When I started my studies in counselling and psychotherapy at the start of the new century, I really didn’t have any specific ideas about what kinds of clients I wanted to work with. But I had an amazing opportunity to do some intensive training in my final year of study with Margaret Newman, the original co-founder (along with David Jansen) of The Jansen Newman Institute and author of, Really Relating: How to Build an Enduring Relationship. She took a very small group of students from our year and trained and supervised us in working with couples and relationship issues.
Margaret dedicated her entire professional life to helping couples through providing relationship counselling and psycho-educational workshops for couples, not to mention the thousands of therapists she trained throughout her career.
The experience was extraordinary. I got to dive into the deep end and start working with real couples with real relationship issues under the close supervision of Margaret. I still remember walking into the room with my first couple feeling nervous, excited and hopeful that I could help them improve their relationship.
One of the most important lessons I learned from Margaret was the importance of getting couples to recognise how they were each contributing to the relationship problems they were experiencing. She knew that the quicker each partner could take responsibility for their part in their ‘relationship dance’, the quicker they could start to experience positive change and build a better relationship.
This is still something I educate the couples I work with as soon as we meet – that if they can each commit to doing their own work and changing themselves, the relationship therapy work will progress much quicker and they’ll have better long-term results.
This mindset shift is one of many that you will benefit from when you look at how you can change the way you relate to others.
Making a relationship mindset shift for the New Year
Now that the New Year is well underway and New Year’s resolutions are slowly fading into the background. Those that are maintaining their resolutions after January is over are in the minority.
The reality is, most people will fail when it comes to changing habits and sustaining change in the long term. The fact is, change is hard, it’s uncomfortable and it takes incredible persistence, perseverance and patience – which many of us struggle with.
As a relationship therapist, I always use the New Year to think about the changes I want to make in my relationships as well as supporting changes my clients want to make in their relationships.
But instead of committing to relationships resolutions that may never stick, I want to invite you to use the New Year to choose a ‘relationship theme’ instead.
What is a relationship theme?
A relationship theme is more like setting an intention. When you set an intention, you’re moving towards something you aspire to, but you’re not getting down on yourself every time you may not realise your intention.
When you choose a relationship theme instead of a resolution, it takes the pressure off you having to attain a goal where you either succeed or fail. And of course when you fail, it’s much more likely you’ll give up altogether.
Your relationship theme is something you can hold lightly in the background and bring it to the foreground in your relationships, as needed.
Themes are often best expressed with between one and three words. These words are easy for you to remember so you can access them as needed and accurately capture the sentiment of the change you’re aspiring towards.
Choosing your New Year relationship theme
Examples of relationship themes might include:
How to maintain your relationship theme
Choose one to three words that truly capture your relationship theme for the New Year then make a note of them. Write them on a sticky note and place your note where you regularly spend time, such as on your computer or on your mirror.
When you notice yourself falling into bad habits, just gently and mindfully remind yourself of your relationship theme. As you bring your relationship theme to the foreground, immerse yourself in the feelings that your theme evokes. This is a great way to make your relationship theme more powerful because you are experiencing the goodness of your theme.
For example, if you start to become reactive to your partner, gently bring the word ‘reflective’ into the foreground of your mind. Sit with it and allow yourself to drop into the experience of being reflective instead of reactive. Then notice what changes in your relationship.
Perhaps if you notice that life tends to be too busy or feels like a struggle, bring the word ‘fun’ into your awareness. This simple reminder can support you in shifting gears and having more fun in your life.
I prefer this approach as it’s gentle, supportive and a more compassionate way to move towards change.