If you prefer to listen, this post is also available on iTunes and Soundcloud.
How good relationships turn into bad relationships, seemingly out of nowhere. Whether that’s with fights that ensue endlessly, or one partner suddenly betrays the other partner – this kind of behavior can make you feel mystified, angry, and stuck. So I want to shed a bit of light on a potential reason behind these changes – if you once had a healthy and mutually rewarding relationship, this might give you a starting place for the work that has to be done. OR at the very least enlighten you as to what happened. My other name for this episode is Family Ties. You’ll know why if you read further. Does any of this sound familiar?
“I thought I married someone who loved me and they seem like they hate me now.” “This behavior came out of nowhere – one day she told me she didn’t love me anymore.” “I can’t believe this happened – I want to ask her, was it worth it?” These are the kinds of things I hear from clients, especially when it comes to break-ups. It’s a very common experience to suddenly see your partner change in ways you can’t accept or understand. It can make you feel stupid like you should have known better. It can make you feel personally insulted and cast aside – like you have been punished for no reason whatsoever. It can make you feel upside down and lost, like you never knew this person at all.
There’s a reason why this is happening, but it’s likely a very intricate one – with connections you can’t quite see from where you are right now. Before I get started I want to tell you that this is a much abbreviated explanation, because this is such an intricate and amazing topic. If you’re interested in learning more about it, my reading material is at the end of this post. I highly recommend investigating further into your respective challenge. There are three parts: the what why and how – the tools.
Part 1: The What
On the surface, what most couples fight about it money and sex. It’s the most volatile issue in relationships because of the fact that what most relationship conflicts are about is power and dominance. So if you’re fighting about money or sex, at its core it’s a battle for control in the relationship. Usually when people get stuck in a power-struggle, the form it takes will vary according to the practical variables in your relationship – but underneath that is an internal struggle within both individuals: a fight for their version of intimacy to be realized. In other words, it’s not actually about what it’s about – the fights are like costumes worn on the stage of a much deeper story. I want to talk about what the battle is really about – so you can understand why there’s seemingly no solution.
Our bonds are formed on the basis that both parties need to maintain intimacy and autonomy, simultaneously. So the bond will continue to be a dance: a balancing act, for both people, between those two states. I need to be myself. This is who I am. I want love. This is how you love me. Intimacy and autonomy are both important to maintain and balance in a relationship. How is something that both people agree to – or struggle to figure out, as they go. It’s unique per each relationship. What most couples fail to realize in their relating to one another, is that each person has a very strong imprint – kinda like the shape and tint of their goggles – through which they perceive their mate, and every act done inside the relationship. It’s not to say that there isn’t common ground or that true communication doesn’t take place. It’s to say that the lenses by which we view these exchanges and the interpretation we have of them is completely unique to us. How we experience the actions of another person takes on meaning based on our particular emotional map. Sometimes, the gap that grows between loving couple comes down to tools we didn’t get and truths we didn’t live. Because of our particular lacks or a monumental imprint in our map, we literally cannot see eye to eye with our perceived partner. This is when intentions are lost, communications stop landing, and the gap becomes wider. In these crevasses all that we can identify is our vague association of this situation from OUR familiar experiences. What we are using to interpret is a one-person-language-translator: it’s made up of the definitions we create in our mind– for what love is, how it should be given, who we are, and what we need to be happy. So the question becomes – how do we bridge that gap and how do we identify it when it’s happening?
Well, as a start, we can trace the patterns to uncover the missing pieces that lead to the misunderstandings. Very specific conflicts play out depending on certain landmarks of your emotional map. I want to offer you some information on some of these landmarks and I invite you to connect the dots further with your partner. Because by examining your patterns, you can find the roots to any missing foundational elements of self. From there you can both retrain yourselves to grow and foster your respective voids. This process is not a negative one – it’s a rebalancing, love-inspiring one – where both people learn to give and receive gifts they were ill-equipped to before.
Why would that awareness be helpful to you? If you are suffering or stuck and you’re both feeling increasingly unhappy because of unmet needs – the path to a solution BEGINS when you can understand and perceive the correct problem. It’s not about what he or she SHOULD be doing for you or what you SHOULD be doing for them. Most couples don’t see what the fights they’re having are actually about. They can only see their own needs and opinions – projected and overlaid atop of their partner. And so it breeds resent. In other words, you’re fighting the wrong battle – let this be a starting point for you to unravel where the work needs to be done – in BOTH of yourselves.
Part 2: The Why
When people fall in love, we relate to our mate based on a mutual and invisible agreement: to meet the others needs and fill each other’s voids. It’s something we can read in how we relate to others – it’s not like anything is specifically said. What originally attracts us to someone is said to be the same thing we resent about them later on. That’s because we look for – in others – what we have suppressed in ourselves. The voids we have are what unconsciously attracts us, and yet it’s also the foundation for the imbalance we’ll have as a couple. I need this thing, you have this thing in abundance. Give it to me. So when conflict and unhappiness arises, it’s because the relationship relies on a particular kind of imbalance and that imbalance has caused the relationship harm. It’s grown too heavy for one partner – and it’s no longer rewarding to keep up the one-sided giving. This comes about because of fatigue, and also the receiving end can never truly be quenched. Only soothed and kept at bay. Usually the most conflict in a relationship comes about because one person has changed the way they act in this unspoken agreement: either they begin to resent their role or grow out of their role. As soon as one person begins to cross over into the other partner’s department, it’s felt as an act of betrayal. But you HAVE to love me in this way! You promised! It triggers the repressed rage attached to the unmet need – one that has been thus far soothed by the filling of respective voids. I want to put that into more specific terms so you can see what it looks like.
Let’s say the partnership is between an authoritative/care-giver who has been attracted to an overly emotional/broken-winged person. This imbalance causes an increased level of lack on both sides, overtime. The broken person feels increasingly more broken. The care-giver feels increasingly more resentful and neglected in their needs. The care-giver eventually self-protects by distancing themselves which triggers MORE emotion and neediness from the broken one.
Another set of conflicts arise when one partner begins to grow out of their role. For example, the emotional person might begin to grow and demand to be given more respect. This threatens the care-giver and makes them feel insecure in their role, thus it evokes hostility and attempts to return the imbalance. To the caregiver, it feels wrong – it makes them uncomfortable in who they are and what makes them worth loving. These dynamics aren’t healthy for either person, though they feel comfortable and soothing because their voids fit together. Instead of a mutually rewarding bond, it’s like sucking each other’s thumb.
When a couple is in a power-struggle of needs, the most common tactic is to polarize to your partner: to pull even harder in opposite directions. And with the increasingly violent pulling, comes more painful and triggered emotion: Why can’t you change? Why can’t you change? You should change! You should change! What was soothing, now becomes a hostile battle fought on practical terms. You never were good in bed. What did I tell you about spending too much money?!
Depending on how vulnerable each partner feels and how much they blame themselves, sometimes the relationship conflict creates great distance in the place of battle. If both people are afraid to address the conflict, they will create a safety zone of distance between them. We’ve just grown apart. We don’t see each other very often. This is so both can feel protected from the most painful manifestation of their intimacy problems.
Where do the intimacy patterns come from? The particular patterns that form in each individual has everything to do with how they were parented and how they interpreted the self and intimacy, growing up. They’re also triggered by significant life stages, as we enter them – for example, marriage triggers a lot of family baggage. To a startling degree in fact, these dynamics are engrained into us on a cellular level. Sometimes a person will be living out a pattern that was set in motion by their parents’ parents – and they will have no idea of their family history. The act will come out of nowhere! Like deep-down programming that has been suddenly triggered to play. For example, one of my previous clients suddenly decided they were enraged at their partner and wanted a divorce. Yet they’re repeating the same act that their dad did at their same age and same milestone in life. It’s that deep and that unseen.
We are gifted with our emotional habits in the way we are raised and reacted to – and that plays out differently when it comes to the various life triggers and milestones we reach. So some will be sleeping til a particular milestone arrives in our life. For example, if a person grows up without a stable parent, but they were given lots of resources to take care of themselves, this will become part of their emotional toolset as an individual. When the concept of CHILD REARING comes up they might become triggered to reenact all the emotions they felt toward their parent at a younger age.
As kids, we will “deal” with a painful issue by suppressing the need the best way we know how. But that doesn’t mean the painful need goes away. It means its kept at bay and soothed with other things. Without the therapy and insight to confront the unmet needs– or even see them and put them into words, as adults we will simply merge the voids into our view of self, and seek out others to help us soothe them. But that particular quest will never be fulfilled. The void lives on.
There’s also a generational passing down of trauma – which can predict a lot of an individuals struggles. It’s referred to as “psychological baggage” and “transgenerational trauma” and even “blood memory” because your worldview is very much shaped by your first caregiver, as well as your family, and it’s a perception that’s reenacted generation after generation. They call it the family jingle: it can be depression, alcoholism or repression. MOST people are stunted in some areas of their emotional development because we’re raised by humans and humans are flawed. We all do the best we can to correct for our own voids, but that’s often not enough. So back to how this relates to your relationship…
When you have an imbalance in the way you relate: the contract you both agreed to is tied to some primal needs. Some are visceral and potent – and they scare us, they often feel too powerful to face. Like if you begin to unravel the pain, you might fall apart – or you wouldn’t even think to do such a thing! It feels kind of like a part of you that doesn’t want to fall backwards. I can’t do that. I don’t want to! So when we feel our partner has betrayed us by not meeting our needs, by not respecting our terms – the hurt that this triggers is, too – primal. It just feels, “So wrong!”
When you’re in a couple fight, it doesn’t feel like it’s an old emotion related to your parents: it feels like it’s your partner NOT being who they should be. This blindness on both sides causes the couple to feel like they’re being emotionally held hostage, or more resentful and pushing for distance. It’s a problem that mystifies both parties, and hence it can feel that there is no solution. In this feeling, you are not alone. Do not lose heart.
A healthy attachment is two autonomous individuals who are complete unto themselves, coming together to share their gifts – with no strings attached. The bond is made of trust and mutual respect – it’s like a voluntary arrangement of gift-giving based in mutual appreciation. If you meet someone AFTER doing a lot of self-work to deal with your childhood stuff, you’ll form a new and healthier way of relating to one another that brings into it the awareness of ones’ own shit. In other words, there is less confusion about where “you” end and “they” begin. You can see that you are being you, and that is not gospel. You can respect that you have baggage and you can better identify it when you’re placing it on the lap of your partner. It’s that awareness and understanding that is KEY to the undoing. Once you can witness YOURSELF in this process, it changes everything!! Now imagine if BOTH partners are able to see that process happening and are able to communicate around it. This is when you can solve for ways to change how you act based on it. So with that let’s get to the tools!
Part 3: The How! The tools
TOOL 1: YIN-YANG
This first tool is meant to give you some cursory AWARENESS of your particular imbalances. If you are recognizing the differing perspectives in you and your partner and the loop of unmet needs is sounding familiar, then I want to invite you to go to the next step – together, on this quest. If you’re both interested in saving the relationship, then you owe it to each other to try EVERYTHING and let go of how “not you” the approach feels. I know that for many people that’s easier said than done. But try to do this together.
Grab a piece of paper and draw a large circle with swoopy line across the middle. Ask your partner to do the same. Now you both write on one side – you can do the right side, they can do the left. At the top of your side you write your partner’s name. Now write inside this space what attracted you to your partner initially. It can be free flowing – phrases, adjectives, individual gestures. What are the qualities that first caught your eye? What did you love about them – how did you perceive their strengths? What did they do for you that made you happy?
Once you’re both done, I want you to look at your two papers and cut them out so you can see how those two yin and yang’s fit together. What you will likely see when you combine both sides – is one complete person. The things you wrote on your side of the page are the things you are lacking – that you need to learn to better give yourself and receive from your partner. The things they wrote on their half – are things they need to learn to do more of.
This two-sided circle can be a rough map for the growth you need to do as individuals. It reveals where you both are compensating for one another – in a way that needs to be changed.
The reason these conflicts arise is because we are placing the responsibility on the other partner – to complete our view of ourselves, with their response. We use our partners to maintain a particular view of ourselves: we want the appropriate validation for our ego – and the ego by nature, wants to prove that we are RIGHT and good. So this is why you might feel completely and totally justified – so purely right, in these moments of conflict. You repeatedly come back to this thought, “I am trying so hard to be good. They are so wrong!” The emotions feel so absolutely valid: you are pure good, they are pure wrong. That’s the voice of ego, aka your perception of self, while perceiving a threat to your self-definition. Things get black and white – you’re either good or you are bad.
TOOL 2: Me-Talk
This one’s straight out of “Intimate Partners” which is the book I keep obsessing about. It’s the first step in growing aware of where you and your unmet needs end, and your partner begins. For this to work, you both have to agree to all the rules ahead of time. So here are the rules!
Make a calendar event recurring once a week and set it to infinite. For one hour a week you are both going to sit together and listen intently as you talk about yourselves, one at a time. For the first week you flip a coin to see who goes first. The first person then sits for a half hour and talks about themselves SOLELY. The other person must listen but not respond in any way shape or form. Once the first half hour is up, the second person talks and refers to themselves SOLELY. In other words, no cross-talk: no talking about the other person or your relationship. It’s not that you are pretending you are a different person, just make the content of what you say about you as an individual. The last rule is no discussion of anything said during your hour – for at least the next three days.
This might sound arbitrary or kind of pointless, but what actually occurs is both people are able for one measly hour – to stop relating to one another in their unhealthy cycle. You are suddenly forced to experience yourself minus the other person. What you will likely find after doing this is that you both feel happy and closer as a result of it. You are experiencing a new version of yourself within the relationship, a feeling that is rewarding to both parties.
TOOL 3: FREEZE-FRAME
This is an exercise for you to do solo, but you can invite your partner to do it too. Grab your journal! I want you to take your couple-fights and freeze frame them: click through them and try to find the patterns.
What are most of your fights about? What are the core values that seem to recur? What themes come up? Are there other parties who get brought into it? Which of you is the one to bring up conflicts most often? What are the tactics that are used? What are the fights usually about – in terms of needs and emotions? What are the kinds of words you both use – most often?
Think about the last fight you had with your partner and take it apart in detail. Think about what they said or did that upset you. Think about what you said or did in response. Last and most important in this reflection: What is your role, most often? What is your partner’s role most often?
Now here’s the cool part of this exercise. Once you recognize the roles you most often play – I want you to become HYPER AWARE of that in yourself. Know it, name it, and wrap your head around how that role behaves – and the next time a conflict comes up, I want you to choose to play someone else.
Why? Because for both parties to return to intimacy, both have to REALIZE in the moments when behavioral loops are taking over your perception. You have to be able to identify where YOUR INTERPRETATION ends, and YOUR PARTNERS TRUTH begins. This is a way for you to stop the exchange of the imbalance and step outside of it, momentarily. This is how you can begin to actively guide your relationship and break bad habits. So when you are in a familiar loop of conflict, to get out of it – I want you to CHANGE the innate and habituated reaction.
For example, let’s say you’re the one who is super chill and easy going and your partner is the one who’s overly critical and gets upset at you if you don’t do something trivial, correctly. If your average reaction is to feel hurt and try and explain yourself, next time you should choose the opposite. Maybe that means you’re going to instead have the absence of that emotional pain. Instead you can say, “Woops, yeah – no prob. I keep forgetting.” Make it mean nothing to you at all. Let the critique be of no importance and reply with no sarcasm. Once you change your response, you’ll find that suddenly there’s a gap in the loop. Your partner might even look up at you like, “Huh? What did you just say?”
TOOL 4: MANTRA: It’s not about you.
This is a mantra I use all the time, for any relationship issue – romantic or otherwise. When you find yourself misunderstood or you feel someone putting their heavy and toxic emotions on you, instead of taking them personally, just remind yourself that it’s not about you.
Try to witness this person in their pain or their unconscious loop. Try to isolate their bubble of pain as this entity that lives around them, almost like a flu. Let it be a relief to you to know that it’s not about you, and forgive them. If anything, feel bad for them in their loop of pain. Know that you cannot force them to see your view, because they are blind. Once you realize that it’s truly not about you, you are better able to return to a state of love and compassion. And from this place, you can tolerate them and even love them without words. And at the very least, not take their pain personally. You can be there with your positive energy, which requires no interpretation. We all have limits, unless we are given the gift of insight and awareness to see past them.
I want to say thank you to my latest monthly sponsors!! Leah, “A” (you know who you are) and Kelsey!! You started monthly donotions and I am so grateful! If you have any requests for new content, as always, please let me know. I do this for you – because it’s what I needed and looked for at one point, and couldn’t find it.
If you’re the one on the receiving end of a major shift and you’re suffering – firstly, I am so sorry – I know how baffling and hurtful that can be. I need to tell you that you can’t do all the change alone. You cannot make someone change. They must choose to do it for themselves. It takes having both partners work on their end of the bargain and HUMBLING themselves to a level of “I might be wrong, I’m open to listening and I’m willing to learn.” However, often people say things they don’t mean. Especially when they’re afraid to face something overwhelming. So if you love someone, don’t let a lack of hope be the reason you give up. Say how you feel – put it out there, invest. You might be the reason your partner is brave enough to invest right back. When people feel safe enough, they will give more of themselves. Know that this conflict is coming up for a reason and it can’t be bypassed. Often when tensions arise, it’s a way for pressure to reset something. Major conflicts, when addressed, can be a leveler that allows intimacy to return to the relationship in a more rewarding way than ever before. So although this hurts, this can become a great gift in disguise. Don’t resent it, welcome that change that’s meant to take place.
I want to offer you some consolation if you’re the one in your relationship who seems to be doing all the solving and seeking out of help. People are different in their strengths and also their limits. Sometimes people are just not capable of facing their feelings right away, or they are threatened by the change that needs to be done. And that’s not because they don’t want to – or that they don’t care about you and your relationship. Sometimes they are too damaged, too weak or afraid, or it takes them longer to arrive at the same understanding of the solution. People need to take their own path in their own time, and they need to be allowed to fail and still be loved and accepted, and at the very least forgiven if they are incapable. Even if they are intolerant to themselves.
I believe in hope when it comes to two people who love each other. If you’ve been struggling, it doesn’t mean that change is impossible, it means that you might need more time and the right support to arrive at the same place. We can only give what we got, but we can also LEARN to give what we didn’t get – and when we can feel safe and good about that process, amazing change happens. New and deeper bonds are formed. People absolutely can and do change – all the time. But it has to be something they want for themselves. The one thing you can count on is change. Even if you don’t believe they can, people will continue to change, life will continue to change and so will your relationship. You cannot predict what will be one day, from where you stand now. You cannot KNOW the capacity of another person. Humble yourself, let go of what’s unknown and welcome the truth.
If you’re wondering if you can save your current relationship based on how impossible it feels right now, in my opinion the only question you both have to answer is: is it worth it. Is this relationship worth giving up. Is it important enough for you to do the work. That’s it. It’s not about if it CAN be saved, it’s about whether or not you are willing to try and fail and then try some more. If both parties choose to check the “yes” box, then I believe you will find happiness once again. And that happiness will be new and different. You will come back together in a different form.
As we experience a relationship, we too are always growing and maturing – and as our needs change, and our lives change, so will the relationship. There are so many chapters– never assume you know everything about the limits of a person – from the stage you live in now. Instead– practice letting go. Witness your partner as they are – and make decisions based on that. Practice accepting what you don’t know and embracing the things you don’t have to control. It’s not your job to change someone else. It’s your job to take care of yourself, be honest with yourself, and do no harm. Make room for change to happen. Come from love and ask more of yourself than you think is necessary. When you get two people to do that – pretty much anything is possible.
Smile lovely friends! xo Sarah May B.