WHY RELATIONSHIPS ARE THE HARDEST THING YOU WILL EVER DO (AND WHY THEY’RE WORTH IT!)

Have you ever spoken with someone who has just given birth? Often, you will hear them swear that they will never get pregnant again. But the reality is that most do repeat the experience–more than just once! Perhaps one reason for this is that the pain and suffering of giving birth and having an infant are temporary, with rewards that may increase as time goes on. We don’t mind a little suffering if there is a reward for it down the line!

So what is the story regarding relationships? 

Well, on paper they look amazing. We are drawn to them because they offer safety, security, acceptance, love, sex, family, community, meaning, and more. Like babies, we love them when we see them out in the world, but the reality of having one in your home 24/7 is a whole different story

And yet we keep seeking them out, and getting into them, only to find out that once we move through the limerence phase, they get difficult. Why do they become so difficult? Why can’t they continue to feel like floating on clouds? The answer to this is complex and differs somewhat from person to person, but I hope in this article to give you an understanding of the process that can cause distress but, when handled well, also lead to “real love”. 

WHAT WE DO WHEN THREATENED IS NATURAL, BUT IT ALSO CAUSES DISCONNECTION: Our brains are wired to scan the environment for threats–that is how we have survived over the years. As mammals, we have very few ways to protect ourselves from threats–no claws, no fangs, and soft bellies that are exposed dues to our upright stance. We are not even very fast or strong! So we evolved to have large brains to help us outwit predators and avoid dangerous situations. 

It worked pretty well until we got into “modern” relationships, where our “safe person” can also be our greatest threat at times. When this happens, our hunter-gatherer brains can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat, and reacts by shutting down rational thought and activating our fight, flight, or freeze response

While this response protected us in the past, in modern relationships it creates a separation from our partner(s), due to the fact that when we are in this dysregulated state, we cannot learn or listen, and our primary goal is self-protection. The result is disconnection. Closeness, the feeling of being understood and cared for, is out of reach, and this is why our natural responses to threats generally do not work in relationship. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, since closeness is often reached by having difficult conversations or healthy conflict. 

VULNERABILITIES AND TRAUMA ARE TRIGGERED: Why does our defense system get triggered so strongly by our partners? Why does something that protects us from harm also create disconnection? This is not some cosmic joke on people who are in relationships. It is instead just an unexpected outcome of being in a modern form of relationship. Let’s look at what happens.

In our hunter-gatherer past, we were in relationship with many people, and our needs were spread among the group. Our safety, security, and sense of belonging was not reliant on just one person, but instead tied to many. Because of this, a conflict with one individual was likely less threatening–we did not feel as though we were in great danger. 

Today, the majority of our needs and wants, our requirements for safety and security, and our sense of belonging, are all tied to one primary partner. (To read more about this idea, please check out Esther Perel’s excellent article: Why Modern Love is So Damn Hard). A relational breach, even a small one, can present an enormous sense of threat to our stability and well-being. We can feel as though the conflict will leave us untethered to our anchor, to drift alone and unprotected.

What exactly is the source of this feeling of unsafety? Our vulnerabilities are exposed. Regardless of whether we are attacked, or doing the attacking ourselves, we become hyperaware of our vulnerabilities in the moment and move to protect them. This is one process that makes relationship so hard; in order to have healthy conflict that results in greater closeness, it is required that we talk about the vulnerability that has been triggered by another, so that other can then respond to us.

What we usually do instead of talking about what is coming up for us is criticize the other, which only pushes them away. And when we are criticized or attacked, instead of probing to find out what is underneath the anger, we often get defensive, essentially walling off our compassionate selves from our partner.  

This is compounded when there are negative memories in the past that we experienced as traumatic, because our instinct to attack and defend are heightened, and the trigger-wires for each is much shorter. Trauma also takes us out of the moment and back to the past event, making us unable to respond with interest, caring, and empathy. If we are unaware that trauma is even being triggered, guilt and shame can be added to the mix of negative emotions, further pulling us out of the conversation and away from our partner. 

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The takeaway from this section is that when our vulnerabilities and traumas are triggered in relationship, if we don’t know how to talk about what we are feeling in the moment, any conversation with our partner, if we have one, is going to be much more difficult. 

YOU ARE DIFFERENT FROM YOUR PARTNER: The final aspect of relationship to be considered in this article is how our differences make being with someone harder. Why do differences create difficulty? Mostly because they do not show themselves in the beginning stage of a relationship! And if they do show up, our brain has a tendency to minimize them since its one goal is to bond with the other. 

The reality is that every partner you have will be different from you in both big and small ways. The challenge comes with deciding, once the differences show up, how to respond to them. There are three main ways of responding that I want to highlight in this article:

  1. Criticizing the difference by judging it.
  2. Saying nothing about how it bothers you and building up silent resentments.
  3. Showing curiosity about the difference, then deciding if that is something you can live with (accept). 

Only one of the above actually works to bring couples closer–can you guess which one? If you guessed #3, then you are correct! And yet this is the response that rarely gets practiced, and this is why differences, despite their inevitability, make relationships hard. 

Why are differences in our partners threatening to us? Our brains are wired to detect potential threats or dangers in the environment, and back in the hunter-gatherer days, someone who was “different” could be an enemy from another tribe or group. Noticing differences allowed us to assess our level of safety, letting us proceed with caution and keeping us from giving our trust to another prematurely. 

Our brain wiring has not changed as much as our culture and our way of being in relationship, so it is important to find a way to “bypass” our natural defenses at times when they are activated.  Otherwise we will seek to distance ourselves at the very moment when we need connection and closeness. Relationships are hard because our brains often tell us to do something that damages the connection. 

Understanding this is critical to making a choice against your natural instincts, and towards your relationship. 

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So is there good news? Yes! The good news is that even though our brains work against our relationship goals sometimes, they also give us the ability to choose a healthier option. This takes practice and teamwork, and is dependent on the couples’ commitment to a mutually shared relationship vision. But it is doable. And in my opinion, the work is worth it. 

Relationships may be the hardest thing you will ever do, but the rewards, when you do the work together, are life-changing, liberating, and empowering. 

THE BEST GIFTS YOU CAN GIVE

During the holidays, it is typical to give gifts to people we love. This can include partners in an intimate relationship or marriage, of course. Many times I have heard clients say to me, “I don’t know what to give my wife/husband/partner!” This statement always makes me sad, because I wonder why we don’t know what gift(s) our partner would love to get! How can we not know what makes one another feel joy?

This being said, I also understand the amount of pressure that many feel to “get it right” when it comes to gifts. Rather than being an expression of generosity and love, gifts sometimes are a testing ground for the level of commitment one has in the relationship. Good grief! No wonder anxiety, for many people, spikes during the holidays!

This is why I wanted to write about gifts that rarely disappoint–gifts that offer what is universally desired and wanted, regardless of culture, age, or race. They are gifts that can ensure that all other presents are received with gratitude and appreciation, because the act of gift-giving will no longer be a litmus test for how well one is loved or known.

What are these gifts? Read on…

THE GIFTS THAT NEED NO WRAPPING PAPER: Despite our technological advancement, we are still mammals who require caring in order to thrive. Unfortunately, we live in an economy that convinces us we only need products. If that were true, why is anxiety at such high levels, given that many of us can get any product we want at any time?

What I notice is that many people use products to counteract isolation, loneliness, insecurity, and stress. This works in the short run, but rarely has a lasting effect. But I can understand the appeal when person-to-person caring is either not available or not offered, even when one is in a relationship.

If genuine caring is what we really need to thrive, then what are the key elements? Let’s look at four that are important in any loving relationship.

NURTURING: Nurturing is easier than most of us think. It requires more that we simply show up and less that we try to do something.  If you think that nurturing means “making someone feel better”, then allow me to suggest an alternative meaning. When we are upset, it is often very hard to feel better, and thinking that we should feel better can make it even worse. Nurturing is not about making someone feel better. Rather, it can be thought of as a way of being present with someone in pain. Not doing anything, just being there. And when someone is in pain, usually the most helpful way to be there is to say, “I am here with you.” 

This five-word phrase is what we most want and need to hear when we are hurting and feeling all alone and misunderstood, because it does not require that we be or do anything in return. It does not force us to justify our pain or take care of someone who is caring for us; instead it just lets us know that we are not alone in our pain, and that can be very comforting. It is a way to show your trust in another’s emotional intelligence, while showing them that they can trust you to handle what they are feeling. Nurturing is comfort, in the form of presence. “I am here.” 

EMPATHY/UNDERSTANDING: Empathy is related to nurturing, but it is not the same thing. It is part of the process though, in that it is what can come from being with someone in their pain–empathy is the experience of feeling, on some level, what the other is feeling. Not just understanding it, but actually feeling it, and holding it. It is the process of seeing the problem from the others’ perspective so that we can understand why they are in pain. This understanding gives us the best chance of responding in a way that actually does relieve pain.

I have seen countless couples upset with one another because well-meaning efforts to comfort their partner and respond to their pain land with a thud. This is not because they don’t love their partner, but because they don’t fully understand what the pain is about–in order to relieve hurting we have to know how and why someone is hurting! The how is found out through an empathetic connection, and the why is uncovered by the understanding that comes from empathy. To be on the receiving end of this is nothing short of the greatest experience of being loved.

INTEREST: The type of interest I am talking about is not the kind you get from your bank, where you get a return on your investment. It is instead the opposite kind of interest–it is a way to invest in your relationship in order to get a return. What is that return? It can be boundless regarding what you get from your partner and what they get from you. The power of interest is that it is the action-based expression of love. It is well and good to tell someone that you love them, but it is an entirely different thing to show it in such a way that they feel loved. 

Many couples talk about their “love languages“, and certainly these are good to know about in yourself and in each other.  But the truth is that we don’t always express or respond to just one love language, so even if you know them you can miss the mark with your partner–this is where interest fills in the gaps! Interest is fueled by your genuine and caring curiosity about your partner: what makes them tick? What brings joy to their lives? What upsets them? What is their favorite and worst part of themselves? What are their vulnerabilities?

Interest is the means to this end: making sure that your partner feels truly loved by you, not just for what you like or what you see, but for who they are. (To read my previous full post about Interest, please click HERE.)

RESPECT: I saved this one for last, because it is possibly the most important element in caring–you could say that it is the tent-pole element under which all other elements fall–if you respect your partner and their inner world, then nurturing, empathy, understanding,  and interest will more naturally follow.

What is respect? In the simplest terms, it is act of honoring another’s differences as valid. Respect does not require that we agree with or even like another’s differences, but it does require that we recognize and appreciate them as part of our beloved. Why would we do this? Because this is what real love is–caring about another’s well-being not because they are exactly like us or because they make us feel good or sexy, but because their well-being is important to us! This process is ignited by the initial bonding process, but it is cemented into being over time, as the bonding becomes attune-ment.

Respect leads you to real love.. It is not co-dependent to feel joy when you make your partner truly happy, and sometimes this requires catering to differences we don’t easily understand. Interest can help foster respect for the ways you and your partner diverge. We often find that the differences are not so different at all–that they are tied to shared needs and values. Certainly there are real and perceived threats that work against this understanding, but if partners allow their interactions, responses, and agreements to be guided by respect, then those threats will not present any real challenge to the relationship.

Respect, in action, will discourage sarcasm, needling, taking things personally, and misunderstanding, and will mutually encourage and strengthen all the elements of caring.

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The elements described above need to be intentional choices, because our brain is wired to be biased toward suspicion and threats (even if they are not real), and this is where couples often need help in choosing. As a couples therapist, I help couples (and individuals) understand the benefits of taking a stand against threats. It can be very hard to set aside our self-protection in relationship, but by regularly making this choice, and having a partner who can then respond accordingly, we can choose nurturing, empathy/understanding, interest, and respect more often. It becomes easier, the threats feel less threatening, the connection becomes stronger, and the rewards become greater!

These are the best expressions of love we can give to one another during the holidays, and all throughout the year, and they don’t require any wrapping. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that couples therapy is the wrapping paper for these gifts. This is the best gift you can give to one another–it is a way to say this relationship matters to me, it matters enough to work on, and I want to work on it with you.

Who wouldn’t want to receive that gift?

 

HOW TO ALIGN GOALS

Seeing eye to eye can be tough at times!

Falling in love can be like a dream, in that we often feel as though we have found our “other half” or “lost self” because it seems as though we share every single goal with our new partner. I remember when I was in my twenties I would meet someone and not be able to imagine ever having a conflict because the pairing felt so well matched. Of course, in time conflict did occur, and when this happens it can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under us!

I often tell the couples I work with that when things like this happen, it is only bad news if you don’t know what to do with it. In other words, conflict and differences do not have to be deal-breakers, they can in fact bring you closer together if you talk about them respectfully and with curiosity. The truth is that there is nobody who is exactly like us in every way–there are always going to be differences.

But what happens when goals aren’t aligned? Not sharing a like of action movies is very different from not sharing a like of children! What if one of you wants to move out of the city? Or change careers? How about when one person becomes religious or leaves the religion you shared when you got together? These issues are not just “preferences”, they are often linked to what is most important to us. How do you navigate these shifts in core values?

It can be challenging, but it is not impossible, and it all depends on knowing how to talk to one another. Guess what, we usually don’t know how. I often will work with couples for weeks or months to help them discuss divergent goals and values, but here are a few key points that can help you right out of the gate. 

BE CURIOUS RATHER THAN JUDGEMENTAL: Curiosity is your best friend in a relationship, especially when it comes to discussing differences! Our brain is wired to feel threatened by differences, so successful conversations require making conscious choices about how we listen to one another. If one of you wants to travel the world and the other prefers to focus on building a home together in one place, it helps to dig a little beneath the conflict. Curiosity pushes judgement aside because it goes beneath the surface difference to the shared humanity underneath. Willing compromises and solutions to problems are possible from a place of shared perspective and understanding.

We are meaning-assigning creatures, and in today’s world where our roles in society are increasingly up to us to decide, it can be difficult to build an identity or know where we stand in relation to others. Some people set goals as a way to ease that process, and it can work, but it can get messy when our identity and values are linked to what we do. Differences in goals can feel like a personal attack on what we value, but they rarely are–they are just differences that have yet to be explored and understood. 

How couples talk about this is critical, as it can divide them or connect them, depending on how they do it. What should they be curious about in these conversations? 

FIND COMMON AREAS AND OVERLAPS: Underneath every goal is a desire for a certain experience or feeling, and exploring these can help to reveal areas of commonality and overlap. This is important because commonality and overlap can connect you to one another and weaken the fear that your differences are deal-breakers. 

In my experience with couples, there is always commonality, because we are all human! Goals, no matter how different, tend to work toward similar meanings and feelings: feeling valued, purposeful, creative, stimulated, etc. If couples can see past the surface look of the goal, they will often discover shared meaning. (If they don’t, then that is also useful information to have as you make decisions about the future of the relationship!)

This is why constructive conversations about goals look for areas of overlap rather than areas of difference. In order to have these conversations, it helps to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and to hold the idea that they are with you, and not against you. The way we approach conversations if influenced by how we think about conversations!

WORK TOWARD COMPROMISE AND DECIDE WHAT YOU CAN GIVE UP: I want to address the concept of compromise briefly, as it comes up in so many discussions with couples. Most people have half the concept of compromise down: you give up something you want in order to get something. But there is another half that is necessary if you want the compromise to result in connection instead of resentment, and that is that the compromise must be willing.

A willing compromise does not mean that you have to agree with the other or even like the compromise, it just means that you do it willingly. This is the key to avoiding resentment and contempt down the line–and the good news is that it is not that hard to do because we do it all the time! Have you ever gone to work on a day when you wanted to stay in bed? If you have, you probably thought you were just “sucking it up”, but in fact you were making a willing compromise with your work. On the other hand, if you spent the day at work bitter and fuming, there is a good chance that you went to work unwillingly!

Willing compromises are a key ingredient to successful relationships and problem-solving. Without them a couple will tend to see the other as a competitor and a threat, resulting in disconnection and resentment.

REGULAR CHECK-INS: Finally, I want to mention the value of doing regular check-ins with your partner. I have trouble understanding why couples expect a relationship to move along smoothly without checking in with each other from time to time–can you imagine running a successful business that way? We regularly meet with our business partners, our doctors, even our friends to discuss “how things are going” and to review goals and progress, and yet when we think of doing this with our partner we are resistant because it can feel “unromantic”.

Romance and passion are often the end results of efforts made along the way–they are usually spontaneous only during the courtship phase. You can make your check-in into a ritual you both look forward to, and a way to practice healthy communication and mutual understanding. I usually recommend doing check-ins once a week, on the same day and at the same time if possible so that it becomes tradition, and they don’t have to last more than fifteen minutes. Here are some things to discuss during check-ins:

  1. Review progress on ongoing goals and projects.
  2. Review the upcoming week of each partner and ask if there is anything each needs to be aware of in the others week.
  3. Ask if the other needs support in any way during the upcoming week, and make a request for support if you need it.
  4. Talk about sex: what is working and what is not–any new ideas or questions–is everyone happy with the sexual relationship?
  5. Finally, find out if the other is bothered by anything recent and needs to talk about it, or let them know if you need to talk and be listened to. It is good to finish this off by sharing what you appreciate about each other or by commenting on something they did well or that made you feel loved.

Remember that check-ins are not about “being right” or arguing–they are a tool that can strengthen your relationship and connect you to each other. A small investment that can lead to a big reward!

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I hope for the day when we are less threatened by one another’s differences and instead more curious about them. I also hope for the day when we recognize our many shared values–when it comes down to it most of us want the same thing: to feel loved and safe. How we get there may be by different roads, but by knowing how to talk about goals, we may find that our roads are more parellel than we thought. You don’t have to be on the same road to be moving in the same direction with your relationship!