Troubled relationships tend to be characterized by high levels of conflict or high levels of disengagement or both. If you’re pretty disengaged, you probably got there because the disengagement felt good and safe at first. Then it became gradually erosive to any type of connection. You may have arrived at a point where it feels too late to fix anything. You can no longer identify commonalities and points of connection. You feel incompatible.
If you fight a lot, you may feel incompatible in a different way. You may feel perpetually misunderstood by your partner, and hopeless about getting on the same page or feeling any sense of harmony. You may have come to believe that the fighting reveals something fundamental about the relationship, that at his or her core your partner is unattuned, dismissive, critical, angry, and disrespectful.
Even when distressed couples try to productively confront issues, they often find that a whole kinetic process, which they never intended and which they can’t control, is set in motion. It consists, in varying doses, of: attempt at meaningful communication (read as attack), defense from attack (read as invalidation of legitimate response/ feelings), escalation, escalation, withdrawal.
It’s a process that can happen so quickly it can make your head spin.
It’s a process that takes on a life of its own, quickly dwarfing the good intentions and good qualities of the participants, and swallowing whole cloth whatever’s good in the relationship.
Jonathan Safran Foer, an unusually psychologically astute fiction writer, gives a solid example of the specific toxicity of the distress cycle in his recent novel, Here I Am. He’s describing Jacob and Julia, a couple whose conflict has created an “invisible bridge” between them. The impasse is so oblique and treacherous that neither member of the couple has the radar to even find it, nevermind the resources to cross (Foer, 2016).
Foer imagines the conversation they would have had if they could have had it: Jacob would bring up their lack of sex. Julia would respond “without defensiveness and hurt” that she’s concerned, too. Jacob would reassure her that he wasn’t trying to pressure, just to communicate about where he’s at. Feeling braver, he would present his fear that she didn’t want to have sex with him. She’d reassure him.
Then, having found his way to the middle of the invisible bridge “above the chasm of potential hurt, at the farthest point from safety,” Jacob would ask why she thinks they’re not having sex.
The conversation would have proceeded with great care, with safety, with reassurance. But the conversation doesn’t happen.
But he didn’t say anything, and neither did she. Not because the words were deliberately withheld, but because the pipeline between them was too occluded for such bravery. Too many small accumulations: wrong words, absences of words, imposed quiet, plausibly deniable attacks on known vulnerabilities, mentions of things that needn’t be mentioned, misunderstandings and accidents, moments of weakness, tiny acts of shitty retribution for tiny acts of shitty retribution for tiny acts of shitty retribution for an original offense that no one could remember. Or for no offense at all (Foer, 2016, 59).
It’s really hard to give up blame. Our brains want a nice linear narrative. This caused this caused this. It’s just that, by the time enough distress has accumulated, causality no longer makes sense. Even if we could find that one thing that set off that chain reaction that leaves us now (13 years later?) lying in bed at night staring at the ceiling and feeling hopelessly alone, thoroughly alien from our partner, that thing would be so tiny in comparison to the whole kinetic process.
If it helps to blame, if blame must be assigned, blame the process. Fighting and distance and distress are hungry beasts. They consume what’s valuable to us at alarming rates. They make us complicit, angry, destructive. They use their carefully tuned instruments to ensure a steady stream of emotional distress.
If you see that your partner has taken on the tint of the process, if instead of the intellectually curious, emotionally open 25 year old he was when you met him, he now looks like the angry, uncaring troll you now dread coming home to, you may be confusing the person with the fighting.
And he’s surely doing the same with you. If you’ve wondered night after night, “Why don’t you see me?” and noticed that your friends think you’re fun, funny, interesting, and compelling but he treats you as if you’re none of those things, the stain of the distress cycle has gotten on you, too.
This is why it feels so much easier to cut bait and start a new relationship with a person whose eyes are clear. And maybe, for you in your particular situation, it’s the only thing to do at this point.
But the work—of wresting free the person from the distress, the object from the trigger—is good work.
It’s work that needs to be done with our partners, our children, our colleagues, and our parents. Interpersonal cycles develop a life of their own, and they can overtake the very important lives of the individuals involved in them.
Foer, Jonathan Safran (2016). Here I Am. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.