisions will be made automatically, with little reflection about why we’re choosing “A” over “B” or “C.”

Marriages and relationships involve an abundance of choices. It’s overwhelming to have to reflect on the hundreds of choices you might make in a typical day, so to prevent this information overload, your efficient brain has an automatic pilot setting, which allows you to navigate through your relationships with little mental effort. This has both advantages and disadvantages.

On the plus side, not having to think about every decision you make frees up your mind (as well as your emotional resources) for other things. It’s akin to driving—once you learn the skills, you rarely have to consciously think about the mechanics of steering, braking and whatnot.

The downside? Your lack of self-reflective decision-making can cost you (and your relationship) at times, sending you in directions that aren’t best for your partner, marriage or relationship.

Let’s look at how this might play out.

The Tides of Your Relationship

We’re constantly influencing and being influenced by others. The renowned psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan said that there was no self outside of relationships. We’re intimately connected and shaped by those presently around us, as well as by those whose voices we’ve internalized from our pasts.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you and your partner/spouse play the roles of both influencer-influenced. From the way you speak to each other, to the feelings/energies that get directly and indirectly expressed, to your level of responsiveness, there are co-created tides that sometimes pull each of you in different directions.

The influencing power of emotions is a central feature of Emotional Focused Couples Therapy (an effective treatment developed by Leslie Greenberg and Susan Johnson).

“The way Doris and I start our day has an enormous impact on whether it’s going to be a good or bad day for me. If she’s short with me, it colors everything. I wish it wasn’t like that, especially when things go poorly. But when she’s okay and happy, I feel like I can touch the sky and that’s the best feeling ever.” ~Andrew, describing his wife’s impact on him

The pull of moon (and alternately, the sun) causes the ocean’s tides to rise and fall. The moon/sun are the influencers and the oceans the influenced. This is a one-directional influence.

Relationships are bi-directional, each person impacting the experience of the other. In the quote above, Andrew paints a picture where he is the influenced and Doris the influencer. But let’s hear from Doris before we reach this conclusion:

“I struggle with health issues, and there are some days I’m in a lot of pain when I wake up. It takes a while for me to get myself moving and feeling normal. It’s hard to engage with others when I’m feeling this way. If I’m not talkative, which I typically am, Andrew takes it personally and starts to withdraw. When he pulls away like that I feel so hurt. And it actually makes my physical pain worse. I need him to be present and loving even if I’m quiet and preoccupied with physical discomfort.” ~Doris, describing her husband’s impact on her

Once we hear from Doris, a different picture emerges of this couple’s relationship. There is mutual influence, some of which is out of their control (for instance, when Doris is in significant pain and cannot fully engage with Andrew), and some that can be more effectively dealt with (rather than withdrawing, Andrew can learn how to be available when Doris is struggling).

Deliberately Shifting the Tides of Your Marriage/Relationship

For these changes, Andrew must see the choices before him. Rather than allow his feelings to mindlessly dictate his reactions, he needs to mindfully shape the relational tides of what is unfolding between them.

There are several ways he can do this:

By identifying that his feelings may not be an accurate reflection of what is going on for Doris (for instance, if he feels she is upset with him or not wanting to be with him);

By reminding himself of what it must be like for Doris to feel so physically uncomfortable (a form of empathy);

To allow in and tolerate the helplessness he must feel in those moments. This will allow for the possibility that he can observe and mindfully rise above his feelings rather than being pulled under and directed by them;

To hit the pause button on his assumptions and ask Doris if she needs anything from him in that moment (and to not personalize any response involving her requiring time alone).

The above list involves Andrew being aware that he has options, that he is faced with decision points rather than waves of feelings being directed at him. The awareness of these decisions can act like a life-jacket that can prevent him from being emotionally pulled under by the unwelcome relational tides arising in a particular moment.

The first and often most powerful step is awareness of our decision points. Without awareness, we’ll be mindlessly pulled in different directions, some of which may lead to increased relationship conflict or emotional disconnection.

How will you decide for the betterment of your marriage or relationship today?

Here’s to co-creating a healthy relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured image courtesy Marcolm at

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