Being in an intimate relationship is the hardest thing any of us will ever do. Why is that? Because the inevitable stresses of daily life and the conflicts that come about as two very different individuals negotiate what they want from the relationship require that we face things about ourselves that we would prefer not to face. What comes naturally to us is to see the other as responsible for our frustrations and hurts. A friend of mine who is single once said to me, “There are only a few times when I wish I was married and they all boil down to not having anyone to blame when I do something stupid.” We both had a good laugh about this witticism, but the profundity of the truth she expressed has resonated within me years later.
Another reason this is so difficult is that each one of us is unique. We come into this world with different gifts and ways of experiencing the world. Then we take those into the world and have very different experiences. We have different languages, if you will, different cultures in which we have been raised, and different preferences for what calms us when we are stressed, how we take in information, how we make decisions, and how much structure and/or spontaneity we prefer. This very different person is who I must love, not the person I wish he or she were, nor even the one I need him or her to be.
It may help to remember that my only responsibility is to be in charge of what happens in my space, to get more and more in touch with how life is for me, and to be the fullness of who I am—to represent that truth fully and kindly, aware that my reality is not the only reality. The more successful I am at doing that, the less others will trigger my insecurities, and the better able I will be at separating my issues from others’ when conflicts arise. Such a relationship with myself is, interestingly enough, the only way to a closer and truer relationship with others.
As I sat in my office with a delightful and charming couple, I watched their communication deteriorate swiftly and disastrously. In an instant, a bomb fell and changed the world for both of them. Each was polarized in characterizing the other as “bad,” “insensitive,” “controlling,” and “evil.”
Their reason for seeking therapy was to restore the sense of intimacy and affinity they thought they had in the early years of their marriage, before she had an affair. They both realized that the person each had fallen in love with was not the person to whom they now found themselves married. There was a profound sense of disappointment when they realized this some ten years ago, and they spent most of that time using strategies that were designed to get the other to “change.” The final strategy of having an affair dealt a near-death blow to the marriage.
They were both stuck, and as is often true in marriage, the ways they were stuck were polar opposites of each other. The wife was stuck in the drama of her feelings. Every emotion was exaggerated, because what she longed for was a relationship where her feelings were heard, acknowledged, and where she and her partner used their feelings to create an atmosphere of intimacy.
Unfortunately, the manner in which she expressed her feelings created quite the opposite effect. She “became” her feelings, and didn’t really take responsibility for them. Her world appeared out of control, but what she was actually doing was protecting herself from real intimacy. For her, conflict was a competition about who was right and who was wrong. Whoever is right has the authority to judge the other and mete out punishment. Exploring emotions was not safe.
For the husband, it was equally unsafe to explore emotion. Expressing emotion made him vulnerable to being manipulated and controlled. He had learned to protect himself by staying as far away from his emotions as he could possibly get—by sitting in his head and being as rational as he could about any issue or conflict. Being disconnected from what he felt, emotions dominated his world, just as they did for his wife, but they were expressed as judgments about the advisability of this action or that.
When couples get stuck and have needs that are not being met, they generally go immediately into a punishment game. In this case, the wife was saying, “If you can’t give me the intimacy I’m wanting, I’m out of here.” She was unwilling to be open with her uncomfortable feelings. For him, on the other hand, the process was different. If feelings didn’t fit what he thought was advisable, he pretended they weren’t there and then created communication with his wife he was unaware of through sighs, rolling his eyes, and a harsh tone of voice. Both were trying to maneuver the other to give them what they needed and wanted in order to feel safe. However, this is not love, it is control. Love is allowing the other to be exactly where he or she is, not where we need them to be to feel comfortable.
A colleague of mine once said, “Nothing good can come of a conflict if no one is willing to change positions.” The question is always, “What are we prepared to change in order to create common ground?” Each of these spouses needed to have a willingness to be open with uncomfortable feelings. What she was really saying to him was, “Let me touch you at a deep level; let me touch your feelings.” He would often say to her, “I haven’t held anything back from you —you know me better than anyone.” This was true, of course, but what he was saying was, “You know how I feel,” not “I want to touch you with my feelings, and I want to be touched by you,” which is what his wife was looking for. On the other hand, he needed to be able to say to her, “I don’t understand what is happening; I need to get some space to figure some things out about how I feel; I’m not going away; please be patient with me.”
It is possible to disengage from the game of control, whether we are trying to control ourselves or others, or are trying to avoid being controlled by others. Such disengagement brings new freedom and creativity to mutual problem-solving. The freedom begins within each person —as we listen to our emotions. Emotions are our bodies’ ways of communicating our needs to us. They are important. We can get stuck in pain and illness when we don’t listen to what our bodies are saying at an emotional level. But there is a big difference between having our feelings and becoming our feelings or allowing those feelings to dominate our lives by disowning them. The more we can be nonjudgmental and accepting of our feelings, the better able we will be to have them without being controlled by them. Feelings are just information; they are not problems to be solved or fixed.
It may be disconcerting to see ourselves and our partners as we really are, especially if we are pursuing some goal of perfection, but it is important to realize that we are all learning and growing in similar ways. Making time to reflect on how we can create a life that expresses our uniqueness will help us take responsibility for the choices we make about how we want to experience and direct our personal world. Then, as we bring The Challenge of Relationship: Control vs. Compassion that awareness to our connections with others, expressing who we are in clear and humble ways, we bring the power of creation into our relationships. Of course, we will make mistakes, and the outcome will probably not be exactly what we imagined, since we will not be the only ones creating —but it will be a relationship of love —and that will make all the difference.