Just to state the obvious, relationships can be very rewarding but they are not easy. They are journeys that may bring challenges in the beginning, the middle, and the end. I want to share in this post a few of the difficulties and things to keep in mind, as couples navigate these stages.
To start a relationship we may need to overcome fears and doubts, old and new, that get in the way. Taking the risk of being open and vulnerable can sometimes be really difficult. Do we feel safe enough to let the other in? Do we allow ourselves to love and to be loved? Should we risk expressing our feelings despite the fear –or maybe the anticipation- of rejection and pain?
Many of the people that I have worked with in my practice have struggled with these questions. Some believe that their emotions are too big, they are too needy, or their baggage is too complicated, and wonder if they will be too much. Others, on the other hand, feel like there is something wrong with them and wonder if they will ever be enough. Some others carry a deep secret and a profound shame with them, and wonder: if they really knew me, would they run away?
These questions are not unusual, but can sometimes be paralyzing. The answers are never simple and cannot be known in advance. Becoming aware of our doubts, fears, hopes, and motives, accepting them as part of us, and understanding where they come from, are usually helpful first steps. While self-awareness is essential, sometimes we may think too much, so it is important to listen to our mind, our heart, and our body. Looking inside of ourselves with love and kindness is also crucial, in order to have a sense of what is important for us in a relationship, what we are looking for, and what our own personal boundaries are.
The more time we spend together with our partner, the more opportunities we have for connection and intimacy, but also for friction and disappointment. The more history is shared, the more opportunities to become closer and create meaning together, but also to harbor anger or to feel hurt. Whatever will happen to an established couple relationship is a function of three elements: the two individuals and the relationship itself.
The first two are each individual’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. These will define what each person believes they need and want from a relationship, and how capable or willing they are to find a middle ground. For example, I once had a client who, a few months before his wedding, told me: “I want to do what my father did with my mom: I just want to tune out, find a way to ignore her.” The role-models we had in our life many times define, consciously or not, what we believe relationships are about.
The relationship itself is the third element, and it is bigger than the sum of its parts. For example, a dynamic I have observed often times can be called “pursuer-avoidant,” in which one person wants more from the other (more affection, more attention, more communication, more time, etc.), and the other is evasive or avoidant, whether because he feels uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or afraid. This dynamic sometimes leads to gridlock in the relationship, undermines the possibilities for negotiation, and can trigger resentment on both sides.
What to do when our baggage and our partner’s does not seem to match? There is no one single answer because a couple is a complex, ever-evolving entity. However, it is important to keep an open and curious mind about our partner’s experience, thoughts, feelings, needs, dreams, and goals. Truly acknowledging and respecting our differences is vital for understanding each other. Taking ownership and responsibility for our actions and the things we say (or do not say), as well as being open to receiving feedback, is important to maintain a strong friendship and a sense of safety and trust in the relationship.
Endings are almost never easy. Sometimes the difficulty resides in becoming willing or able to end a relationship that feels stale, is not meeting our needs, or has become toxic or abusive. Sometimes the challenge is to cope with the loss of a relationship, whether it was our own choice, our partner’s decision, or caused by life events out of our control.
The prospect of ending a relationship can be daunting, especially after a long time together. Are we making a rushed decision? Is there no way we can work this out? How much more can I stand? Have I been waiting for too long already? How can I deal with this uncertainty? These are some of the questions I have heard several times. As a therapist, it is not my job to answer them, but to be with my clients as they struggle with them, helping them untangle, make sense, and understand the meaning of the situation.
Most times this process is anything but rational and linear. A wide range of feelings will probably emerge, many times in conflict with our rational thoughts. Love, guilt, fear, pride, avoidance, grief, sadness, anger, and hope – we may feel them all at the same time, or we can go back and forth between them.
Paying attention to our patterns and personal history is equally important: do we tend to cut relationships as soon as we feel uncomfortable? Do we turn relationship into a personal project that admits no failure? Developing self-awareness to understand the nature of our fears is useful to reduce their effect on us. Kindness and patience with our difficulties, as well as respect for ourselves and our partners, are some of our best allies in this part of the journey.
Even though human beings are “wired” to be in relationships, these are not easy and sometimes require a lot of work. This “work” involves looking within and looking across. We must look within to become aware, accept, and understand our own thoughts, feelings, wishes, hopes, and challenges. We must look across to recognize, make space for, and honor our partner’s experiences and reality. Each step of the journey brings new challenges and opportunities for each person and for the relationship itself. It is in this journey, more than in any imagined destination, where the promise of love, connection, and fulfillment can be found.