loyalty

Why are some relationships just harder?

 

Why are some relationships just harder?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

I’ve recently seen some articles asserting that ‘if people just communicated and committed to their relationship, then their problems would go away.’ While communication and commitment are very important, I think this overlooks the many people who are committed and communicating but still struggle.

In fact, I find that many people that come in for couples counseling are deeply committed and are communicating very clearly. Then why are these relationships still difficult?

We have outside stressors

Many of the sources of relationship difficulty have nothing to do with the effort invested in the relationship. In fact, studies show that some of the biggest predictors of relationship difficulty are largely outside of the couple’s control:

  • Poor health
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage after 20 weeks
  • Low income
  • Multiple children with ADHD
  • Partner with mental health issues
  • Death of a child

If your friend seems to have an easier relationship than you, it may have more to do with your different stressors than it does with different effort. Actually, I find that most couples that come to counseling have been working tirelessly on their relationship. If they weren’t trying, they wouldn’t be coming to counseling. But with major or persistent stressors, communication can become a minefield. And it’s not always as easy as learning a few communication skills.

I am overjoyed when I see people who have easier relationships. But there is something uniquely encouraging about a couple that is still trying after years of difficulty. It takes a special type of courage and commitment to seek the help you need to better love your partner, even when it’s hard.

Our families are different

The families we’re born into also impact the ease or difficulty of our relationships. For better or worse, parents model what relationships are like, and some people have better models than others. We can choose to act differently than our parents, but in stressful times we tend to fall back into the patterns we saw modeled (or against the pattern, in an equally harmful overcorrection).  

Parents teach us what love is, how to show it, and how to receive it. They also teach us how to view ourselves. If our parents were neglectful or abusive, they gave us a distorted picture of our self. Without working through these issues, this lack of self-worth will lead us to look for that worth in our partner—creating challenging and often volatile relationships.

This requires more than a simple resolution to change. It takes awareness of how our families impacted our view of the world, relationship, and our self. Since our families tend to be our normal, we often need an outside perspective to help us heal from this impact. This doesn’t mean that you are too weak to handle it alone; it means that you are strong enough to pursue what is necessary to change it.  

We get stuck in a cycle

Couples often get stuck in patterns of relating that rob them of their joy in connecting. These cycles have nothing to do with their effort, compatibility, or how much they love each other. In fact, the fear of losing the other is often what escalates the conflict.  

The most common negative cycle is the pursue/distance (or attack/withdraw) pattern. People usually aren’t even aware that they are in this cycle. Most often, each partner simply sees the other as being unnecessarily critical or distant. It is hard for people stuck in this pattern to see the bigger picture.

Beneath this cycle, both partners truly value their connection, but they seek to preserve it in different ways: the pursuer by attacking  (to get through to them) and the distancer by withdrawing (to avoid conflict). Their mutual attempts to save the relationship (seen as criticism or lack of care by the other), only escalate the problem as each person doubles down on their ‘go-to’ strategy for preserving the relationship.

In these cases, demands for more communication will only push the withdrawer deeper into his bunker. Instead, we need help gaining awareness of our own role in the harmful cycle, so that we can interrupt it and develop a healthier pattern of relating.

Everybody’s relationship is different

It isn’t useful to compare our relationships to others, because everyone’s history and circumstances are different. Learning a few communication skills may be very helpful for someone whose relationship has had few stressors, had model parents, and hasn’t been stuck in a cycle.

For others, there will be too much anxiety and conflict in the relationship for communication skills to be the answer. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, that you don’t love each other, or that you aren’t compatible. Relationships are messy, and life often leaves us in places where we need help sorting out the pieces. In my opinion, one of the surest signs that someone loves and is committed to their partner is that they are willing to seek help during the hard times.

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

Blood is Thicker than Water, Part II

by: Jonathan Hart, LPC

Back in February, I wrote a blog called “Blood is Thicker than Water”.  You can find it here.  It might be a good idea to check that post out before reading on.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! Just in case you didn’t actually go read the previous post, I’ll give you a quick summary:  The main thrust of that post is that we keep “holding out for healthy relationship” with family far longer than we do with anyone else because family relationships are so vitally important. We still maintain our limits, and we don’t settle for less than the real deal, and we keep at it.

I used the image of the vehicle that starts making funny noises.  We don’t “just deal with it” when that starts to happen.  We do what is necessary to get it fixed.  The problem is that some things on cars (and in relationships) are not fixable.  This brings us to the question in family relationships: At what point is persisting in relationship futile or foolish based on the other person’s lack of willingness to move toward healthy?

The short form of the question is, “When do I quit trying?”

The answer is, “It Depends.”  It depends on the actual nature of the relationship.  We have varying levels of intimacy with different people.  Some are genuinely close and emotionally connected.  Some are truly intimate.  For some relationships, deep intimacy is not expected or required.  A friend of the family might stop by for a visit, but we might feel odd if they were to begin sharing their closest struggles and marriage woes.  It would feel “too close”.

Levels of Intimacy

Some Immediate Family relationships feel “too close” like this: “She may be Mom, but I don’t tell her things like this because she couldn’t handle it/I’d never hear the end of it/she’d tell all her friends/she’d use it against me…”

The categories in the diagram do not describe the blood relationship, but the nature of the relationship.  Dad may be a nice guy, but we have to keep the conversation about sports or things go south in a hurry, then the actual relationship may be more in the “Acquaintance” circle than “Immediate Family”.  I can have friends that are so deep and close that they actually belong in the “Immediate Family” Circle.  The functional question is “who are they to you, really?”

This can be a challenging question to answer, especially if the family culture says that “Siblings Equals Close, period”.  It’s especially hard because deep down we *want* real and close relationships with close family and friends, no matter what the actual relationship is.   Pretending the relationship is closer than it really is becomes wearying and is always silly. We have to start by acknowledging the actual nature of the relationship, before we can proceed.  Once you’ve done that, then you can begin the process.

    1. Relax.  Start letting yourself be OK with relating according to the nature of the relationship.  You can release any guilt you may experience because the relationship isn’t closer.  You can’t make it happen alone.  The guilt only makes you go back to pretending something is true that isn’t.
    2. Reach.  Imagine what the next tier closer might be, and begin reaching for it.  This is important: don’t try to go from “Acquaintance” to “Close Personal Friend” all at once.  You’ll scare them.  Only reach for one tier at a time.   
    3. Give it time.  Deepening intimacy and connectedness is a process and generally does not happen overnight.  You may be hungry for a better sense of connection, but they might not realize what’s missing.
    4. Pay attention.  If they flat-out reject any overtures or offers of legitimate closeness, if they accept and then take advantage of your vulnerability, or if they continue to identify you as the problem (the “Take it or Leave it” stance), this may be as close as is possible for the foreseeable future.
    5. Repeat steps 1-4.  Ideally, the other person will eventually be able to recognize what you are doing and reciprocate.  IF they do, everybody wins better relationships.  If they do not…
    6. Repeat steps 1-4 in increasing time increments.  Maybe you make the offer of “closer” once a month for a while, and get the same answer every time.  Maintain your current position for several months and then offer again.  Continue this process and lengthen the time between offers a little at a time, and you will eventually discover the equilibrium point at which they are willing to operate with you.

This is effectively the “process answer” to the question of “When do I quit trying?”  This may mean that you will never have a “Daddy” relationship with your father, but you can operate kindly and respectfully as acquaintances.  You’ll have to grieve the loss of your father (Yes, grieve.  As though he died), but you won’t be expecting an acquaintance to be a “Daddy” to you, either.

Ultimately, unless the relationship has been vicious, brutal, fully abandoned, or otherwise horrible, you are never completely out of relationship with someone who is related by blood.  Even in the case of the horrible relationships above, even in the absence of any contact whatsoever, there is always a biological connection.  Even at its best, navigating these relationships is complicated and messy.  Trying to keep up the appearance of a “Normal Family” can be exhausting when “normal” isn’t true … and let’s be honest…  What does “normal” even mean, anyway!?

Concept image of a lost and confused signpost against a blue cloudy sky.

So, step back, find your footing, acknowledge what is true of the relationship, and then carefully, slowly, reach for more.  You will either gain a closer relationship, or be able to relax into the best relationship that is legitimately possible with the person in question.

Look out for Blood is Thicker than Water, Part 3: What Does Holding Out for Healthy Look Like, Anyway?

 

The Cubs Killed my Fandom

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

I grew up in Chicago watching the Cubs play baseball.  As a kid, I remember hating the fact that baseball interrupted my afternoon cartoons all the time (this was before Wrigley had lights). I watched some of the games, and I remember sometimes getting excited when they would get ahead.  But inevitably, they blew it in the 8th or the 9th, and the disappointment was bitter.  In 1984 (Yes, I had to look that up: http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/CHC/), they came close to winning it all, but they blew that, too.  I haven’t “followed” them, or anyone else, since.

Because of recurring disappointment, I lost my enthusiasm for sports.  I do not consider myself a “fan” of any team.  There are few names and no stats that are readily recognizable to me.  The only reason I know Pujols plays first base is because I live in Saint Louis, and I went to a game once when my son won free tickets for us.  There are other factors that have influenced my lack of affiliation with the sporting world, but I credit the Cubs with most of it: one can only handle so much disappointment before shutting those feelings down.

The trouble is that I don’t experience the high of a close game, the joy of celebrating a victory pulled from the jaws of defeat.  When the Cards suddenly hit their hot streak this year and pulled out a win for the Wild Card slot (I confess that I don’t really know what that even means), I nodded and smiled.  When the Rays did the same (and I likewise confess that I didn’t know there was a major league baseball team named the Rays until earlier this year), I have friends in Tampa whose celebrations resounded on Facebook.  I nodded and smiled.

A basic principle that is demonstrated by this story is that risk and disappointment seem to be inseparable from joy.  We cannot shut down disappointment without likewise shutting down joy.  Joy and pain operate on the same switch. We tend to protect ourselves from hurt, which is natural and helpful in the short term.  When this shutting down becomes a way of life, however, it robs us of our joy in the long run.

People let us down.  People harm us.  Trusting others with our hearts and with our dreams often leads to pain.   We rightly withhold ourselves from those who recklessly and selfishly feed upon us.  When we generalize this distrust (“All men are predators.”, “All women are emasculating.”, “Trust no one.”, “Look out for number one because no one else will.”) we begin to lose our capacity to experience joy.   We lose out when we do not risk entrusting ourselves to anyone out of fear that they, too, will hurt us.

It seems like the greater risk, the longer wait, and the deeper disappointment all lead to a reciprocally greater joy. I think of the Red Sox when they finally broke the curse of the Bambino (and I don’t really know why he cursed them).  The fans spilled into the streets for hours and days.  Smiles, laughter, and an entire city’s communal joy resounded.  I can’t imagine what Chicago will look like if that ever happens for the Cubs.  It will be a madhouse.  I will likely smile and nod.

What parts of your heart are you withholding, and from whom?  Where is your joy deadened?  Is life kind of flat for you?  When was the last time a celebratory shout left your lips before you realized it?  When have you felt your pulse quicken, or realized that there was a goofy grin glued to your face? These are just some diagnostic questions to help you sort out the places you are hiding from risk and pain at the expense of your joy.

Will I ever be a fan again?  Maybe.  Honestly, it probably won’t be with the Cubs.  I might risk it for a team that won’t interrupt my cartoons, or one that wins more than once a century.  I do, however, envy those Die Hard Cubs fans if and when their curse is broken (or when the Illuminati finally decide to take pity and let them win, depending on your conspiracy theory subscription).  I envy them the exponential joy they will experience. They have been waiting and hoping faithfully for a long time.  The fans deserve it.  Some call them fools, but I laud them for their persistence and loyalty.  It will be a mind-bending ride.