What Keeps Couples Together Too Often Keeps Them Apart

What do you do to keep your relationship safe — and what might that cost you?

Posted Apr 25, 2018

Sjale/Shutterstock
Source: Sjale/Shutterstock

What you do to increase feelings of security in a relationship is likely to decrease your chances of being happy in it. Ironically, the motive to feel safe with your partner can be at odds with feeling fulfilled by them. The problem with so many couples is that, however unwittingly, they sacrifice relationship satisfaction in their attempts to achieve a union that’s stress-free. And that’s a compromise that ends up defeating you.

Here’s what it comes down to: Once you enter the realm of relational commitment, a secure attachment to your partner begins to feel essential. And to the degree that you rely on it to feel shielded or sheltered from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” you’ll be hesitant to confront the one person critical to your feeling of safety. In a sense, then, your partner has become your refuge, your sanctuary.

However unconsciously, not just you, but probably your partner as well, will have made a pact to avoid confronting anything that might compromise this paramount need for security. But in mutually executing this protective contract, the two of you will be avoiding an interpersonal vulnerability that’s actually imperative for the true intimacy you (and everyone else) yearn for. Finally, couples’ happiness and contentment depends on a level of closeness, trust, and sharing that can’t exist if your focus is predominantly on avoiding conflict.

All too often, relationships move from an initial power-struggle phase — as in, whose needs are to take precedent, and whose made subordinate — to the more cautious, but comfortable, phase of keeping the peace. This second stage isn’t inevitable. But if you and your partner repeatedly can’t succeed in your attempts to resolve conflicts (which crop up routinely in even the best of relationships), you’re apt to pull in your horns to minimize the stress of constant arguing. Better, you reason, to maintain a certain harmony between you, despite how superficial and strained that relational “truce” might be. And once you’ve more or less settled into this conflict-avoidant pattern, you’ll usually default to it at all costs. And, as my title suggests, those costs could be steeper than you might ever imagine.

So if you want to get a more concrete sense of what thoughts and feelings, up till now, you may have concluded you needed to keep to yourself — versus openly sharing them with your partner — consider that most likely they relate to:

  • Divulging to your partner past experiences in which you felt embarrassed or humiliated — and still do (to avoid having to worry that such disclosure could lead them to re-shame you)
  • Informing them about words and deeds that in your past left you feeling guilty (because you can’t help but think they might proceed to use such disclosures strategically — as ammunition against you)
  • Complementary to the above, letting them in on your deepest, darkest secrets (anxious that, in combination with other regretful admissions, they might cease to love you, and that you might be damaging your relationship beyond repair, such that they’d feel compelled to leave you)
  • Sharing sexual fantasies that go beyond what’s conventionally seen as normal or acceptable (for fear that divulging these imaginings might repulse your partner and trigger their seeing you as deviant or perverted)
  • Asking them for something you’ve felt deprived of, but have seriously needed from them (for if they responded negatively by denying or dismissing your request, you’d have to conclude that your needs weren’t really that important to them, that ultimately they didn’t really care about you)
  • Not asking for something you acutely desire, because deep down, you don’t think you deserve it (and are afraid they might agree with you)
  • Not stating a viewpoint that you know contrasts sharply with their own (fearing that if you did, you’d just be starting another unresolvable argument or be forced to confront your differences as irreconcilable — further threatening an attachment you already experience as somewhat tenuous)
  • Refusing to ask for help or support (anxious that they’d frown on you — see you as overly dependent, weak, or needy)

To sum up, to keep the marital peace, you’ll avoid bringing up anything that could be met with criticism, disapproval, or rejection — in a word, that could make you feel less safe in the relationship.

Certainly, if you and your partner’s attempts at conflict-negotiation have been exasperatingly futile, leaving both of you feeling beaten and more vulnerable with one another, then determining to do everything possible to reduce further friction makes perfect sense. After all, calling a truce is a lot better than continuing to wage an unwinnable war. But in reorienting yourself to a much more restrained relationship, you’re consciously cultivating a distance that spells the death of intimacy. And sadly, adopting such a conflict-avoiding detachment ultimately can offer you no more satisfaction or fulfillment than did your earlier verbal combats.

Edvard Munch/Public Domain
Source: Edvard Munch/Public Domain

On the contrary, in time, both you and your partner will experience an oppressive loneliness — one deriving from keeping who you are from your (no longer as) significant other. Sure, you may stay together, so as not to deal with primal fears of rejection and abandonment (not to mention financial pressures). But nonetheless, each of you will feel emotionally abandoned in the relationship. For the motivation behind your passive withholding behaviors has obliged you to forsake too much of the full-hearted sharing that culminated in your committed union in the first place.

And just beneath the surface of your “calculated civility” will lurk states of mind and feelings that are anything but harmonious. Among other things, you may harbor considerable anger (though you’ve “stuffed” its expression), suffer from a protracted low-grade depression, or be afflicted by a gnawing sense of disappointment and disillusionment. And these suppressed feelings may well manifest as physical symptoms — such as tension headaches, stomachaches, back pain, or a large variety of difficult-to-diagnose somatic complaints. For if your feelings can’t be verbally expressed, your ongoing frustrations are likely to get physically acted out — or, well, in.

Yes, you’re still together. But you’re not really together at all. You’re “absenting” yourself from the turmoil of earlier conflicts, but in the process, you’re also absenting yourself (or not “showing up”) for any kind of close, meaningful relationship. Unawares, your decision to reduce your vulnerability with your partner eventuates in relinquishing any chance of establishing a more joyful connection to them — something akin, that is, to what you experienced during courtship.

So what’s the remedy for such a mutually alienating quandary?

Since I’ve written an abundance of posts on relationship problems — and their solutions — any review of them will provide you with many additional ideas (e.g., see “Can You and Your Partner Agree to Disagree?”). Here are some immediate suggestions:

  • Test the waters. Rather than simply evading them, gingerly approach tricky, potentially button-pushing subjects. You may need to read up on how to improve your communication skills so you can effectively address what’s now keeping you apart. As in, "It’s not what you say, but the way that you say it,” make sure you’re able to talk to your partner with concern, compassion, and respect — taking care to navigate around areas where you already know they’re particularly sensitive (and vulnerable).
  • Be patient, but persistent. Don’t give up right away when your partner doesn’t respond as you’d hoped. To de-activate their defenses, restate your remarks in a gentler, less critical or provocative way. And if they’re still resistant to discussing a topic, ask whether they might be willing to explain their hesitancy (but without giving them the third degree either). Respond with kindness and understanding about their uneasiness in talking about what may really need to be examined.
  • Join” them in their viewpoint, but without abdicating your own. Find a way to empathically identify with their perspective and its associated feelings (in order to lessen the polarization between you). But at the same time, realize that while you don’t want to argue them out of their impressions or point of view, neither do you need to forfeit your own. This is precisely what agreeing to disagree is all about. Done correctly, it protects both the harmony between you and your personal integrity. It’s all a matter of being able to validate where they’re coming from, even though you may not share their assumptions or beliefs. And it’s directly opposed to the “my way or the highway” stance, which (without realizing it) you may have taken previously.
  • Revisit — and reevaluate — your conflict-avoiding tendencies. It’s possible that your proclivity for shying away from conflict has roots going much deeper than your present relationship —  maybe all the way back to childhood. So consider that your current habit of not discussing anything unpleasant, or potentially incendiary, may no longer be required. Although you’re likely to feel more anxious when you approach what you’ve previously avoided, don’t let that stop you. If you can reach out to your partner caringly, letting them know that your intent isn’t to blame them, but to get closer to them and help fix what’s not working, they may well respond favorably.
  • Be tactful, but unashamedly honest about your thoughts and feelings. Stay centered on how the two of you might find your way back to the much more positive relationship you once enjoyed. This is the time to speak earnestly, candidly, and hopefully about what you believe can renew and — more importantly — revitalize your relationship.

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.