We’ve experienced different life-changing outcomes from the last year of imposed isolation — some negative, others positive. Having more time for self-reflection, a slower pace and fewer demands has been a blessing for some, while others experienced increasing restlessness and loneliness with social interaction and normal activities coming to a halt. The lockdown has shaped transformational changes in many relationships: relational recovery for some, and the opposite for those trapped in abusive, oppressive and contentious relationships. Do we expect our partner to change, to finally do our bidding, or do we assume responsibility for what we might need to change?

Our compelling desire is to be in love, to have a deep, happy connection with a partner. Yet, we must be truly willing to do the hard work, to accept the reality of our multi-generational inheritance. This isn’t just our story. Our ancestors play an important role in our behavior, emotions and attitudes. Whether or not we experienced any serious trauma in our own lifetime, we may carry the weight of an ancestor’s burden. We may not realize that we continue patterns, imprints of our parents or grandparents. Healing deep-rooted wounds, identifying the ghosts of past generations, can be painful. Instead, we shine the light on our partner’s behavior, glowing with self-righteous indignation: “If they would just do ___, we wouldn’t be having these problems.” Criticism, judgments and grandiosity erode relationships, creating barriers to connection. A willingness to accept responsibility for our part in the relational dance, commiting to correct the missteps, is our only hope. Although it takes two to tango, it requires only one to change the music. Assuming responsibility for our part in the dance, we then address whether we actively participate in power struggles or enable a partner’s bad behavior.

So how do we invite relational repair with compassion while keeping a strong voice and maintaining healthy boundaries? First, we must grow ourselves up, regardless of our partner’s acceptance or rejection of repair. We can hold the pain of past trauma, which is frustrating when the source or cause is invisible to us. We may harbor memories of our generational history waiting to be uncovered. The challenge is to be quietly present, without defending ourselves, even when we believe we’re right. Simply listen to your partner’s wounded feelings without justifying what you did or said. Let all the feelings be heard, connecting to some unmet need your partner is experiencing. Just be still, fully supporting the other person with kindness, acceptance and compassion. That will go a long way toward softening the sharp edges.

Something seemingly as simple as listening is a major contributor to relationship happiness. Couples stop listening to each other, gradually moving from complacency to contempt, developing what psychologist Harriet Lerner calls LDD or “listening deficit disorder.” Believing you already know what your partner is going to say or is feeling, that you’re right or have something better to do than be fully present, very soon translates to “I’m not interested in you or what you have to say” and even “I don’t care about you.” The damage this inflicts should not be understated. Over time, relationship erosion begs for repair that often never happens. Partners live with contemptuous silence or chronic fighting. Yet a strong commitment to genuinely listening to each other could invite repair. If we’re anxious or distracted, dreading what we might hear, we’re likely to be defensive, reducing our ability to be fully present. The following relationship guidelines just might be helpful:

• See and hear your partner
• Don’t interrupt
• Put your phone away
• Ask for details
• No advice unless requested, or, at least, first ask if advice would be helpful
• Drop the defensiveness
• Forget about being right
• Validate
• Talk less
• Breathe
• Name your differences respectfully
• Listen for wounded feelings and unmet needs
• Create a bridge rather than barriers
• Hold a firm boundary against insults

Finally, to maximize the potential for relationship success, commit to making even the smallest change today and stick with it, building incrementally with daily or weekly changes. Marriage ebbs and flows in satisfaction and unpredictability. The many chapters of each relationship (courtship, new marriage, home, jobs; children/parenting; empty nest; etc.) merit attention, as does each personal change. Important notes: when your marriage is in a good place, don’t get lazy, because there will inevitably be unexpected “speed bumps” ahead; and when it’s disappointing and challenging, remain hopeful. One small, intentional change in behavior and attitude can make all the difference in what lies ahead.

“... changing one’s own behavior is a much more promising strategy than insisting on change from the other.” — Terrence Real