Probably the majority of people who come to me for professional help are motivated by a relationship in some stage of breaking down. I’ve heard more often than I can count about how wonderful things were in the beginning, but how, over time, problems arose. The consequences of these negative evolutions run the gamut from constant bickering to outside affairs to calls to divorce attorneys – and sometimes to physical violence.
I decided it’s time to dedicate a blog post to relationships, why they don’t last and what it takes to assure that they do. In the process, we’ll look at how many of the long-term problems in relationships are caused by unhealthy short-term decisions.
According to the American Psychological Association: Healthy marriages are good for couples’ mental and physical health. They are also good for children; growing up in a happy home protects children from mental, physical, educational and social problems. However, about 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce. The divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher.
Both in my experience and by these figures, an unfortunately high number of people, aren’t getting relationships right – and as a result, are missing out on the benefits of mature, healthy, generous love. Keep those words ‘mature, healthy, generous love’ in mind, because that’s the goal. Let’s look at what it takes to get there.
Think back to a time when you were falling in love. Falling in love – the earliest phase of a romantic relationship — is about pleasure: the pleasure we feel at an intense mutual attraction to another – physical and emotional. We happily anticipate the potential of the connection to give us a feeling of belonging to something bigger than our individual selves and the possibility of feeling safe in the relationship. We tend to open ourselves up to the loved one and allow ourselves to become vulnerable.
Falling in love can happen quickly and it seems effortless. We think of it as something that happens to us and that we should be able to navigate automatically. Rarely do we think that we may have to do some significant preparation to succeed at love. The fact that so many of us don’t do the foundational work that can assure success in selecting the right partner and nurturing the relationship long-term is at the root of the dismal stats cited earlier.
That work has to do with getting our relationships with ourselves on a solid footing. More about what that takes in a bit. But let’s look at what often happens when the ‘falling in love’ phase collides with longer-term reality.
Eventually, and inevitably, we’ll experience a situation with our loved one that is definitively not pleasurable, in fact is shockingly painful. Whatever the cause – something said, some sin of omission, something mis-heard, a surprising difference of opinion on a matter large or small – our instinct is to immediately protect ourselves from the pain. We may shut down and respond with the ‘silent treatment’. We may lash out and shout in anger. These are defensive measures, and they are not the stuff that ‘mature, healthy, generous love’ is made of.
But if defensive reactions are instinctual, how do we keep from behaving defensively in the painful moments in our relationships? The answers, which I’ll share soon, sound simple. They’re not. Being able to get beyond or avoid defensive reactions takes maturity that many of us have not yet attained. So, what we must do is that work on ourselves to become mature men and women capable of enduring love. We do the work so that we begin relationships with others from the solid foundation of an enduring love of ourselves.
Going back to the American Psychological Association quote: Healthy marriages are good for couples’ mental and physical health. They are also good for children; growing up in a happy home protects children from mental, physical, educational and social problems.
Unfortunately, many, many, many of us grow up in families where the parents do not have the emotional skills and wherewithal to model ‘mature, healthy, generous’ love for us or to love us unconditionally. This has consequences. Also unfortunate is that we become emotionally wounded in emotionally negative childhood environments in ways that cause issues that we may not even be aware of on a conscious level.
Remember that defensiveness when we have bad moments with our lovers and how instinctual it is. It’s instinctual in adulthood because it was instinctual in childhood. We defend ourselves from the hurts our parents inflict on us – often unknowingly because they’ve never learned to have a healthy loving relationship with themselves. You can see how emotional problems can flow down the generations unless someone decides to stem the flow.
We adopt behaviors to cope with our childhood wounds. But if we don’t address the wounds, themselves, the pain they represent bubbles or even boils up when situations remind us of them. The emotional wounds we don’t deal with keep us feeling not ok about ourselves. They remind us of how unworthy or unloved or scared we felt as children.
So, what do we need to do after the falling in love phase is over when we have to figure out how to make decisions in the short-term in our relationship that will assure, support and protect long-term love? How do we behave in those painful moments when we are apt to become defensive?
Feel the pain but do not act out defensively. Learn to pause before reacting to consider whether the reality of the moment is as you’re perceiving it is the result of being reminded of a painful experience early in life. As you pause and consider your response, think about what you want to happen in the next moment, year, decade or life-long.
Listen to your partner. Consider the possibility you may have misinterpreted something you heard.
In that painful moment, ask, ‘What am I responsible for?’ You may need to process the situation for a while to decide. But when you figure it out, own it and express it.
These are all loving and giving actions. They’re generous and they’re respectful to both yourself and your partner. If your partner is capable of healthy, mature, generous love, they will appreciate your loving approach to a problem and will respond in kind.
Now of course, it’s possible that once the falling in love is over and you spend some time living life together you may learn that the one you’ve chosen is not willing or capable of healthy, mature, generous love. They have no ability or are not courageous enough to look at what they must understand about themselves in order to love themselves and another.
If that becomes crystal clear, then the loving thing to do for oneself is to end the relationship and move on alone, while your loving relationship with yourself is intact. You owe it to your self to give yourself the opportunity to connect with someone capable of giving love to you as you give it to them.
Earlier I said that the answers to successfully navigating relationship issues may seem simple, but they are not. From my experience, most people who have relationship problems are not capable of traveling the path to love of self on their own. It’s a long and arduous journey that requires a talented and experienced guide. But the rewards of reaching the goal of enduring mature, healthy, generous love are so rich that you’ll be glad you sought, found and worked with a skilled professional to get you there.
As a final note, I’ll once again quote my own enduring truth and the cornerstone of my every belief about relationship success: We are here to love, and to love is to give.