The Course of a Relationship
When we first enter into a committed relationship, we may think that we have found the answer to life’s problems, that we have a partner to share in the turmoil of daily life, that we will never be alone again, that it will be smooth sailing from here on out. However, if we base our relationship on these assumptions or the fantasy “…if only s/he would change then I would be happy”, we may be sorely disappointed when our partner fails to live up to these expectations.
All of us learned how to relate when we were children and we carry this early relationship style, good or bad, with us throughout our life. By the time we’re about age five or so our relationship ‘templates’ became a permanent part of our psychological makeup.
While our parents did the best they could to show us how to relate using themselves as role models, for some of us the patterns that we learned at home weren’t the best templates for our adult relationships. Still, many of us began an adult loving relationship and found a way to accept or work through our differences in our ways of relating. Many of us, for example, reached an accord – while we didn’t get everything we wanted, we agreed ro do what’s best for the relationship.
But there is a strong probability that if we look to another person to provide our fulfillment, we will begin to focus on what we see as their faults as the cause of our own disappointments in life. This is the reason for a great deal of conflict in committed relationships.
Many people who come in for marriage therapy or couples counseling actually hope that the therapy will change their partner because they are convinced that the partner is the source of the problem. Usually however, their problems began when one or both partners triggered the other person’s unresolved issues for childhood.
Over time many relationships enter a stage where the partners feel emotionally distant from each other. The initial passion, sexual freedom, intimacy, and feelings of connection with the partner fade. While this isn’t always harmful to the relationship, either person may begin to feel that, although they love their partner, they are no longer “in love.” At the same time, both partners may feel that they have lost themselves in the relationship.
How does a relationship, which may have once shown such promise, end up in a place where the two partners feel distant and may not even like each other very much (even though they feel that the love is still there)? The answer lies within each person.
Two people in a relationship carry with them a legacy of their own fears, anxieties, and unresolved problems from their childhood – more specifically, from their relationships with their parents. It is sometimes uncomfortable for us to come to terms with our own baggage because most of us instinctively want to honor our parents. It is, in fact, so troublesome that we are unable to look within ourselves without professional therapy.
What Can Go Wrong
When people do begin to feel hurt, they often reflect on giving so much to the relationship in terms of their time, their energies, and their emotions, that they have lost what made them feel unique as individuals. They have abandoned old friendships, hobbies, and activities that brought interest and excitement to their own lives in order to devote time and energy to the relationship. When a feeling of distance comes to define the relationship, resentment toward their partner may emerge.
What is usually discovered in therapy is that one or both partners learned how to relate based on emotional and sometimes physically painful experiences in childhood. And now, when they have a loving adult relationship they can only use these ineffective ways or relating. Couples fight because one or both partners want the other person to comply with their way of relating.
For example, the man may think that if his partner would only change and live according to his relationship pattern, they would both be happy. His unconscious fantasy would be is that his childhood pain would stop if this happened. But if his partner doesn’t know about his deep pain or if s/he tries to do the same thing – get him to change according to her pattern – she or he will resist and may even fight back. So they keep fighting the same battle over and over again.
We tend to blame our partner which is a process called projection. Rather than accepting the fact that our partners are just being themselves and probably have the best of intentions, we define the source of our own anxiety as lying within the other person. When we feel uncomfortable about something our partners say or do, we may not realize that our discomfort may come from a place within ourselves that we haven’t examined – like our own control issues, our jealousy, our insecurity, or our fear of dependence or independence.
What Happens in Therapy
Marriage therapy and couples counseling helps partners to move into a different and more mature stage, where both of them look within to find the source of their own anxiety, find ways to soothe themselves without trying to change the other person, and learn to accept and love the other person despite their frustrating quirks.
When this occurs, and when the distance between the partners has been resolved, the genuine excitement and passion of the relationship can continue to flourish – this time in a mature, accepting, and integrated manner.
Partners can learn how to hold onto a sense of their ‘self’ while they are in an emotionally committed relationship and how to remain true to what they want out of life while sharing it with their partner. They each can learn how to resolve unfinished family of origin battles within themselves and how to recognize when these interfere in their adult relationships. In other words partners can learn to maintain a clear sense of who they are as individuals within their relationship.
Partners usually are attracted at first because of the strength of each others’ unique qualities. Both knew what they valued and believed in. Over time, because we accommodate ourselves to both our own and our partner’s more immature qualities and unresolved issues, we lose our sense of uniqueness.
We compromise ourselves with the goal of smoothing out conflicts and fail to realize it when we lose our sense of self in the process. We may find that we have lost those qualities that were once so attractive to our partner. When we hold onto a sense of our ‘self’ we can keep looking within, gaining a firm definition of who we are, and celebrating our uniqueness.
In therapy we can learn to come to terms with our own fears, anxieties, and insecurities. It may mean accepting our partner’s criticisms as a source of valuable feedback about our insecurities. Self-examination can focus on understanding how and why we manipulate others, undermine our own effectiveness, take a selfish approach at times (or, alternatively, give to others and never to ourselves), and work against our own best interests.
We need to understand why we avoid ourselves, and then we need to make an honest commitment to enter into a path of honesty and integrity. We can learn to understand when and how we protect ourselves. For example, when do we blame others, especially our emotionally committed partner, rather than acknowledging our own participation in interpersonal conflicts? This involves admitting when we are wrong.
Taking an honest approach toward our own lives is a tough, but rewarding, journey into personal integrity. When we take this journey, our partner is no longer feeling blamed; knows that the old emotional standoffs have been eliminated, and will often decide to begin their own journey into self-growth.
Dealing with emotional pain is a talent that can be learned and it often occurs when we explore and take ownership of our own part in our happiness. In childhood, many of us learned unhealthy ways of handling discomfort, often because we lacked supportive role modeling from our parents or other adults that would have taught us how to deal with pain in a healthier way. We may have learned to blame our parents when we faced life’s difficulties, and then we carry this blaming behavior into our committed relationships in adulthood.
Avoiding emotional pain is the reason many adults indulge in substance abuse or other addictive behaviors such as gambling, inordinate spending, or watching too much television. The healthier option is to make the adult commitment to explore the pain and its sources – and to find ways to make self-growth a friend rather than something to avoid.
This is often the outcome couples counseling with a professional therapist. When we learn to cope with our own pain, we no longer need to manipulate our partners into making us feel better. Each of us as an individual can then bring this freedom and understanding into our relationship.
Please call me at 949-760-7171 or text 949-244-8572 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or to schedule an appointment. Click here for an overview of my book “Building Better Relationships – A Guidebook for Men.”