Don’t be dismayed by your relationship conflict …. You’re in love!
Recently during a couples therapy session I told the couple I was working with that there’s nothing really wrong with their relationship, and in fact, they were fighting with each other in understandable and predictable ways. I said, “there’s nothing wrong with you guys!” I told them I could see how much each person deeply loves the other as evident by how much pain they frustration they experienced. Understandably, they were dismayed at my assessment and it seems they were expecting me to confirm and validate their own worst fears; that they did not in fact love each other, that they really hated one another and that their relationship was doomed, and that perhaps I was secretly thinking, “Wow—these people are really messed up!” But I can honestly say, with all of couples I’ve worked with, I rarely ever think that thought. Even working with the most conflictual couples, I am able to see the goodness and the strength of the attachment bonds at work in their relationship and how much each person truly cares for the other, which paradoxically, is the reason they fight so much. When I see couples hurting and fighting, I am reminded how much we need love and how risky love can be to get it. The emotional pain that a love relationship induces makes sense and so I say, “there is nothing wrong with your relationship.”
A Loving Relationship Can Feel Frightening
When I see a couple in distress that can’t seem to undo the gridlock of a recurring fight, or even if they’ve exhausted themselves and have given-up fighting all together, part of my job is helping the couple to see through the fog of the relationships chaos and to recognize the strength of their attachment styles at work in their relationship. In essence, I help them truly recognize their deep love for each other. The reason love can feel so painful is because we look to our partners to be a safe haven for us, to be there for us, to understand us, to know us, and to help us become more fully ourselves, and when we feel this need being thwarted, we begin to feel scared, afraid, alone, or threatened, and we respond out of that fear in predictable ways by either raging at our partner, or running from our partner. That makes perfect sense to me. Yes, love can feel frightening, because our lover can hurt us deeply. And so I say, “there is nothing wrong with your relationship, but I see that you are scared.”
Why Relationships Really End
There is quite a bit of buzz regarding the top-three reasons why people divorce. Pop-psychology says it’s about money, sex, and children. And those three surface-level topics are often the reasons why people come to my office to work on their relationship, but I can tell you unequivocally that these are not the reasons why people end up embroiled in conflict and ultimately not making it. Those may be the “topics” we fight about, but that is only the surface-level content. Those three topics happen to be highly charged, emotionally laden topics that trigger people’s deepest relationship fears. And the inability to communicate and empathize with those vulnerable relationship fears is the reason why couples get so stuck. Money, Sex, and Children trigger feelings such as: feeling out of control, feeling insecure, feeling abandoned, feeling hopeless, and feeling neglect. When our significant attachment partner injures us in a way that evokes any of these feelings, we rage, or we run. And that is why relationships don’t make it. And that makes perfect sense; we simply just don’t want to get hurt. Trying to avoid being devastated emotionally by your partner doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your relationship.
Raging or Running as Signals of Love
Do not be dismayed if you’re raging at your partner, or if you’d prefer to run for the hills. Our reactions to being emotionally hurt by our significant attachment partners speak more about our love for one other than they suggest we’re not right for one another. If we weren’t attached and didn’t care, we would not respond in these ways! Can you try, as hard as it may be, not to harshly judge the status or quality of your relationship and instead try to see your frustration in the relationship in the context of how much your partner really means to you? She/he matters immensely to you, and so you try to avoid being hurt in your own unique ways.
Learning to Speak a New Language
The process of becoming a more satisfied and connected couple is actually fairly simple, but it can feel intimidating because it requires quite a bit of vulnerability. But truly, it’s not an overly complicated process that’s only attainable to a select few who are lucky enough to be blessed with finding the “right partner.” That is the biggest lie our culture has perpetuated. Becoming a great couple is simply learning how to feel emotionally safe with your partner through speaking a language of vulnerability. Sounds simple right? It is, and you can do it too! The reason it can feel so arduous is because we deeply fear that our partner might hurt us in our moments of vulnerability, so we stay protected and we defend ourselves by using angry criticisms or withdrawing from the relationship. And both of those responses keep us stuck in a painful cycle of relationship discontent. Not knowing how to speak this language doesn’t mean anything is wrong with your relationship. You can learn how to do this!
Understanding your predictable patterns of responding to relational fears and learning to speak a new language is the way out, and the way forward toward feeling madly in love with your partner again. Sometimes, we just need a little help! If you are in an emotionally or physically abusive situation, you need to seek help and make sure you (and your children if you have them) are safe. But in most cases, your relationship isn’t broken, and you probably didn’t marry the wrong person. Celebrate in that, and learn to enjoy the things you love about your partner.
Originally published on QuentinHafner.com.