For a long time we have been thinking mistakenly about couples issues. We have thought that if one partner is unhappy, the solution lies in either changing their own expectations, or asking for a change in their partner. We have thought that relationships are essentially about compromises between two people who ultimately have to change something about themselves in order to make their relationship work.
Imagine the surprise then when couples researcher John Gottman makes the claim that 2 out of 3 issues couples fight about are fundamentally irresolvable. They are not quick fixes, such as taking out the trash, or remembering to call, but value differences. They are often the very same qualities we fell in love with in our partner because they were different or complementary, but which have now become annoyances: a little too much of a good thing.
Unfortunately, nobody responds well to being asked to change who they are, and a relationship where both partners are compromising who they are to please each other, is not a happy one.
Don’t Fight the Wrong Battle:
The problem all these years is that couples and therapists alike have been adopting too narrow a perspective on couples issues.
We thought there were only two elements to a relationship: Partner A, and Partner B. We also thought that what that meant is that to change anything in the relationship, either Partner A or Partner B would have to change. In fact what couples often fight about is WHO really needs to change, or WHO is really to blame for why things aren’t going right.
Fortunately we have now realized that relationships are systems that tend to be self-reinforcing:
- I ask you to take out the trash in a critical voice
- You reluctantly do so but feel scolded and mentally withdraw
- Your withdrawing makes me feel more alone in the relationship and eventually more critical of you
- As you begin to feel that you are being criticized a lot of the time you are around me, you withdraw even more
- This only makes me feel more alone and more critical
- … and round and round we go
This cycle is not the doing of one person. It is at the same time created by us, as we respond to our partner based on how they respond to us. But it is also creating us, as we feel caught or stuck in a certain role in our relationship that we did not ask for and that we are not happy with.
Identify the Problem Correctly:
The problem is that when we are caught in the system and try to get out of it or change it, we seem to only make things worse. The husband who thinks “I better leave the situation to let my wife simmer down” is really trying to protect the relationship from further damage, and get out of a situation that he does not know how to solve. However, his wife perceives this as another instance of her husband being indifferent to her feelings, and this only increases her overall dissatisfaction, and increases her angry protests for her husband to become more engaged in the marriage.
Each partner sees only part of the cycle they are stuck in. Their gaze is directed outward toward the other person who is a source of frustration, criticism, or danger. They are not able to step outside the pattern in which they are caught to look at the system as a whole.
Sadly this also means that they don’t really understand that they are both victims of a negative relationship cycle and that they are both hurting and dealing with their hurt in a way that only ends up making things worse.
How to Save Your Relationship:
What needs to happen to save a relationship that has been usurped by a self-reinforcing negative interaction cycle is that the cycle needs to be pointed out as the shared enemy. Instead of fighting each other, both partners need to join forces to slay the dragon that has gotten between them.
This dragon feeds itself on unacknowledged emotions.
Couples in relationships that are caught in the negative cycle of the dragon, have learned to protect themselves from hurt by withdrawing their most tender and vulnerable emotions, and leading the way with their anger and their coldness.
Being in a relationship has almost become an exercise in survival, and of course, when we think we need to protect ourselves against hurt from our partner, we are not going to open up to them, acknowledge our insecurities and fears, and count on them to safeguard our most vulnerable emotions.
The downside to wearing a protective armor in our relationship is of course that our partner does not get to see who we really are. They don’t get access to our longing to feel closer to the person we love and our fear of losing them. Or they don’t get access to our fear of messing things up, and the sadness we feel about ourselves and our relationship when we wander off on our own thinking that we are not who our partner wants.
Winning the Battle:
When couples are able to realize that they are not fighting each other, but fighting the dragon that has come between them, and when they are able to then take off their protective armor and show each other their pain, their confusion, their fears, their sadness, the dragon cannot survive.
It is through accessing these hidden sides of a suffering couple that the negative cycle that has been running the show for quite a while, can be replaced by a positive one, and that couples can once again regain control of their relationship.
It requires help and practice, but as long as you don’t wait until there is no passion or desire left, the dragon can be slain, and your relationship can be reclaimed from the vicious cycle that has been driving a wedge between you.
About me: I am a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I work with couples to get unstuck from negative patterns and feel more connected and fulfilled in their relationships. To read more about my approach to couples therapy, visit my website.