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Relationship Guide: Episode 1- You've Got to Believe

Is it possible that you have forgotten that your partner is a reasonable person? While this seems silly, think about the last argument you had and consider your attitude, your choice of words, and the language you used. Did you engage as if you were talking with a friend, or did you engage as if you were trying to talk sense into someone? To build and maintain a healthy relationship, you’ve got to believe first that your partner is a reasonable person. I refer to this as the Reasonable Partner Assumption (RPA).

The RPA is is a foundational stance in interpersonal relationships that I have found helpful with couples and a multitude of other important relationships. It involves trust and the willingness to accept each other at face value. It helps with communication, as it seems to buffer selfish or self-centered thinking. It is an important step toward intentionally engaging a problematic assumption that many people carry into communication or at least behave "as if" operating by that assumption during more emotionally-charged conversations. The RPA is a step toward safeguarding our participation in conversations, to ensure we are forwarding respect and not operating from one very toxic core belief.

I adapt the RPA from a couple of ideas, but primarily in my exploration of the foundational elements of empathy and the types of automatic negative thoughts that people seem to experience when they are not interacting with their partners in a helpful way. I often observe my partners engaging in some form of John Gottman's notable Four Horsemen ( when things are stressful and going nowhere positive. I also note that people tend to have primary difficulty with the first two (criticism and defensiveness) at the most basic level. Where one partner either criticizes too much, too aggressively, or just complains about something about which the recipient is sensitive, the other partner feels attacked (thus, defensive). I have found that backing out of an entrenched dynamic where these concepts are presently impacting a couple, going back to a fundamental starting point is very helpful. It involves using a strategy that is suggestive in nature, but also directly impacts unhealthy thinking (a core tenet of Cognitive Behavior Therapy). Thus, the Reasonable Partner Assumption was "born."

Realize that it is also very helpful to begin thinking of someone you are to care for in a compassionate and loving manner in this way, as it also helps focus our mind in a posture of empathy. Empathy is a fundamental aspect of communication, and the RPA is a critical component of an empathic thinking style. Not only can it foster warmth, gratitude, and a sense of connection between partners, it can also be critical toward the development of trust.

Because trust has a lot to do with believing in a reasonable partner, it is helpful to examine what trust is, what it is not, what things grow it and which diminish it. Trust must be built and maintained in that there is a give and take. What things have transpired that affect trust, both negatively and positively? How have you harmed your partner's ability to engage you this way, and what are you holding that impacts your willingness to surrender in this way? Learning to trust and, conversely to behave in a trustworthy manner, will support this effort. Negative thoughts contribute to mistrust, so positive, encouraging thoughts about someone have the opposite. People who see us trusting them are often more likely to try to reciprocate (or it will be very obvious when they do not).

Ask yourself, “do I hold the belief in any situation that my partner is unreasonable (troubled, "crazy", sick, incapable, or etc.)?”If not, then you are doing well. If not, you must work hard to develop an alternate view, perhaps by striving to more fully empathize with your partner. Thinking one's partner to be "crazy" or "sick" is often unconscious, but it is still a position in life that leads to mistreatment in one form or another. We tend to dismiss the ideas of people we label, consciously or unconsciously, as unreasonable or unhealthy in their judgements. If there is any hint of this in your belief about your significant other, then you must seek to resolve this before moving forward. Many times, this is based on assumptions of the believer, not in the partner. At other times, it may be based on some genuine circumstances that must be carefully examined. In a case where a partner was legitimately incapable of trustworthy judgement, maintaining the relationship is very difficult and requires attention on the part of both partners to creating rules and understandings that directly address the area in which the partner cannot manage reasonable judgements. Thankfully this scenario is not likely the case in the overwhelming majority of relationships.

The most important takeaway here is that no matter what you face with your partner, you are not likely to treat them as an equal if you believe them incapable of sound judgements. Do not subject your partner to this sort of treatment, even subtly. Hear your own words, and listen to your heart to determine if you are open to considering their perspectives as valuable points for consideration. If you cannot do this, you are struggling with this foundational area. I recommend seeking the help of a qualified relationship therapist to help with this and commit to exploring your own assumptions in that process! I have seen progress with many people who struggle with this in the beginning, as it is almost always based in understandable history where mistrust or fear have been allowed to dictate interpersonal decisions. The partner who is believed to be unreasonable is almost always frustrated and feels misunderstood, so learning to have supportive and open communication can be tricky to accomplish at first. Those who have learned to value their partner's perspectives and decisions have already witnessed the power of this in their lives.

About the author: I have practiced Marriage and Family Therapy for 20 years. My private practice is in Lawrence, KS. I also have experience as an lecturer, clinical supervisor and manager. My life experiences given me insight into the world of parenting, divorce, step-parenting, and addiction recovery.


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