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Why Discord, Paradoxically, Is Vital in Close Relationships

“Fierce intimacy” may be the safest route to emotional vulnerability.

Key points

  • Disharmony between two individuals, especially those in committed relationships, is both inevitable and, in most instances, repairable.
  • To transcend disharmony, partners must discover the right balance between personal autonomy and interpersonal connection.
  • All lasting relationships, if they’re to reach their full potential for intimacy, regularly require repair work.
Ayo Ogunseinde/Unsplash
Source: Ayo Ogunseinde/Unsplash

In long-lasting relationships, a “you and me” consciousness doesn’t jibe with a much healthier “we” consciousness.

Ordinarily, couples, particularly men, strive to avoid conflict. Certainly, most people wouldn’t think that meeting conflict head-on—and actually welcoming it—would advance their relationship. And frankly, for the majority of us, it won’t.

But Terrence Real, the prolific author of the eloquently conceptualized work Us: Getting Past You & Me to Build a More Loving Relationship (2022), sees the matter differently. Very differently. For he views disharmony between two individuals—especially those in committed relationships—as inevitable, necessary, and, in most instances, repairable. Consider, too, that you really can’t fix anything until you “come clean” and admit it’s broken.

This post, the first of two parts, will attempt to explicate some of Real’s main ideas in the hope that reflecting upon them will serve you in whatever union you currently find yourself (or maybe one you regret how you handled in the past).

Real calls the harmonious (or romantic) stage of a relationship love without knowledge and the disharmonious (or disillusioned) stage knowledge without love. The latter stage he regards as demonstrating “you and me” consciousness, which is incompatible with true intimacy.

Feeling impelled to transcend this second, unavoidable relational phase, which impedes the togetherness goals to which all couples implicitly aspire, is seen, paradoxically, as “the painfully hard-won gift of disharmony.”

But to successfully get beyond this problematic phase, couples must, as a team, be able to find the right balance between personal autonomy and interpersonal connection. Detailing the repair work required to accomplish this feat will constitute the focus of part 2. And part 3 will focus on the extraordinary benefits of approaching couples frustration in a more positive, mutually validating manner.

Here I’ll be concentrating on the concepts that are vital to understand—and adopt—in order to develop the right mindset for undertaking this edgy but exciting restorative work.

And, to employ Real’s terminology to zero in on the crux of his thesis, the wise adult is realizable only when one’s adaptive child—with all of its outdated and exaggerated defenses—is overruled by one’s more mature and circumspect (i.e., “wise”) self.

The Felt Safety of the Familiar, and Why It Becomes More and More Precarious

In earlier posts, I discussed the fact that the word familiar might also be read as “family-er.” That is, frequently what feels familiar or more comfortable does so because it became your MO while growing up.

You chose this or that behavior because it helped you feel more secure in your relationship with your parents than anything else you tried to gain their (unfortunately) conditional acceptance.

Yet these survivalist or conformist strategies—mostly unconscious—typically don’t work very well in the context of an intimate adult relationship. Plus, whoever you end up with will probably also be governed by their adaptive child. And sadly, that’s an inescapable double whammy to any relationship.

To Real and many other therapists, our culture repeatedly gives us the unrealistic message that good relationships are—and should always be—harmonious.

Good luck with that. Because the complicated world we live in (not to mention how complicated human nature is, with all its recalcitrant defense mechanisms) is much too “messy,” or changeable, for relational harmony to evolve effortlessly.

That’s why Real calls his model “Relational Life Therapy” and emphasizes that all close relationships, if they’re to reach their full potential, regularly demand repair work.

Plus, attempts to verbalize frustrations and disappointments or disrupting failures in attunement require perseverance. And here, repetition isn’t redundant but rather—in diplomatically elaborating, modifying, or expanding on one’s grievances—actually assists in restoring relational harmony.

As in, practice makes perfect.

And, too, it’s precisely this dogged persistence that enables resilience: the key prerequisite for couples’ stability. In fact, neurologically speaking, an ever-unfolding resilience is the most reliable pathway to enduring relational growth.

But achieving this is no easy task because by the time we get to be adults, there are so many unresolved issues from childhood that accompany—and sabotage—us in the present.

That’s why we’re so susceptible to being triggered by our partner (as, regrettably, they are to us). They can’t help but remind us—in general, subconsciously—of words, situations, and events our parents used, which back then did a number on us.

So, subliminally, it may feel that it’s now “payback” time. Which is why it’s so common for us to emotionally overreact and attack them.

Inasmuch as we experience our present-day relationship as a later-day replacement for (or reenactment of) what we went through earlier, the things that negatively sensitized us to our family automatically get reactivated when our partner fails to meet our too-idealistic expectations.

As Real vividly puts it: “New wounds evoke old ones. Present conflicts are encrusted with scar tissue from injuries long past.”

Predictably, this recurrence undermines our trust in our partner. Whether or not our parents intended to, they could be shaming in how they disciplined us. So, however accidentally, our partner can “rejuvenate” this unrepaired shame—just as we unintentionally revive their own.

Additionally, this rupture in partner harmony can lead us to cultivate a certain detachment from them, which compromises our much earlier intimate relationship as well. And this deduction assumes that when we felt intruded upon, or abandoned by, our parents, these relational breaks were rarely, if ever, mended.

Moreover, what (accurately or not) we learned from our parents is routinely projected onto our later adult relationships. That which we became accustomed to expecting from our parents, we now expect from our partner.

Unfortunately, that prompts us to create boundaries, resistances, or walls, which we employ to prevent our partner from gaining entrance to and further undermining our deeper, more authentic self.

It’s all to safeguard the most fragile parts of our ego and in ways all too similar to how, primitively, we tried to limit our vulnerability in growing up. Back then, we simply lacked sufficient emotional and cognitive resources to more productively protect our integrity from all that felt threatening to it.

In the present, such “securely” established defenses make true partner intimacy impossible. Unless our “wise adult” can override these defenses, our ability and willingness to courageously address and then resolve our conflicts with our partner are virtually nil.

Again citing Real, coming from your old (instinctual) brain versus your new (wiser, more mature) brain, this is how, almost involuntarily, you’ll deal with your partner in situations of disharmony:

1. Wrap yourself in righteousness.
2. Attempt to control your partner.
3. Give vent to every emotion and infraction [i.e., to defeat your partner, “kitchen-sink” every complaint or injustice you can regurgitate from way back when].
4. Retaliate.
5. Shut down—or some combination of all five of these losing strategies.

Given Real’s Relational Life Therapy perspective—based on the undeniable reality of human imperfection—he’s obliged to point out that these childish, failing tactics to fix what’s not working for you in the relationship don’t usually indicate you’re in a bad marriage. No. To Real, “This is marriage.”

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.