Falling in love. Sweet bliss! The boundaries between lovers blur into an ocean of intimacy. In this intoxicated state, we imagine our partner will please us in every way. As a couple our lives intertwine and soon we must face each other as mere mortals. In the pressures of daily life we become annoyed by nervous or sloppy habits. Instead of perfect agreement we find ourselves arguing. Eventually we realize that no matter how hard we push our partner isn’t fulfilling all our emotional needs. Now our high hopes are dashed and we plunge into disappointment.
Disappointment reduces safety and nurturing
Primed by our disappointment, a wrong glance or tone of voice can send us spinning. When we don’t get what we want we use childish manipulations, such as angry tantrums, pouting or running away. We hide our pain behind angry outbursts and punish our partner to make sure our pain is clearly understood. Our frustrations pull our attention away from what we have, focusing more and more energy on what we lack, spoiling even our most intimate moments.
Instead of relaxation and fun, we feel stress and resentment. We begin to fear we made a “mistake” and we’re with the “wrong” person. The endearing characteristics that used to make us laugh now make us cringe. By the time we come to counseling we are mired in hurt feelings. We now see our partner as a source of pain. Our disagreements quickly degenerate into arguments in which we defend ourselves and attack our partner. Our joy is replaced by fear and despite our best efforts we stay locked in this edgy routine.
Working with a counselor can help us come out from behind our barricades and share our grievances and dreams. As we get onto safer emotional territory, we may realize we have been punishing our partner, for example by ignoring commitments, maintaining angry silences, or withholding courtesies. Punishing the person with whom we are in the most intimate of all relationships will not get us what we want. Instead, we need to break the cycle of frustration and separation. Simply allowing things to go on as they are is only creating more pain. With work and insight we can develop the capacity to share our lives with one another, in a loving, supportive, respectful relationship.
Listening is the foundation for any partnership
A minimum requirement for our intimate relationship is that we need to listen to each other. And yet, tragically, when resentments build up, listening breaks down. Instead of listening, we jump to conclusions about what the other person needs and wants. When neither partner hears the other, both become frustrated and then try harder to get their points across by becoming angrier and louder. This attack-and-defend approach breaks down intimacy so both partners feel unloved and alone.
With help from a technique called “active listening”, we can hear each other in ways we may have never done before. By simply repeating, without comment, the statements our partner makes, we slow down long enough to absorb the essence of what they may have been yelling about or silent about for years. Many couples say that by actively listening they hear and understand each other’s emotional needs for the first time. Once we learn to hear what our partner is saying we break the cycle of guessing and assuming, and can open channels of mutual understanding and support.
Focus on what we admire
When we’re edgy and frustrated, it’s easy to think of faults, and our focus on faults may consume our attention. To regain a basic trust, we need to consciously focus on the things that we like about our partner. Do we admire and appreciate their kindness, or their hard work, or their love of beauty, or their sense of humor? By listing the things we enjoy and respect, and then repeating these things to ourselves we coax our mind to open up and allow in some of the enjoyment that brought us together.
Shared dreams, large and small
When we fell in love, we each had unspoken dreams about the future. What is it we want from each other? Do we want to have kids, maintain a home, travel, take care of aging parents?
In addition to these big dreams, we have more detailed ones. Our partner will be neat, will be a good cook, a great wage earner, will be romantic, supportive, a terrific parent to our kids, patient, energetic. These hopes for day-to-day behavior are important and yet they are seldom discussed.
We need to become aware of the powerful emotions communicated by these small acts. By giving flowers or back rubs or helping clean up after dinner we build an atmosphere of trust and caring. If these actions don’t come easily or naturally, that’s okay. Giving doesn’t just happen. It’s an active decision. As we become committed to rebuilding trust in the relationship, we realize that these actions contribute to our emotional bank account.
But even when we decide to give, we must know what our partner wants. If we rely on mind-reading we probably are missing the mark. Instead of relying on mind reading and “just knowing” we need to clearly ask and then listen.
Pressured emotional needs coming from inside us
Some of our needs are loaded with tension. Because of old wounds from previous relationships or deeply held emotional material from childhood, when we want something from our partner, such as intimacy or help cleaning the house or reducing expenses, we might feel angry and vulnerable before even speaking.
For example, if we feel vulnerable about our appearance and desperately want our partner to think we’re beautiful, our emotional tension makes it difficult for us to get what we want. When our partner says, “You’re beautiful” we might even become angry thinking that they are lying or said it too late or didn’t elaborate on it enough. This kind of tension makes the whole issue confusing for both partners, bringing frustration to the very area in which we need the most soothing.
This tension originates from deep within our mind, remnants from our own unmet childhood needs. Rather than blaming it all on our partner we should turn some of our attention towards nurturing our child-within. To help us move beyond these raw wounds we must work towards a deeper understanding of our own pain and invite our partner into our process as a companion in our healing.
We can begin to explore the emotional hurts and needs that frustrate our relationship by learning about our own and our partner’s roots. By actively listening to what our partner did and didn’t get in childhood, we can start to see the patterns of what we each want in the relationship.
Win-win thinking, working towards a common goal
Relationships provide many benefits. Together we build the creature comforts of our home, our nourishment, our entertainment, companionship and family life. Having a partner reduces the isolation of life, giving us a support system to help us overcome life’s obstacles.
When we consciously embrace the goals of the relationship, we realize we are both working together to make a successful couple. When we please each other, we both feel safer and more nurtured. Because we’re both on the same team, we empathize with each other, and turn towards each other, listening carefully and giving generously. By focusing on our shared goals, we keep the relationship moving forward, and regain the win-win partnership we want.
The attitude of win-win thinking can change areas of conflict into opportunities for mutual problem solving. Instead of looking at our partner as the enemy in such conflicted areas as money, in-laws, child raising or cleanliness, we can build bridges of understanding towards each other, negotiate for mutual benefit, and agree on work-arounds.
Get a grip on arguing
During arguments we often attack our partner in subtle and not so subtle ways, reducing the safety and trust of the relationship. Learning to reduce the combativeness of arguments can be one of the most important techniques a couple can master.
When we introduce a touchy subject, our choice of words influences the course of the discussion. The words leading up to an argument often carry hurtful messages that inflame emotions and turn what might have been a productive comment into a shouting match. Irrational accusations and hurtful labels like “You’re an idiot” or “You make me miserable” get in the way of mutual understanding. When our arguments reach this point, we’re reduced to hurting each other in retaliation for our own hurt feelings. And when we hurt our partner, the natural result is escalating self-defense and counterattack.
To break this destructive cycle, we need to avoid comments that inflame, and instead open ourselves up, sharing our own vulnerability and respecting our partner’s. For example, instead of launching into an attack, “You bastard. The next time you come home late, we’re through” we could explain our pain. “When you don’t call, I start to worry about your safety, and then about my safety, and then about us. I don’t know how to handle all these feelings.” When we shift to expressing feelings and then listen, we open up channels to each other’s heart, and increase the chances that our disagreements will propel us towards deeper insight.
We can also reduce the intensity of arguments by staying alert for breaks in the action. We may hear the other person express an apology or the desire to get to more harmonious ground or we may offer such an olive branch ourselves. In the midst of arguing, such peace offerings provide escape routes that can let us return to more balanced methods for resolving our differences.
Soothing self and each other
No matter how much we want our partner to change and help us feel better, we also have responsibility for our own feelings. If we feel bad, no matter what the cause, it always helps to have strategies to soothe ourselves. We can lower our tension by using techniques such as deep breathing, going for a walk, or positive visualization. These methods may at first seem simplistic and off-topic. After all, we feel that we are in a life-and-death emotional struggle to save our relationship. What good is deep, peaceful breathing? But by relieving the physical symptoms we can back away from the pressure and think more clearly. This not only helps us feel better. It also helps us relate to our partner with more poise, improving the safety of our relationship.
In addition, we can learn about soothing our partner’s nerves by doing everything we can to create a safe, nurturing relationship. We can defuse tension and return more quickly to our safe nurturing space, by offering supportive, reassuring words and comforting physical contact. When we express support, our partner feels loved and feels that we are on their side. If appropriate we can change the mood by changing the setting, going out to a movie or going for walk.
Sometimes our natural instinct is to think that if only our partner simply followed our suggestion everything would be so much better. But by offering suggestions, no matter how well-intended, our partner may believe we are judging or criticizing them for their part in the situation, resulting in self defense. To be supportive, we can set aside our opinions and allow our partner to experience the world in their own way, and give them the generous gift of our emotional presence and alliance. Developing non-judgmental, supportive habits may be difficult. Counseling can help us get beyond old habits and learn new ones.
Mystery of relationships
Falling in love is a mystery. For one thing, we often end up hating the very behavior that we at first found so charming. For example, when we fell in love we were attracted to our partner’s sense of independence. Now, that same independence hurts us because our partner does not come home on time. Or we were attracted to our partner’s successful approach to life, and now their organization and hard work looks rigid, controlling and boring. Or at first we might have seen our partner as happy-go-lucky, and now the same behavior seems lazy.
One of the reasons we flip flop from love to hate is that we are attracted to characteristics that are opposite from our own tendencies. This pull towards what is different creates a love-hate attitude that can be confusing and painful. Partners often come to counseling complaining about each other in equal and opposite ways. One is too rigid, while the other is too loose. One needs frequent touching while the other is cold and remote. One maximizes issues while the other minimizes them. One constantly needs help while the other is the caregiver. These differences create tension. We may blame our partner for being “wrong” or blame ourselves for picking the wrong partner, or think “if only my partner would behave differently, all these problems would go away.” Instead of becoming frustrated and trying to reject our partner’s difference, we could look at it as an opportunity for both to grow.
There is great power in the mystery of falling in love. We need it. We want it. And when it happens, we feel swept into a peak life experience. And then when we crash we wonder what went “wrong.” Relationships are not accidents. Instead they represent our best effort to fulfill deep needs. We seek in our partner the part of ourselves we most long for. Now, our painful conflicts arise out of those fallen desires.
We move towards people who challenge us in our most conflicted areas. And when we fall in love with them, in the back of our mind we hope that our innermost needs will be fulfilled and that we are now going to become whole. However, the actual process of healing these internal pains is not so easy. And so, instead of relief, we feel betrayed by false hopes and we want to lash out at our partner for failing to fulfill these hopes. Instead of turning against our partner in resentment and disappointment we can reach towards our partner as an ally. Instead of demanding a savior who magically releases us from all our woes, we can revise our expectations to a more realistic level and work together towards mutual healing.
Benefits of making it work
If we want to enjoy the companionship of one other person, in an intimate partnership in which we are as close to each other as life itself, we need to learn how to relate harmoniously. At this close range, it is natural that we will find faults with our partner. It is our choice to make the effort together to see beyond the frustrations to the mutual support that can make our life on earth more pleasurable and fulfilling.
Of course to heal a relationship both partners need to want to continue and must maintain respect for the other person’s needs. If both partners commit to getting to the bottom of their pain, they will discover a treasure trove of mutual benefit and sharing. Working earnestly within our existing relationship gives us the opportunity to find peace and wisdom.
When our relationship is in trouble, we need to open up to the possibilities for change. By looking at our emptiness like a garden in the spring we begin to see the positive energy hiding beneath the surface. We plant the seeds of caring and sharing, weed out old, unproductive habits, water with faith and effort and reap the harvest of a committed partnership.
Our relationship started in love, and it is that love that must propel us forward. We restore trust by learning about and fulfilling each other’s needs. And by using our new tools for communication, we build harmony and safety. As we restore safety, romance trickles back into our lives. Ultimately, we regain our balance, and realize that life is richer and more fulfilling when we learn how to face the challenges of life together.
See also: Anger, Child-within, Divorce, Groups, Loneliness
Imago Relationship Therapy, An introduction to theory and practice by Rick Brown with Toni Reinhold
Getting the love you want, a guide for couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, A practical guide for improving communication and getting what you want from relationship by John Gray, Ph.D.
Seven principles for making marriage work by John M. Gottman, Ph.D. and Nan Silver
Short-Term Couples Therapy : The Imago Model in Action by Wade Luquet