When couples come to me wanting help for their relationship I often offer them this simple analogy: a relationship is like a plant. It is dynamic, living and growing and there are two basic principles that, if followed, will make it flourish. First there must be the absence of negative. For the plant it means that there cannot be anyone allowed to mangle the leaves, freeze it, starve it, subject it to harmful chemicals or bugs, or let it dry out. But, just protecting the plant from the negative will not make it flourish—we also must follow the second principle: there must be the presence of positive. For the plant it means that it must receive adequate nutrition, ample water and sunlight, and be kept at a warm temperature.
In our relationship, if we allow negativity to enter in, it can kill it. It may take a while, but if there is the presence of negative, the relationship will certainly wither and die. Negatives in a relationship may come in the form of criticism, skepticism, backbiting, blaming, competing, power struggles, arguing, complaining, disrespecting, cheating, lying, addictive behavior, selfishness, pride, withdrawing and the list goes on and on. In order for a relationship to survive, it must be free of negativity. Each critical comment is like crinkling a leaf of the plant. Each act of dishonesty is like adding harmful chemicals to the soil. Each piece of selfish behavior is like exposing the roots to the air. Our relationship, like the plant, must have the absence of negative in order to survive.
Just eliminating the negative, however, will not make a relationship great. It must have the presence of positive to grow and become the best that it can be. Positives in a relationship may include: appreciation, commitment, trust, meaningful bonding experiences, intimacy, sharing, effective communication, a team mentality, emotional and financial support, acts of love and kindness, respect, helpfulness, showing interest in the other’s interests, having shared values, tender touch, understanding, and this list too, can go on and on. In order for the relationship to become wonderful there must be the presence of positive.
After explaining the short analogy I give the couple a homework assignment: “Starting immediately completely rid your relationship of anything negative.” Once they each commit to do the homework assignment, I give them a tool to use. If either of them notices anything negative in their relationship, then I encourage them to use a gesture (such as “time out”) or a phrase (such as “Let’s be free of negativity” or “Remember the plant.”) to bring the action to the attention of the other so the negative behavior can be addressed and removed. This is a useful tool because there are times when we are negative but we are not aware of it. Using this tool each participant can be a helpful contributor to improving the quality of the relationship by reminding the other of the importance of ridding their relationship of harmful negative behaviors. It shows their commitment to the process and to the union they share.
Some couples find this assignment to be extremely difficult to do because criticism or blaming has become such a common part of their daily interaction. However, it is essential for success of the couple. If their relationship is fairly free of negativity but does not include much positive interaction, then I add another homework assignment: fill the relationship with positives. (I usually give them a handout of “Loving Things” which I will explain in my next blog.)
A couple who can effectively eliminate the negative from their relationship and flood it with positive will definitely be happy and see their relationship blossom and bear wonderful fruit. A relationship is like a plant: it must be free of harmful negatives yet include the presence of positives in order for it to flourish.
Bob Stahn has a general counseling practice. He specializes in relationship counseling and most recently PTSD and trauma.