How Couples Can Overcome a Most Common Conflict
Expert advice on seeing each other with fresh eyes.
Posted May 13, 2014
For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation—Rainer Maria Rilke
How is it that something so intrinsic to our basic nature-loving another person—should be so difficult, so challenging? Given the fact that the sustainability and perpetuation of the species are dependent upon our willingness and ability to love and provide care for one another, it seems reasonable to expect that this process should be effortless and easy.
For many, if not most of us, however, relationships are anything but that.
One answer to the question, though certainly not the only one, is that intimate relationships require two seemingly mutually exclusive ways of being in order for things to work out for both partners—autonomy and connectivity—or to put it another way, togetherness and separateness.
You may have noticed that it's not unusual for relationships to have one partner who favors the former and another who favors the latter. We all need to experience intimacy as well as independence, and it's not uncommon for us to be attracted to someone who is stronger in the side in which we are less developed. The trick is to see that what our partner brings to the relationship is something that we need or desire (albeit often unconsciously), rather than seeing their tendency as a problem, to be avoided or eliminated. What we refer to as "chemistry" is often no more than the right combination of togetherness and separateness, and an appreciation for what our partner is bringing that complements our relationship.
In the early days of our marriage it was very difficult for me to see what I considered to be my wife Linda's desire for more closeness as something other than neediness, which made me feel resentful and resistant to her efforts to get us to spend what I considered to be an excessive amount of time together. At times, I would even refer to her as a bottomless pit because it seemed to me that no matter how much time we spent together, it was never enough for her. Actually, it wasn't, but not because Linda was needy but because of the quality of attention that I gave her was very low.
She often felt my choice to spend time with her was motivated by a sense of obligation and that I was just participating in it to fulfill my "duty." Often, she was absolutely right—that was precisely my motivation. But she didn't just want to be with me, she wanted me to want to be with her.
Unfortunately, as happens in many couples, the stronger her longing was for us to be together, the more resistant I became. We were in a cycle to which many partners can relate—one that isn't easily broken as long as our focus remains on the other person and what we want from them, whether it be connection or independence. But this perspective demonizes or pathologizes our partner. As trained psychotherapists, we both had well-equipped arsenals of psychiatric labels that we could project onto each other, but needless to say, employing those labels doesn't do much to make you more attractive to your partner.
The way out of this especially unpleasant situation is to redirect the focus of your attention to yourself and begin looking within. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with your partner, you have to start looking at what needs you are trying to meet and identifying the unspoken fears that are causing you to judge, coerce, and manipulate your partner into fulfilling them. The next step is to get honest, real, and vulnerable and communicate those feelings and needs to your partner without holding them responsible for meeting them or making them wrong.
There is a saying that you can never get enough of what you really don't want. None of us really want someone to give attention to us because we've coerced or manipulated them into doing so. Attention given in response to coercion is inevitably unsatisfying, no matter how much of it we receive. And yet even the most independent of us needs human contact and genuine emotional connection. When the need for these experiences goes unmet, we experience "dis-ease"—symptoms that make us aware that there is something in our lives that requires attention. We may become irritable, impatient, depressed, agitated, ill, or anxious.
At the same time, we all have needs to be separate as well. Solitude is a state of being that allows us to experience self-reflection and practice awareness. Linda grew to appreciate solitude more fully after I stopped trying to make her feel wrong for her needs—and I became more appreciative of our time together when she showed the same respect for my need for some separateness. If our partner is stronger in one area than we are, we can, through our relationship, more fully experience the aspect of ourselves that is less developed. In so doing, we create a life that is more balanced, integrated, and conscious.
It does require the willingness to experience some discomfort until we begin to see that our partner is giving us gifts and not problems—but that is temporary and a small price to pay.
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