How Focusing on the Bigger Picture Can Help Your Relationship

Every relationship has its ups and downs. For many couples, these dips can occur on a daily basis. From morning to night, our interactions with our partner can range from loving and romantic to irritable and cynical. While it’s natural for our feelings to shift in response to different circumstances, it can be frustrating to hit road bumps with our partner that, in hindsight, seem unnecessary or irrational. When we’re with someone we love and value, it’s worth questioning how we can do work within ourselves that can help us not be so heated or reactive.

One effective approach to this pursuit is to focus on the big picture. The downside of being so close to someone else is that we can lose sight of them as a separate person. We can take them for granted, focus in on the negative, and start to see and treat them in ways that denigrate them and diminish the relationship. No relationship or partner is perfect, and each and every one of us carries a certain number of defenses and adaptations that don’t always serve us. Getting bogged down or having a big reaction in a moment of frustration is rarely the best way to resolve issues, communicate, or make things better. Here are three things to keep in mind to help you think big and keep things close between you and your partner.

Think About Your Goals

So many conflicts within couples center on one person needing to be seen as “right.” Yet, every one of us is an autonomous individual with our own point of view. We may get so zoned in on how we’re feeling in a conversation and what we want to say that we aren’t even hearing the other person. We may notice that we meet everything our partner says with, “Yeah, but…” as in “Yeah, but I do so much around the house. How can you complain?” or “Yeah, but I’m always doing nice things for you. How could you feel ignored?”

In general, we can be so focused on winning the argument that we forget the goal of the discussion. When we operate like this, the best-case scenario is that we win the battle, but we lose the war. If we really want our partner to hear what we’re saying or to feel closer to them, then we have to keep those goals in mind even in moments of frustration. This means having patience, remembering they’re a separate person with their own point of view, and hearing them out. When we take this time and reflect that we’re listening and we care, our partner is much more likely to reciprocate, and the outcome will be much more positive and impactful.

Stay Grateful

In a given day with our partner, we may be inclined to zero in on one little thing that irritates us, rather than taking notice of the 10 nice things they did for us. We may get stuck on thoughts like, “She forgot to pick up the mail again. She never listens to me or cares about what I ask.” Or “I can’t believe he wants to stay in tonight. He isn’t excited to go out with me anymore.” Once again, no one is perfect, and we can be in different places in a given moment. It’s important not to assume everything is about us or a reflection on how our partner regards us in general.

A helpful way to remember this is to think about what we’re grateful for in relation to our partner. Maybe they made us coffee in the morning before they left for work. Maybe they were really affectionate or acknowledging. Maybe they held the door or offered to pick up the kids or folded our laundry or asked us about our day. Whatever it is, we have to keep our eyes open to the kindnesses and considerations that come our way. This can also help us have a little more insight or empathy into what they’re going through. Maybe they forgot the mail, because they’ve been extra stressed or under pressure in other areas. Maybe, they don’t want to go out, because they’re feeling down or low energy, because of something they’re struggling with. Staying grateful puts us in touch with our compassion, and it makes us happier in ourselves in general.

Don’t Over-identify with Your Reactions

I recently wrote about “flipped lid moments” when we have big reactions where the higher functions of our brain that help us balance and regulate our emotions temporarily go offline. We may tend to experience a lot of these moments with our partner. That’s because we’re much more likely to get triggered by those closest to us.

A lot of our most intense reactions have more to do with our past than our present. These almost automatic responses can be triggered or intensified by an old feeling or implicit memory. We most likely are not aware of it, but a certain word our partner used to describe us or a look they gave us can tap into a deep-seated feeling of insecurity and set off our self-attacks.

Because these intense reactions aren’t always proportional to the situation, it’s helpful to use mindfulness skills to take pause,for example, taking a walk or taking a breath and stepping back until we’re calm. Remember all our thoughts and feelings are acceptable, but they aren’t necessarily right. We can allow each thought to pass by or any feeling to wash over us, but we don’t need to get carried away, building a huge case against our partner or assigning deep meaning to every little thing.

Instead, we can step back and wait to reconnect to that bigger picture. We may find something hurt us that we want to communicate about or that we’re angry about something valid, but we can choose how we want to express these feelings rather than being a slave to them by being impulsive, lashing out, etc.

It may sound over-simplistic, but it’s surprising how reminding ourselves to see the bigger picture can help us act with more integrity and do more justice to our relationships. This isn’t about whitewashing everything or seeing our partner through fantastical rose-colored glasses. It’s about staying in tune to what we want and being honest about what we observe. It’s about not allowing our momentary reactions or old patterns to dictate the course of our relationship, but rather giving ourselves the time and space to see things more authentically. We can reflect on what we love about our partner, the type of relationship we want to nurture, and who we want to be in our relationship. Keeping our focus on our goals and the bigger picture allows to create a more loving relationship.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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