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Three Ways a Relationship Crisis Benefits Communication, Intimacy and Self-care

The very term relationship crisis makes your heart stop, your blood pressure sky rocket and a flood of adrenalin preparing you for fight/flight/or freeze. It’s unpleasant and threatening. Most of us want to avoid a relationship crisis and do everything we can to avoid rocking the boat or causing rifts that would lead to uncertainty, instability and unpredictability.

But what if a relationship crisis highlights issues that were hidden and left to fester?

What if a relationship crisis balances the apparently steady boat in terms of authority, power, participation, role expectations and personal growth?

What if a relationship crisis signals a vital course correction not just in terms of the staying afloat, but in terms of making sure that both partners are honest enough, strong enough and available enough to ensure the boat survives the unseen turbulent currents that are ahead?

In other words, a relationship crisis make partners more resilient separately and together by forcing them to face and deal with all the stuff they denied, ignored or hoped would never come to burden them.

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Relationship Crisis Benefit #1: Better Communication

So many partners tell me that they are afraid to say what they really think and feel because they don’t want to be mean or hurtful. So they sit on stuff that weighs heavy, until a crisis blows off all the censors and out comes the truth – ugly, venomous, vindictive, retaliatory! It’s a risky business.

Zara, a 43-year-old personal shopper came home exhausted from a work trip, looking forward to putting her feet up and relaxing. Joel, her 44-year-old husband who hosted a radio podcast from his in-home-studio was doing what he always did – failing to manage the kids and their mess. Zara was furious but didn’t say anything. Inside her mind, a boiling cauldron steamed out words and images of Joel not doing his part, just like her dad who was a lazy cab driver and expected his wife to be the primary income earner, housekeeper and parent. She remembered her mom complaining about her dad being spoiled. For years, she had harbored resentment about Joel being the favored blue-eyed boy of his family, who got away with everything and was adored in the process. His mom had encouraged his dependency on her and now Joel was wanting Zara to act likewise. His job as a podcast host was as unreliable as her father’s job driving taxis.

So many times Joel and Zara had come to the brink of saying what they really felt about their roles as partners, but never doing it. Zara played the long suffering martyr, and Joel played the indulgent parent emulating his own experience as a child. The relationship crisis built up on in a rumbling volcanic crater waiting for the eruption.

The day that Zara came home exhausted she started cleaning and tidying obsessively, not engaging with her family. But later, when the kids were in bed, the relationship crisis tsunami exploded. She said she couldn’t live with him being so irresponsible and he said he couldn’t live with her unhappiness and distaste for the kids just being kids. He was a drain on her and she was a thorn in his flesh poking him with shame to be something he wasn’t.

The relationship crisis brought enabled them to say what they were really thinking – become real human beings, flaws and all, but owning their imperfections and expectations that their partner would be the perfect one. The fact that neither crumbled or dissolved allowed both to come down to earth, accept that Joel liked to be babied and that Zara wanted a savior father figure. With couples therapy that facilitated more frank communication, their relationship crisis brought them to a more sustainable level of acceptance, tolerance and realism.

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Relationship Crisis Benefit #2: Self-Care

Ofra, a 37-year-old realtor panicked when her 40-year-old husband Gerry discovered that she had been having an affair for the past year and lying to him about it. They were deep in a relationship crisis – Gerry in shock and not wanting to have anything to do with Ofra. While she suffered shame, she hoped that now he would be available to hear her longing for his time and attention that had otherwise been devoted to work.

The relationship crisis blew apart the illusions that had once brought them together and were not tearing them apart. Both had imagined that the other would fill the holes in each other’s lives and that they would be complete.

The relationship crisis stunned Gerry in a way nothing else could have done. He realized how he had put all his eggs in the basket of being “a good boy”, bringing in the money and providing for his family, while offering a social life through work contacts and events. He didn’t do things just for his own pleasure, never buying stuff he didn’t actually need, and thought that he would be rewarded by a reliable loyal wife. Now it hit him, that he had been remiss in his self-care. He didn’t take his fatigue seriously, or his need to be in more natural surroundings, going caving and canoeing. The shock triggered by the relationship crisis made him realize that his heath was fragile and needed attention, and that his soul needed more peace and connection with natural rhythms.

Ofra also came to appreciate that she too was not addressing her self-care needs. Her lack of self-worth had led to an affair that made her feel relevant, special and attractive – all the things the marriage wasn’t providing in the unwritten pact she made with Gerry. The pact was one of: ‘I’ll be the good boy, and bring in the dough; you be the good girl and keep house and home.’

Such a dehumanizing and constricting existence needed to be revamped by a relationship crisis. Both Gerry and Ofra went to individual counseling to help boost their sense of self, self-worth and confidence. They took themselves seriously and didn’t expect that the other would magically meet all their needs. Gerry and Ofra eventually learned to like each other – they became human enough to have personalities that had substance and appeal. They began a real marriage instead of an illusory one.

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Relationship Crisis #3: Intimacy

Miguel a 45-year-old mortgage broker was a solid, hard-working family man, getting through each day as it came. His wife Elise a 47-year-old nail artist was devoted to her four children, if not overly so. She was involved in all parts of their lives, and excelled at alerting them to the dangers in life, ensuring that they were well protected and didn’t suffer from the rudderless but critical childhood she had experienced. But thinking for them instead of teaching them how to think would often lead her kids to act impulsively and get into trouble – the very thing she had tried to prevent. Miguel would be upset that her way of parenting was to blame, while she accused him of being to laid back and causing the kids to break rules or get into fights where injuries occurred. But these situations brought up their relationship crisis. One of a lack of intimacy, since they acted as if they were business partners in the business of child rearing, rather than lovers and life partners. The crisis brought them together in an adversarial way for a short while, fizzling out to business colleagues soon after.

Then one day a huge relationship crisis hit the entire family – shocked and scared them all. The eldest child, fourteen-year-old Ezra had been injured in a football game. He had concussion was diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Miguel and Elise were beside themselves with shock, grief, anger and guilt. She blamed her husband for encouraging him to play football and he chastised his wife for making Ezra into a wimp, so that he was vulnerable to being hurt. When the blame and shame games subsided, Miguel felt a hole inside him and filled it with more work. Elise felt a hole inside her and became depressed.

But because they both loved Ezra and felt responsible for his condition, they turned toward each other for some solace. They started asking about the other person’s feelings, and realized that sharing their shock, grief and guilt was a plus. They attended therapy for parenting which helped them communicate, and become closer. As Ezra improved and came home, Miguel and Elise were so more connected because of the relationship crisis over parenting. The family attended sessions of family therapy so they could all come to terms with Ezra’s TBI condition and its permanent impact on them all. Later Miguel and Elise shifted to Emotional Intimacy therapy to maintain the closeness the relationship crisis had propelled them into.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2022

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