For relationships, too, must be like islands.
One must accept them for what they are
here and now, within their limits
— islands surrounded and interrupted by the sea,
continuously visited and abandoned by the tides. One must accept
the serenity of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.
— ANNE MORROW LINDBERGH, Gift from the Sea
hen we’re in the disheartening throes of Disillusionment, it’s easy to feel that we’re the only ones who suffer grave disappointment. As hopeless as these woes may feel now, I promise that you can learn to overcome them.
Two points emerge from our troubles during this stage. The first is the incorrect belief that our happiness and the success of the relationship are determined by what our partner says and does. As I’ve emphasized before and will again, all relationship change begins within you. Once you shift your focus from your partner to yourself, you gain enormous power to affect both your relationship and your own well-being.
The second point is that many of the difficulties — both small and large — that we face can’t be resolved until we put serious time and energy into our partnership. We need to place top priority on nourishing the garden of our relationship.
These two points are well worth bearing in mind, given the seven normal troubles that couples tend to encounter. Let’s take a look at each of them.
Life is predictable. Many of us trudge through our nine-to-five jobs only to come home to face the repetitive tasks of our personal lives — paying bills, putting together dinner, and perhaps settling in for an evening of mindless conversation or even bickering with our partner. The sheer tedium of it all can wear us down.
The physiological explanation for the blahs is based on the human craving for pleasure. The feel-good chemical, dopamine, is released when our minds are excited and stimulated, and we feel off-balance when we experience a shortage.
The biggest challenge of the blahs is not to blame our partner for the way we feel. Instead, we need to look for ways to accept the ordinariness of life, even as we respect the mind’s natural craving for stimuli. The next challenge is to consider some steps we might take to add some healthy pizzazz to our daily grind — and then try out a few of them.
If the blahs grip us for too long, we can sink into the blues. Many things can trigger depression, including genetic makeup, life crises, and the multiple disappointments that attend Disillusionment. Unlike medical conditions that can be diagnosed through measurable tests, depression is diagnosed through behavioral symptoms: exhaustion, a low sex drive, disturbed sleep, anxiety, reduced self-esteem, irritability, negativity, and a quicker-than-usual temper.
Countless studies point to depression as a major factor in unhappy marriages. In some cases, preexisting depression contributes to marital problems; in others, the troubled relationship itself spurs depression. Often the two feed each other.
In any event, depression is exhausting. Life with a depressed partner is exhausting, too, especially when we try to “fix” our partner’s problem. A depressed person needs to seek a health-care professional for diagnosis and treatment, just as he would for any other illness.
Betrayal can take many forms, from garden-variety lapses in judgment to genuine heartbreakers and marriage breakers. Many such lapses can be avoided if we take the time to pay attention to what our partner’s world really feels like. What does your partner need to feel comfortable and safe? Be aware that what he or she needs may be very different from what you need.
Other common forms of betrayal include lies, broken promises, sexual unfaithfulness, financial deception, and the invasion of privacy — from snooping on a computer to reading a private journal. When the breach of faith is exposed, the betrayed person may come to question everything about her partner and the relationship itself. Beyond the inevitable shock, anger, and hurt, betrayal often leaves its victims with a grievous loss of self-worth.
Those who betray their partners tend to rely on “reasonable” explanations to justify themselves. The reason they were unfaithful? Not enough sex in their marriage. The reason they maxed out the credit cards? Simple generosity — they wanted to take their partner on a first-class vacation. In truth, however, an act of betrayal is an act against the self, which harms a person’s sense of integrity and self-respect. After betrayers digest what they’ve done and the pain they’ve caused, their shame and guilt can be all-consuming.
Because of its powerful reverberations for both partners, sexual betrayal is an especially difficult marital problem to cope with and resolve. Sometimes the only way to reconcile is for both partners to clean their respective psychological closets of all baggage and to reach down into the depths of those emotional storage vaults to find the courage, honesty, and love to repair and forgive. It’s extremely hard work. But perhaps the depth of this process explains why some of the strongest marriages I know have arisen from extremely serious betrayals.
Conflict is part of every relationship. Yet many couples believe that strong differences of opinion mean that their marriage is troubled. Because none of us wants a troubled marriage, we tend to pretend we agree even when we don’t. What we get is lumpy-carpet syndrome, in which we sweep under the rug the tensions that accompany our unspoken conflicts. It becomes increasingly difficult to cross the rug toward each other.
When we finally do face up to our differences, we must tread carefully. To let loose with whatever we think and feel is rarely an effective way to “de-lump” a carpet. Successful conflict management tends to be counterintuitive. It means listening to uncomfortable things that our partner may have to say about us. It means stretching to understand our own part in the conflict. It means speaking in a way that our partner can hear. These behaviors take considerable courage, patience, self-awareness, and practice. Yet all of us can — and must — learn these skills in order to restore trust and intimacy.
Loss of Connection
I sat in my office with Annie and Jane, two women on the verge of a breakup. It wasn’t their complaints about each other that startled me. It was the moment that Annie put her head in her hands and sobbed, “I’m losing my best friend.” Suddenly it became clear: the depth of her agony arose from the threat she felt her grievances posed to their existence as a couple.
When Annie forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, it wasn’t Jane’s biting sarcasm that upset her. It was the fear that what lay beneath Jane’s annoyance was a profound disappointment in Annie. “She doesn’t see me the way she once did,” Annie cried.
Many of us erroneously jump to the conclusion that once we lose our idealized version of each other we will lose the relationship.
We’re wired in our brains and hearts to be connected with others; numerous studies show that touching, hugging, and being a part of loving relationships helps us to live longer, healthier, and happier lives. So how can we manage the anger and conflict that are part of all relationships and avoid the loss of life-enhancing connection?
Ironically, our first instinct may be to protest by criticizing and blaming our partner. Our flawed logic works something like this: “If you don’t love me the way I need you to, I will punish you by ignoring or criticizing you, which will cause you to fall in love with me all over again.”
Needless to say, this rarely works. Love is a feeling: it comes and goes, but constant criticism, sarcasm, and blame truly can threaten fundamental connection and lead to breakup.
The secret to keeping our relationship strong under duress is to manage our love account just as we manage our bank account — by keeping the deposits higher than the withdrawals. Listen, support, touch, apologize, appreciate, and surprise. We need to practice these behaviors often enough to amass the goodwill to cover those times when the relationship is “overdrawn.”
We can be angry, hurt, outraged. It doesn’t mean we cut off connection. It doesn’t mean we fail to see the merit of our partner’s main strengths. Although it may feel like the last thing we want to do, if we keep the bridge open between us, we’ll find the way forward in the most difficult times.
This trouble is a sneaky one and usually catches us totally by surprise. In the first throes of love, when we decide that we’ve met our soul mate, we leap at whatever stray evidence supports our joy and ignore anything that might signal trouble ahead. Now, in the third stage, just about everything our partner says or does can be interpreted as evidence that he doesn’t know us, doesn’t care about us, and isn’t right for us.
As an old English saying has it, “One day you’re a peacock; the next day you’re a feather duster.” On peacock days, when everything is going our way, it’s easy to behave lovingly. It’s a snap to keep our promises to our partner. It’s easy to allow disappointments and flashes of anger to subside and to move quickly to repair.
On feather duster days, none of this is easy. Sometimes, when life isn’t going well, we simply find ourselves in a bad mood. This is perfectly normal. What matters is how we handle our bouts of grumpiness.
Ask yourself how a bad mood affects your work performance. How do you treat your colleagues and customers? Now ask yourself: How do I treat my partner? My guess is that you stretch yourself so as not to indulge the bad mood at work, whereas at home you may make less of an effort.
If we surrender to bad moods in our relationship, we may experience some serious fallout. We may break our word or fail to show up. We may lash out and upset — or even abuse — our partner. What’s called for, instead, is sticking with the program.
If you want to create trust and good health in your relationship, you need to keep your word and your manners intact, even when you’re feeling low. Psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of Marriage Rules, reflected on this topic in a recent Facebook posting:
“I seem to be thinking about kindness this week. Something I appreciate more, the older I get. Of course, it’s hardest to practice kindness with a spouse or family member. It’s easier to practice kindness with your dry cleaner. We should practice wherever and with whomever we can. And we might also consider if we really want to treat our partner less well than we treat our dry cleaner.”
Words to live by — or at least to aspire to.
©2014 by Linda Carroll. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love
by Linda Carroll.
About the Author
Linda Carroll, MS, has worked as a couple’s therapist for more than thirty years. In addition to being a licensed therapist, she is certified in Transpersonal Psychology and Imago Therapy, the highly successful form of couple’s therapy developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, and is a master teacher in the PAIRS Psychoeducation Process. She has studied many modalities of psychological and spiritual work, including Voice Dialogue, Holotropic Breathwork with Dr. Stan Grof, the Four-Fold Way with Angeles Arrien, the Diamond Heart Work of A. H. Almaas, and training with the Couples Institute of Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson. She is also certified in the Hot Monogamy program, which helps couples create (or re-create) the passion that makes relationships thrive. Visit her website at http://www.lindaacarroll.com/
Watch a video: Linda Carroll speaks about relationship and other topics.