The good old days of being able to depend entirely on the clear-cut rules of marriage handed down by cultural and ancestral norms have come to an end. This is true not just because of the fact that our consciousness is evolving, but because people are living longer and staying married longer than ever before. Couples are finding ways to blaze new trails for sustaining happiness and sexual desire in long-term marriage.
One of the greatest single confusions I see couples struggle with in this new world is in how to deal with their frustrations with each other. Do I walk away right now? Or, do I stay in the ring and muscle my way through on this one? Trust me, if you’re in a committed, long-term relationship, you are not the only one having a hard time figuring out which eggs to put in which basket when frustration arises.
If you don’t have a way to get out of the grip of your frustration, navigating new territory sanely will be impossible. For many couples, lack of skills to both manage, and make use of, frustration leads to an impasse. This does not have to be the case. Rather than a roadblock to greater intimacy and understanding between partners, what if you see frustration as a sign that you have skin in the game? What if frustration is just elbow grease for creating intimacy and bringing growth to your relationship? If you want to be close to your partner and stay together for the long haul, get ready to learn how to manage normal feelings of frustration.
I sit with couples each week as they have intimate conversations about what it would take for them to stomach difficult conversations without a power struggle ensuing or without their frustration taking them hostage. Obviously all couples have their unique dynamic, and tolerating frustration is easier for some than for others. Even if your relationship is on the very sensitive end of the spectrum, having a positive attitude and strong motivation, coupled with the right conversations, will increase your tolerance for frustration. Just know that letting frustration have the power to make you run away or become aggressive toward your partner will not produce the results you want.
In each of their first three therapy sessions, Josh got up and left as soon as his blood pressure started to rise in reaction to what Melissa was trying to say to him. I knew that if he didn’t get some control over this, their relationship was either doomed to misery or headed toward divorce. It wasn’t that Josh was a bad guy; he just had never learned how to hang tight with the discomfort of delayed gratification or how to negotiate with someone else about their respective needs. His mother had been very indulgent with him as a child, giving in to his every whim and never expecting him to be considerate of her. As a result, Josh grew up feeling entitled to receiving a lot while giving very little. My goal was to help him become more flexible, fair, and mutually reciprocal with Melissa by showing him ways to increase his frustration tolerance. Luckily, he was extremely motivated and came back week after week. By the tenth session, he was no longer leaving the room, and instead was willing to talk through his feelings. Both Josh and Melissa started to see frustration as a signpost to pause and go slower, and to be aware that they were entering territory where deeper understanding was called for. In other words, frustration had now become a friend rather than an enemy. They reported that having a new relationship to frustration not only strengthened their frustration tolerance, but it made their conversations way more interesting. It didn’t hurt that they noticed a significant improvement in the quality of their sex life as well!
I suggest you begin by honestly assessing your ability to use your frustration to guide you, as well as how you manage it so it doesn’t get the best of you. Start by asking yourself this question, “How do I deal with my frustration when my partner says or does something that makes me feel hurt, abandoned, misunderstood?” Be honest with yourself as you ponder this. If you want to really get a leg up on your frustration, have an open conversation about it with your partner. Let them know that you’ve been doing some thinking on the subject and would like them to join in. Talk together about how you would like to manage any feelings of frustration that come up for either of you and how to use those feelings to your advantage. See if you can both agree to see the positive side of frustration. Believe it or not, even if it feels difficult in the moment, the frustration you feel is evidence that you both still care greatly about each other, and that you are trying to go deeper in order to keep the relationship current, new, and vital. Learn how to let frustration work for you, not against you. Even in an uncertain world, by banding together in this way, you can forge new trails toward happiness for many more years to come.
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