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How To Be More Patient In Your Relationships    

How To Be More Patient In Your Relationships

Art by FISK

By Menemsha Milnor, LMSW, a MyWellbeing therapist

How many times have you had a disagreement with your partner where the time in between conflict and resolution felt unbearable? Maybe it was over something as small as doing the dishes, or something larger like negotiating Covid precautions. We all have to deal with conflict at some point and that is why patience is such a useful skill to have in relationships. 

Patience is a building block of emotional maturity and essential for navigating relationships with grace and ease. We may have ideals about how to engage with loved ones, but when it comes down to it, much of how we behave in our relationships is determined by neurological, biological, and psychological conditioning. 

When we are in a relationship with another person we are also in a relationship with their history, and they with ours. Physiologically, we carry the memories from our past experiences in our bodies, specifically our nervous systems. How we interpret danger and react to stress in the present depends on how we were able to cope with threatening situations in the past. 

This does not mean that we have no control over our reactions when we are stressed. What it does mean is that learning to work with our nervous systems and the nervous systems of our loved ones takes patience and understanding. We cultivate patience in our relationships by gaining insight into our loved one’s patterns as well as into our own.

We can practice patience in good times and bad. It can support us as we move through challenges such as life transitions, interpersonal conflict, grief, and dating during a pandemic. It can also help us navigate the early stages of love when we are eager to know the fate of our nascent relationship.

Life does not always happen on our terms and we cannot know the future. While we do not have total control over our circumstances, we do have the freedom to choose our attitudes and responses. Patience invites us to slow down and sit with ourselves before reacting. It shows us that empathy and compassion lead to deeper connection and greater security. 

Below are 4 simple tips for cultivating patience in the service of secure functioning relationships. These tips can be used any time, but come in especially handy when our nervous systems are dysregulated. A dysregulated, “activated,” or “triggered” nervous system can feel like a state of heightened arousal or it can feel like the sensation of shutting down. Either way, these simple tools can facilitate self-empowerment and help strengthen your relationships in the process. 

Tip #1: Pause for mindfulness

The first thing we want to do when we notice that we are getting activated in a relational context is to pause. As mentioned above, our stress response is automatic, which means we cannot control what activates it. What we can do is begin to recognize when we are activated so that we can recalibrate before saying or doing something we’ll regret. Ultimately, the more in-touch we are with ourselves, the easier it will be to practice patience.

Once we’ve recognized that we’ve been triggered, we can tell the other person that we need a moment to recenter, reassuring them that we’ll return soon. It is important that we actually do return in a reasonable amount of time to demonstrate that we won’t abandon them every time there is conflict.

Psychotherapist and meditation teacher, Tara Brach, teaches a simple mindfulness technique called RAIN, which is designed to help us feel more compassionate towards ourselves when we are suffering. You can do it by yourself if you notice yourself getting activated in response to a loved one’s words or actions. 

RAIN stands for Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture. We start off by recognizing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without judgment or blame. Then we investigate our experience and inquire into what we need. As we get a sense of our needs, compassion naturally arises, and we begin to soften. If you wish to be guided through this process, you can listen to one of Tara Brach’s many meditations on RAIN as well.  

Tip #2: Get clear on your needs 

Having patience does not mean that we put our needs on hold until some unknown future date. In order to practice patience in relationships we need to feel safe, and in order to feel safe we need to have certain needs met. After practicing mindfulness, it will be easier to hone in on our needs with greater specificity. One relational tool that is helpful for identifying needs quickly is nonviolent communication. 

Nonviolent Communication (NVC) teaches that each one of us has hundreds of nuanced feelings and needs, which shift all the time. In NVC, we use our feelings as a compass guiding us to our needs.

One helpful NVC exercise involves taking an inventory. Using a list of NVC feelings, see if you can identify one feeling that describes your current state. Now try to imagine one thing that would soothe your mood, bringing you back to equilibrium. 

For example, if you just had a conversation with your partner about a sensitive topic and you didn’t understand their point of view, your confusion might trigger underlying insecurities about the relationship. Most likely, you have an unmet need for clarity. Understanding where your partner is coming from might reassure you that you are still on the same page, thereby soothing your nerves. 

Tip #3: Practice empathy

Once we have a greater sense of our own feelings and needs, it will be much easier to empathize with our partner, friend, or family member. In secure functioning and in NVC, the goal is not being right or winning, but rather maintaining connection. 

When in doubt, come home to a sense of curiosity about the other person. Practice the same exercise above but with your loved one in mind this time. Take out your feeling sheet again. Can you guess what they are feeling right now? What do you think they are needing and what might help restore their sense of stability and calm?

Please remember that practicing patience does not mean tolerating abuse. If you are concerned that you might be in a relationship where there are elements of abuse or mistreatment, such as coercion or gaslighting, seek help now. 

Tip #4: Reestablish connection

It is important to remember that patience is something we practice moment by moment. We cannot expect ourselves or our loved ones to practice patience indefinitely. Staying in the present moment is the best way to foster satisfaction in any relationship. 

We can only practice patience in our relationships if we are feeling safe and secure. In order to achieve security, we need to stay emotionally connected to our loved ones. We stay emotionally connected by resolving tension as quickly as possible. Working together with our partners, friends, and family members is how we get our mutual needs met. When we have taken an inventory of our feelings and needs and have empathized with ourselves and the other, the practice of patience becomes tolerable, even enjoyable!

Still, patience is no easy feat, especially in relationships. The trick is to maintain connection and find ways to make the process more pleasurable and interesting along the way. By creating and holding space for one another, we lay the groundwork to grow and enrich our relationships. And that’s the whole point of this, isn’t it?

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.