conflict

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.

Conflict and Resolution in a Nutshell

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

It is the nature of relationships to include conflict.  In fact, conflict is a necessary component of intimacy and closeness in relationship.  If you are to become emotionally close with another person, it is necessary to come into conflict with them, because conflict is the place where my uniqueness bumps up against your uniqueness, which by definition is different than mine.

Conflict is the place where we figure out how to do life together in the presence of these differences.  If ever these differences are eroded away or eliminated (what many would describe as “resolved”), we are not actually connected with each other. One of us has been either consumed or effaced by the other.

Two objects in contact with each other generate friction and heat as they move independently in that contact.  If there is no friction, there is no contact.  If we never engage in or experience conflict with our significant other, we are not emotionally engaged with them on a meaningful level.  We are not in contact.

conflict

This being said, there are two ways of doing conflict: Well or Poorly.  Conflict done well strengthens the relationship.  Conflict done poorly decimates it.  In order to do conflict well, we need to find a way toward resolution.Fingers

Agreement is NOT resolution. 

The problem most people encounter is that when they try to resolve conflict by reaching some kind of agreement, they are working toward an unsupportable solution.  Agreement is not necessary to reach resolution.  If we try to find a place where we agree on everything, we end up working against our own uniqueness, and we cannot sustain that forever.  Agreement sometimes happens, but when we hold that as the only standard for resolution, we will end up frustrated and hopeless.

“Agree to disagree” is not resolution.  

If we agree to disagree, we create “dead spaces” in the relationship where we can never come into contact.  In this arrangement, the solution to conflict is to avoid it, which simply cannot lead to resolution any more than the South road leads North.  If avoiding conflict is our goal and our standard for good relationship (i.e., being “nice”, “happy”, or “positive”), we will never experience a truly connected, intimate relationship.

Compromise cannot lead to resolution. 

When we try to use compromise to reach resolution, we are usually operating on the presumption that “everyone loses something” and “no one leaves the table completely happy”.  Compromises reached in this way are generally composed of requests or demands that we make of one another.  When we agree to a compromise, we are saying that we are going to “try to be different” for the sake of the other.  While this sounds good on the surface, what is happening under the surface is that our uniqueness is not being acknowledged and/or validated.  Because of this, the changes are often unsustainable. We become frustrated, exhausted, and resentful in the long run (consumed), or we simply “kill” that part of our identity for the sake of the other (effaced).

Real Resolution

Real resolution is achieved when we genuinely and deeply understand each other’s position, thoughts, and feelings, and can acknowledge them as valid, even though we may not agree.  When we really understand the other person, we often find a willingness to work together and move toward a solution that is not forced or demanded, but organic to each participant, and therefore sustainable. Any changes we make grow out of this deep understanding of the other’s need, and are generally “gifts” offered by the participants themselves based on this knowledge and kindness. This leads to gratitude and a building of affection between the parties (read, Intimacy, Closeness, Connection).

Kevin_Richardson_with_hyenas

To say it concisely; once I deeply understand and give credit to how you think and feel, and presuming I care about what you think and how you feel, I find myself willing to shift how I relate to you.  When we each are able to do this for the other, we are no longer in conflict.  We are working together, and the conflict is resolved.