“Falling in love is natural… sustaining love is unnatural. Sustaining love requires psychology, art, and discipline.”
– Warren Farrell
As a therapist who works with couples, I find this blog title to be the most compelling question faced by those in long-term love relationships. Why do most relationships lose that sense of promise and excitement and eventually fizzle out? What is it that causes couples to crash and burn after such a promising start?
We’ve all been there; we’re really into someone who appeared to have most of what we were looking for: fun, stimulating conversation, independence, good values, attractive, intelligent and adventurous, someone who captured our imagination and with whom we could play, riffing off of their ideas and humor.
In retrospect, it wasn’t as though things were perfect, as there were disagreements at times, but work-arounds were found and problems were sorted out as they arose. But then suddenly, there was a significant switch, and it was as if overnight, things took a turn for the worse. So what happened?
The Honeymoon Stage
Why is it that most couples either hit the doldrums or get tied up in conflict and dysfunctional ways of communicating? Going back to the beginning – let’s say a couple Rosanne and Tim met one and a half years prior through an online app and immediately hit it off. There were easy fun times, sex appeal, shared interests, etc. Just being in each other’s presence made them feel excited and alive. They enjoyed talking about their life stories from the past and their vision for the future, and they felt met and understood on many levels.
When difficulties arose, they were addressed and sorted out. Each partner’s confidence about their relationship grew, and they felt more assured as they shared more experiences and eventually moved in together. After that, things started to take a turn.
This state of emotional excitement and pleasure (the honeymoon stage) can typically last from four to 30 months, but then something often radically changes. It’s that ‘something changes’ phenomenon that I have witnessed as a psychotherapist with my patients and personally with my friends and myself that I want to explore and come up with some directions for solutions.
There is more to uncover than simply dismissing it as the honeymoon stage ended. As a person gets closer to someone else, there is more susceptibility to being triggered by the unresolved attachment issues from their childhood. Most people are not aware of this hidden dimension that we refer to as the unconscious but are only aware of having more intense reactions in their relationship.
The Conflict / Projection Stage
In any relationship, conflict is as certain to come as the changing of the seasons. There are three primary sources for most conflict: emotional injuries from childhood getting reactivated; difficulty giving/receiving personal criticism when required; and lack of vulnerable emotional communication to navigate disagreements and resolve conflict.
Despite all of our best efforts, many of us will lose ourselves and act out when it comes to the handling of conflict if not aware and attuned to the ways in which our partners trigger our childhood defenses.
1.Each person will come into their relationship with a set of “wounds” that leave them vulnerable and susceptible to getting hurt by a partner in a similar way that they were hurt by attachment figures from their childhood.
We all carry conscious and unconscious wounds and traumas that get re-activated during stressful, critical moments in our intimate relationships. These moments present an opportunity for healing if the individual can claim and understand their own emotional issues rather than blaming the other for unpleasant, painful feelings.
Unfortunately, when we are triggered by our partners, a part of our brain called the amygdala (emotional or primitive brain) is activated and prevents us from thinking rationally enough to see the distorted ways that we tend to perceive our partner’s behavior and intentions. Additionally, the projections (mis-seeing/mis-hearing) on to our partners leads them to get defensive and this often escalates into conflict.
2. Most individuals in a relationship are uncomfortable to give personal criticism and instead, when hurt or frustrated, will tend to blame their partners for not understanding and caring about their feelings. Personal feedback can stir up trouble if not skillfully communicated. To tell your wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend about a “blind spot” or negative behavioral pattern you see in them can be a risky mission for most, because they haven’t learned how to deliver that message or how to actively listen without getting defensive or reactive.
Developing the skill set to both send and receive sensitive information is very important to sustaining an honest and open intimacy as otherwise blaming and sarcasm become the go-to language.
3. Finally, developing oneself so as to be able to recognize and express the range of emotions that one feels is key to maintaining open communication. Being able to acknowledge and know oneself well enough to express the secondary and primary emotions is very important, because often things go off the rails when a person is focusing on a feeling that actually has more to do with an deeper feeling, but they don’t realize it.
For example, a person may feel angry about being hurt or shame about their anxiety, etc. Learning to become more skillful in getting into the deeper, more vulnerable feelings is crucial to being heard and understood and then dealing with the issue at hand. Being open and real emotionally also helps support an affectionate and sexual relationship.
Unfortunately, without the relational skills, the negativity and tension eventually takes over, and the individuals resort to various symptomatic strategies, i.e. becoming touchy or sticky, verbally fighting over minor and major issues alike, denying their anger, avoiding conflict at any cost to escape the hurt and disappointment, resigning themselves to the loss of aliveness and intimacy thus creating a “Pleasantville” façade (a popular 50’s strategy.)
Unaware of how to get their partner to change and better meet their needs, couples become more emotionally cut off, distant, and hopeless about things ever changing.
Whether it’s dealing with the negativity by becoming verbally combative or withdrawn into a state of denial and avoidance, the sad reality is that one’s relationship is far away from where it started.
Overview of the Skills for Intimacy
The good news is that there is a way forward in spite of our biological propensity to defend and blame our way out of conflict. Through building self-awareness and understanding the source of our intense emotional triggers and projections, we can learn to minimize our blaming tendencies and put the emotion where it belongs.
Investigating how events from our past may be wreaking much more havoc on our present-day love relationships than we had considered can be quite eye opening. When we are able to admit our own shortcomings and defensive feelings and commit to developing ourselves, we create space for our partner to truly get to know us so that we both can have a relationship built on love, trust, and realistic expectations.
Practical Suggestions for Distressed Couples
If your relationship is in trouble, admit it. Outside individual and couple’s therapy can be informative and helpful. Deciding that you want to make a personal commitment to open up and address longstanding issues within yourself and with your partner can make a difference. Approach your partner and share what you want to do and be willing to consider both individual and couple’s therapy to address the difficulties.
If one partner is ambivalent and does not want to attend therapy, I would recommend individual therapy to the motivated partner to explore their own issues and work on developing themselves. If the unmotivated partner hears that their partner is having a productive experience and can see some changes in their partner, this can help them overcome their reticence. Or, if after some time your partner’s posture hasn’t shifted because of their fear or defensiveness, then you would want to address this reality in your therapy.
Engage in some type of calming practice to help regulate your “monkey mind” (the tendency to ruminate and get caught in overthinking) and develop your body awareness. Research shows that practices such as mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, and related practices help calm the nervous system and counter the effects of intense emotional triggers.
Deryl Goldenberg, Ph. D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara California. He has focused his work on Male Psychology and Couples Relationship issues as well as families with over 30 years experience helping children/teens and their parents. Dr. Goldenberg’s areas of expertise are in-depth individual and couples therapy and providing intervention services to children with emotional and developmental disorders. To learn more about Dr. Goldenberg, visit www.drderylgoldenberg.com