“Love isn’t finding a perfect person. It’s seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”
“So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.”
Jake and Katie were in a somber mood when they arrived for their first meeting with me. As soon as they walked into my office, Jake sauntered straight over to my credenza and plunked down a stack of papers similar to what a lawyer might do in court. I asked him if he would take a seat but he insisted on standing and began hurling invectives and accusations at his wife who was cowering at the far end of my sofa. He launched into a rant about her character and accused her of having an affair. She was aghast and I was speechless. Needless to say, the hour was replete with denial and finger pointing.
Their marriage seemed to swing back and forth from divorce to reconciliation like some bizarre pendulum from hell. This scorched landscape the couple created illuminated the striking difference between personal therapy and couple work. Individual sessions tend to be calm and reflective, but when a couple arrives it’s like plugging 10,000 volts of electricity into the wall. Equal to the intensity in the room are the sensitivity and reactivity to one another that can suddenly spike and in a nano-second careen wildly out of control. Most certainly I needed to make sure that what I said was supportive to both people or I could be watching one of their backsides as they might have leaped up and stalked out of the room at the drop of an errant sentence. Clearly, when it came to love relationships I was tapping into a whole other world. With this couple, most assuredly he knew he was right and he was quite convinced she was wrong. What this and other couples have taught me over the years is that there are definitely dos and don’ts when it comes to maintaining a loving relationship.
There are some classic mistakes that couples make and if they can be avoided they will go a long way toward maintaining a positive and loving relationship. So what are the things that couples should never do? Notwithstanding that rage, drugs, alcoholism, violence and infidelity are givens, here are some of the most important activities to avoid.
1. Refusing to look at your part in a problem or the need to be right. It does take two to tangle and most people would rather hang it on their partner than fall on their sword. Being right is never better than being kind, as the saying goes. Unless people are willing to listen and acknowledge what their partner is telling them, they may not be able to see what they are doing that is not working, thereby prolonging the problem until it ultimately breaks their connection to each other. The most poignant quality about relationships is how blind people can be when they are in conflict. The ability to stop and look at what you are doing is the most critical skill you can ever learn in a relationship. The best way to look at conflict resolution is from the point of view of what’s happening within yourself, what’s happening with the other person and then look at how your mutual states create a problem between one another. Once you can define the problem and consider what each of you can do to make it better, you can take action to put those agreements into practice.
2. Acting on impulse. When people walk out or threaten to end their relationship during an argument, act out, scream or call names, they are acting impulsively. This can mean two things: one, that they are throwing up a smokescreen so they don’t have to look at what they are doing, or two, they don’t want to feel embarrassed or humiliated because they are being exposed as weak, worthless or inadequate. When couples can stop, take a beat and calm down during conflicts then come back to the discussion, the outcome is more often positive. Make sure that compassion, understanding, respect and empathy are part of the equation. I ask couples to use the 20 minute rule. Take a time out, calm down, think about what’s going on then come back to the table and do some problem solving. When couples don’t take their emotions into account they will act them out instead.
3. Making assumptions. Defensive couples make assumptions about one another and rarely, if ever, check them out to see if they are actually true. I find that most people who are especially defensive know very little about their mate. They are so busy defending themselves that they rarely take the time to find out what the other person actually thinks or feels. These assumptions can take on a life of their own and remain a part of their system for years, even a lifetime. You may go to your grave knowing next to nothing about who you have spent your life with. Check out those assumptions to see if it’s something that you feel about yourself that you are overlaying onto your relationship or that it could be true. My rule is when in doubt check it out, and everything we think about the other person is in doubt. Try to put your assumptions in the form of a question. “Do you really think I’m crazy?”
4. The Blame Game. Couples often blame the other one for what they may very well be guilty of themselves. Couples who blame each other for real or imagined mistakes feel so incredibly righteous and superior to one another. They ultimately fail to see that blame is a defense against intimacy, dependency or being seen as less than the other. Their defense may tell them that they are smarter, better and right, but underneath they often feel quite the opposite. Blame acts as a safety net to avoid being hurt, judged or abandoned. Blame is a form of devaluation and the more couples devalue, the less they have to need each other. If you know that blame is a defense against need and intimacy, then you can stop yourself before it starts and instead move toward your partner and not away. Criticism, judgment and blame are negative states that revolve around an idealized way to be.
5. Withdrawing, withholding and passivity. These three processes are the ways that people disconnect emotionally from one another. Disconnection kills love over time. Notwithstanding that they are destructive to the relationship, nothing will improve under these conditions. Withholding sex, affection, truth, care and concern until you get what you want or to punish are activities that breed resentment and anger. Frequently, the recipient of this kind of treatment will become enraged. Then they are seen as crazy when they are simply responding to the way they are being treated. If your partner is angry at you, most likely you did something to piss them off. Daniel Wile, who wrote the classic work Couples Therapy, put it best when he said that it’s not that someone is acting crazy, it’s just that they are suffering from emotional malnutrition. Withholding love, affection and care will drive someone to do things they would not normally do. In all relationships, personal responsibility must be the driving force behind conflict resolution.
What Jake and Katie didn’t know was how to see their behavior as a metaphor for what was ailing their relationship. What they needed to see was their failure to connect and his need to be right and righteous had lead them to the behavior that was unfolding in my office. The ultra sensitive and reactive nature of relationships requires that we handle them with kindness and graciousness. Couples experience the full array of emotions as every wound is poked and prodded in all intimate relationships. Couples move in and out of intellectual and emotional terrains like ciphers knowing so little about their meaning. Our instinct is to look away. Yet to find the intrinsic meaning of the wild and wooly nature of emotion while expressing what it has to do with our needs and wants places each couple at the center of their relationship world. Everyone would like to think that relationships are simple and with some stitches here or there, all will be well.
Experience has taught me that relationships are complex, messy, thorny and sensitive. Relationship harmony requires that couples soften their words and learn to soothe themselves before they speak. Emotions, like anger, inform couples about what matters, what ails them and what they want and need. In that sense they are barometers as to how your inner world works. Susan Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy writes that emotion shapes and organizes our experience and our connection to others. If couples truly listen to their emotions, defenses, and righteousness they will lead inevitably to relationship redemption. Couples can choose to be safe, protected, even noble in their indignation or they can choose to find the meaning that their emotions contain which will inevitably lead them to the deeper longings that lie just underneath.