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Monday
Jul012013

Relationship Struggles

We have the idea in our culture that if you’re with the right person, your relationship should be loving, peaceful and passionate. Difficulties and conflict – instead of being seen as an opportunity for growth – are taken as a sign of incompatibility. 

What if relationships are meant to be a struggle? After all, we’re all imperfect. And we all tend to have strong ideas about how our partner and relationship ‘should be’. Perhaps it’s inevitable that when we meet another imperfect person, we soon find they fall short of our ideal. 

It’s how we deal with that struggle that will determine whether we become more entrenched in our power struggle or grow into intimate relationship. In an intimate relationship, both partners can be strong in their individuality, yet also connect emotionally and cooperate as a couple. Partners may still disagree or fight, but they don’t get stuck in disappointments and resentments that threaten their relationship and family life. 

Psychotherapy is a process of developing a deeper capacity for relating, to ourselves and others. It offers a safe place to see ourselves, and learn new relational skills. Our inevitable relationship struggles can then become a vehicle for our growth, both as individuals and in coupleship.

RELATIONSHIP PHASES 

Many relationships start with a ‘romantic phase’. We think we have found someone who is the image of our perfect Beloved in human form.  Being ‘in love’ affects our brain chemistry, making us feel and respond differently. Increased endorphins make us feel whole and complete so that we are less easily hurt or irritated and our reactivity is greatly lessened. [To learn more about the brain chemistry of love, see Helen Fisher’s talks on TED: http://www.ted.com/speakers/helen_fisher.html] 

The romantic phase can last for a few weeks, up to about 2 years. But eventually, for virtually all couples, this enchantment phase ends and we enter a ‘power struggle’. This is often after we’ve made more of a commitment to the relationship. Slowly our partner’s negative traits become more apparent; they are not the person we thought or wanted them to be, or they don’t love us in the way we want. Most of us are not yet able to accept and relate to these points of difference between who our partner is, and our image of the partner we want or need – and so our struggle begins.

POWER STRUGGLE

Couples deal with power struggle in different ways. For some the struggle is open and obvious, for others, more subtle. Many couples manage the power struggle by not engaging with it - instead finding ways of being close and ‘doing’ life together that avoid really engaging with and challenging one another. This is often the case with couples where one or both partners are intensively involved in some other activity, such as work, a sport, an addiction or roles as Mum and Dad. 

Other couples engage in power struggle more actively – for example, with open disagreements, disappointment, bickering etc. Engaging in these difficulties does indeed have the potential to deepen our relationship. However, the way most of us go about it is not so much to engage as to react. In a reactive mindset, one partner tries to ‘fix’ or change what s/he sees wrong with or lacking in the other, and the other focuses on defending or retaliating. 

Over time, some couples may give up trying to communicate / resolve certain issues (and settle for what they have), while others become increasingly stuck in reactivity and risk eventually breaking up. Very few seem to engage in the power struggle successfully towards a better quality of connection, intimacy and harmony in the relationship.  

What is happening that keeps us stuck? 

STUCK RELATIONSHIPS 

We all get reactive at times. Our partner says or does something, and we react negatively – we feel that flood of anxiety, that quick rise of anger, that tensing in the gut, that sudden exhausted or depressed feeling. Our reactivity may also take the form of recurring symptoms, such as a headache, IBS or fatigue. 

It may look from the outside that we’re reacting to small things. For example, the kitchen being in a mess, or your partner not having done something you asked. However, fairly trivial things can have deeper meaning for us. Underneath, on a relational level, the question we are often asking is about how much we matter – and this is where added intensity comes in. ‘Do I matter enough … that you will be or do what I need?’  

In terms of mental / emotional health, we all have a basic need to be seen, received and understood. Above all, to feel that we matter. When our partner triggers something in us that makes us feel that maybe we don’t matter, is it surprising that we mobilise ourselves in protest? Have you ever used behaviours like threatening, withholding affection, being sarcastic, cold, criticising, attacking,  moping, withdrawing, blaming, or shaming to punish and hurt your partner into being or giving you what you want? 

To complicate matters, we can be reactive not only as individuals, but also as a couple, with each partner reacting to the other. This can be a negative spiral as one partner’s reactivity triggers the other, making the relationship feel increasingly unsafe and difficult. 

In a reactive couple, what becomes tricky to overcome without external help is that positions become so rigid and polarised that we lose our ability to relate to our partner. In this place, the issue seems a matter of right and wrong, good and bad. We tend to over-focus on our partner’s incompetence, forgetting their competent side and our own incompetent one. 

Here we find ourselves effectively at the edge of our capacity to relate. We feel justified in our reaction, but this keeps us separate and disconnected. We are unable to see more than one side of the issue, and to observe and change our own part in a relationship pattern that is keeping us stuck. 

Navigating our way out of reactivity and towards a better quality of relationship – with our self and others – is a process and skill-set that can be learned.  Here are a few pointers in that direction: 

INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP - 3 KEY STEPS

1.  Work on your triggers – not the other person

We tend to be more skilled at analysing and criticising others (often particularly our nearest and dearest) than understanding our own reactions. The trouble is, we can only have intimacy with another person to the extent that we have it with ourselves. Therapy and the Alexander Technique offers tools to help you stop and look at your reactions. What is it about this issue that bothers you? What is that about? How does this relate to your previous experience? By being clear about our own feelings, values and the impact of past experiences, we can shift from a place of judging and blaming, to one of relating to ourself and others. Paradoxically, it is through relating (rather than fighting or fixing) that we can often generate new options and reach better outcomes.  

2. Communication, communication, communication

Just as in property, it’s ‘Location, location, location’, in relationships it’s, ‘Communication, communication, communication.’ Our communication is comprised not only of content – the meaning of our words – but also an often unacknowledged emotional backdrop. These as like two different languages. Most roller-coaster rides in relationships are launched when two partners try to talk in one language (the practical content), but don’t realize they are actually speaking another language (the unacknowledged emotional message). The emotional backdrop is often filled with subtle nuance and we pick up on it in many ways – through our gesture, facial expression or tone of voice. For success, each person needs to learn to take 100% responsibility for their own communication, both explicit and unacknowledged, and their part in perpetuating any negative communication cycle.

3. Create a relationship vision 

Many of us enter into and develop a relationship without ever really discussing what we want, what we value, and how we envision our life in future. In therapy, many people find it helpful to spend some time creating a shared relationship vision.  This can involve exploring questions such as:

  • What qualities and characteristics do you want in partner, and in a relationship or marriage?
  • What kind of man / woman do you want to be? What kind of partner, husband / wife, or mother / father?
  • How do you invest in your relationship beyond your other roles e.g., as Mum and Dad? What do you do to offer or create what you want in a relationship?

LAST THOUGHTS 

Any relationship will, over time, give rise to issues we struggle with. Even in the most successful partnership there’ll be fights and differences. 

It is not that we have struggles, but how we deal with them that counts. In a reactive mode, we become one-sided and focus on ‘fixing’ our partner. Over time, trust is undermined and resentment builds - both relationship killers. 

Psychotherapy and the Alexander Technique both offer tools to help us work through our own our reactions so that we can communicate and connect with our partner. With good relational skills, a couple can be more than the sum of its parts.

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