It was a spring day in London 20 years ago. A client came into my beauty salon for a facial. Little did I know that this client would utter 6 words that would change the course of my life and career.
As I was massaging her forehead with the sweet smell of rose oil she said “I’m thinking of killing my husband.”
I was filled with an odd sense of excitement and a massive sense of curiosity. “Oh,” I said. “That’s interesting, tell me more about that.”
This client’s story took me on a path to becoming a Forensic Psychologist where I worked with some of the UK’s most violent criminals in maximum security prisons. I’ll share more about her story later.
As the UK’s leading trainer in resilience I have helped thousands of people understand that resilience is not magic or a secret. It is simply an ongoing process of adapting and responding to challenging situations. When we increase our own personal resilience we increase our resilience within relationships.
Resilient relationships survive the struggles and adversities life throws at them, and grow stronger as a consequence. Less-resilient relationships become powerless to respond to life’s struggles and adversities, and therefore become weaker over time.
Resilience is always a process that requires 4 important skills: 1) taking personal responsibility for the choices we make without blaming others; 2) Setting appropriate boundaries; 3) Managing your emotions; 4) Focusing on the solution not the problem.
Skill 1: Taking responsibility for the choices you make without blaming others
Let’s take the case of David and Sharon. They came to me at a point where their communication had completely broken down. Sharon was growing tired of David’s very relaxed attitude toward problems, whilst David was growing tired of Sharon’s catastrophic approach to problems. Their relationship was on a knife-edge. Sharon was being bullied at work, causing her stress, and as a result was blaming David for how she felt.
Sharon became irritated with David’s lack of understanding of her situation. The problem was that when David listened to Sharon he would interrupt her by saying “what you should do is….” which would piss her off immensely. Sharon would then contemplate leaving David because of her simmering resentment toward him.
I helped them understand the importance of taking responsibility. When Sharon started to take responsibility for the way she was responding to the bullying and her feelings around it, she could begin to express to David what she was really thinking and feeling. She stopped blaming David for the choices she was making and her feelings around those choices. David, on the other hand, applied skill 1 by listening to Sharon, rather than trying to fix her by telling her “pull yourself together and get another job”.
Skill 2: Setting appropriate boundaries
Setting boundaries is an essential skill to avoid bitterness and resentments in relationships. Boundaries help us define what we are and are not comfortable with. Without communicating our boundaries how on earth are others to know what they are?
Back to Sharon and David. They learned to set appropriate boundaries. Sharon was able to tell David “can you just listen to me, rather than solve my problems.” By doing this she more assertively asked for what she wanted from David rather than expecting him to guess.
David felt relieved when Sharon was able to express what she wanted because he was no longer frightened to say the wrong thing. They became more accepting of each other’s differences and realised that just because they had different experiences and views it did not mean the relationship was over. Their relationship resilience was increasing by the day.
Skill 3: Managing emotions
Managing your emotions is such a key part of increasing your relationship’s emotional resilience. Skill 3 helps us work through challenges and adversities in a way which supports our relationship, rather than destroying it by shaming and blaming one another. When you learn to talk to your partner about what is bothering you, as opposed to taking it out on your partner, the trust within your relationship increases.
Skill 3 is the skill that helped Sharon and David’s relationship the most, as tragedy was just around the corner. Firstly, Sharon’s mother died unexpectedly, then a year later David’s mother died, and 6 months later David’s father was diagnosed with cancer. They were able to support one another by being honest about the way they were feeling and allowing one another the time and space to grieve without taking anything personally. Their relationship was able to grow as a consequence of the adversities.
Skill 4: Focus on the solution not the problem
Self-belief is at the heart of resilience. Someone who believes that they can cope with whatever life throws at them will adapt and respond much quicker to life’s challenges and adversities because they tend to practise skill 4, focusing on the solution as opposed to the problem. This leads to a much more optimistic outlook about the relationship and the future.
Back to my beauty client who said those famous 6 words. Thank goodness she left her husband and took an Italian cookery course. She then went to Italy for a year where she met and married the love of her life. We remain good friends to this day.
I often think about the way resilience played an important role in my own personal story. Growing up with a violent drunk as a father I learned to adapt and respond to my situation. I focused on the solution to protect my siblings and my mother. I learned the boundaries around standing up to a bully and to manage my emotions by staying calm under extreme pressure.
I would not change a thing about my background and remain eternally grateful for the lessons I learned. I was the first person in my family to go to university. Thanks to my client uttering those 6 words I decided to change careers to become a Forensic Psychologist.