Overcoming Intimate Relationship Dynamics

What does not kill me makes me more compassionate.

Posted Sep 25, 2015

In the previous posts of this series I described three unconscious dynamics that characterize unhappy relationships: demand-withdraw, pursuer-distancer, and fear-shame. In all three dynamics, problems in the relationship are attributed to character flaws in the partner, rather than patterns of interaction and emotion regulation. Instead of teammates, the partners view each other as opponents, if not enemies.

Now, at last, we can address ways to overcome intimate relationship dynamics (IRDs).  

The Law of Happiness in Love

You cannot be happy in love without being compassionate and kind.

IRDs all but choke off the lifeblood of intimate union. Relationships cannot survive without compassion, and they cannot flourish without kindness. Compassion is sympathy for pain, hardship, or discomfort, with a motivation to help relieve the pain, hardship, or discomfort. Kindness is concern for the wellbeing and happiness of partners, with a motivation to help them be well and happy. IRDs destroy one of the greatest joys of love: doing something to please your partner. When relationship dynamics rule, you hear statements like:

“I used to like sending her flowers, but now she expects it.”

“I used to enjoy cooking for him, but now he thinks it’s my job.”

Many partners fear compassion and kindness, seemingly convinced that any virtue they might show would be exploited. Fear of compassion and kindness for a partner is assuaged only with self-compassion and self-kindness — sympathetic understanding of your deeper hurt, with a motivation to heal and improve. Fear of becoming a doormat is greatly reduced by compassionate assertiveness. That’s standing up for your rights and privileges in a way that appreciates and respects the rights and privileges of your partner. (Rights and privileges are equal in intimate relationships. No one is superior, no one is inferior.) Sympathetic understanding of yourself and your partner is the quickest way out of the misery of IRDs.

Compassion vs. Empathy

A word of caution in regard to the fear-shame dynamic. “Empathy” (as the word is typically used) is identification with the feelings of another. Necessarily limited by personal experience, it's more likely to obscure rather than illuminate the different vulnerabilities of each partner. "Putting oneself in the shoes of the other" eventually leads to something like this:

"I wouldn't be afraid if that happened to me, so she shouldn't be either."

"If I got fired from my job I would use it as a motivation to form stronger bonds at work the next time, and that's how he should see it."

Rather than trying to empathize about fear and shame, we need a higher form of compassion and respect for vulnerabilities we do not share. For example, sighted people, whose brains are wired for visual imagery, cannot empathize with those born blind, whose visual cortex is wired for a different sense. But we can feel compassion and admiration for them as they negotiate a world constructed for the sighted. And they can feel the same for us who are so deficient in other senses. With this higher level of compassion for different vulnerabilities, supporting loved ones becomes easier. Without it, the desire to support turns into manipulation or control, and our “negotiations” take the form of:

"You have to be more like me — think the way I do, feel the way I do, see the world the way I do."

Blind Spots

In the throes of relationship dynamics, the perspectives of both partners grow narrow and rigid. Partners steadfastly resist mitigation of their negative assumptions about each other and remain oblivious to the way they come off to each other. You know well how your partner looks and sounds in the IRD. You could write a book about it, or at least a pamphlet or blog post. But you never think, at least not at the time, about how you look and sound when you notice that your partner is resentful or angry. You don't think of how likely is it that your partner perceives you at that moment to be rejecting, condescending, manipulative, controlling, or selfish.

Of course your partner has blind spots, too; his or her reactions to you are inaccurate and probably unfair when emotionally aroused. But even if those reactions to you were entirely incorrect and unfair, what would be more likely to change them for the better — defensiveness, resentment, and argument about “facts,” or genuine concern for the hurt — yours and your partner’s, causing the reaction?

It’s absolutely imperative to identify your blind spots, own them without being defensive, and adjust your behavior to compensate for them. For example, a troublesome blind spot of mine is thinking about what I’ve written that day or looking ahead to what I’m going to say in my next workshop, while my partner is talking. I used to be defensive when she accused me of not listening, because it seemed like an unfair accusation — I could repeat everything she said. But hearing is not the same as listening. I have learned to acknowledge that mind-wandering is something I do completely without realizing it — it’s my blind spot. Yet she’s important to me and I want her to feel heard. So I try to focus exclusively on her when she’s talking. When my mind wanders, I appreciate when she points out my blind spot, because it reminds me to refocus and give her the attention she deserves.

Adjusting the Mirrors

The best strategy for reducing your blind spots is to use the reactions of your partner as an aid, like rear and side view mirrors.

If you believe that your partner is:

  • Attacking, ask yourself if you’re devaluing him or her, at least in your head

  • Being selfish, ask yourself if you are coming off selfishly

  • Superior, condescending, or disrespectful, ask yourself if you are being respectful and open to his or her perspective

  • Devoid of compassion and caring, ask yourself if you are compassionate and caring at that moment.

Adjusting blind spots in emotional interactions has to be intentional, just as you intentionally adjust the rear and side view mirrors of your vehicle. If you drive on autopilot, on the road or in your relationships, not checking your blind spots will lead to disaster. Putting a little care and effort into adjusting for your blind spots will get you where you want to go safely.

Overcoming IRDs

IRDs cannot be alleviated by the discussion of “facts” or by trying to talk your partner out of his/her perceptions. And they're certainly made worse by blaming them on your partner — she’s too sensitive, needy, critical, or demanding; he’s too proud, sneaky, aloof or afraid of intimacy. The best way to disarm any relationship dynamic is to:

  • Recognize when it occurs, which is just about every time you feel bad about interacting with each other.
  • Identify it as something that's happening to both of you, rather than your partner “doing it” to you. This is crucial, because any relationship dynamic will spiral out of control if you blame it on your partner.
  • Declare that your connection is important to you.
  • Cooperate to deactivate the dynamic and reconnect.

Try this: Stand up and read the following out loud.

“Hey, our IRD got triggered. It’s not you doing it to me, and it’s not me doing it to you. It’s happening to both of us, and together we can turn it off, because we want to connect and feel closer as we solve the problem.”

If you connect to each other, all relationship dynamics deactivate. Connected, you can solve the problem that may have activated it, because then you’re on the same side. If you remain disconnected, even your well-meaning and highly skilled attempts to communicate run a high risk of accidentally stimulating more fear, shame, blame, denial, and avoidance in both of you. If you cannot make a connection at the moment, make it your goal to reconnect as soon as possible.

This “attitude of connection” puts more value on the relationship than the specific behaviors under negotiation. It eliminates the lament, "Getting what you want is more important to you than I am!"

The objective of negotiation is to gain cooperation. The "spirit of cooperation” is a willingness to practice teamwork. The goal must be to arrive at something that you both can feel okay about, with neither party feeling taken advantage of, put upon, or disregarded.

If you want cooperation, you must show value. When people feel valued, they tend to cooperate. When they don't feel valued, they resist what feels to them like submission. If you want resistance, all you have to do is devalue, criticize, demand, act superior, or otherwise show ill-will. 

But don't think of "showing" value — that can smell of manipulation. Focus instead on feeling value for your partner. Put your behavior-request in context of all the good things about your partner and your relationship. This will lower emotional intensity and shrink the subject under negotiation to manageable proportions. Regardless of your stance on any specific issue or behavior, always remember that you’re negotiating with someone you love, who is more important to you than whatever behavior request you want to make.

Lots more.