First of all, it is helpful to recognize that people are complicated and the relationship between two complicated people from two different backgrounds is going to be complicated and requires some work to stay healthy. We are not well served by the childhood fairytales or the Hollywood movies where two people fall in love and live happily ever after. Having been exposed to a lot of that, many people wrongly expect that as long as there is love, there should be no difficulties or need for work. They wrongly assume that there is something wrong with them, their partner, or their relationship if they start to experience difficulties. The Sufis, a spiritual group with a lot of wisdom, bless a newlywed couple with “May your troubles begin”, not as a curse but with a realistic knowing that trouble will arise, through which growth can occur. When there are no challenges, there is no opportunity for growth all. Overcoming challenges can strengthen the bond, increase maturity, resilience, compassion, intimacy and wisdom amongst many other valuable personal qualities and relationship qualities.
On a cloudy stormy day, we feel neither the warmth nor the brightness of the sun, yet it is still there. Similarly, there are times of conflict with our children when we find ourselves feeling angry and not warmly towards them- yet we still love them throughout that whole time. It’s just like a cloudy day when our love, like the sun, is still there though not felt.
When there has been a lot of conflict in a couple, I sometimes hear people say “I fell out of love”. I tell them that the initial “in love” feeling is not expected to last and persist all the time. Brain studies done on people while they were “in love” showed patterns similar to those in addictions. An enduring relationship is based on commitment to try to resolve conflict and overcome the challenges that come along, and instead of flames of passion constantly sparking, there is the enduring deep commited love and respect of the burning coals that come after and last. When there has been a lot of hurt and anger for a long time, it can be hard to access the mutual caring that is there, or remember that there is a sun behind all those clouds when the weather has been lousy for so long.
Because a relationship is a “system” with multiple parts: the two individuals, their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, actions, past and present circumstances, and the dynamics between the two individuals, there are definitely times when relationships either spiral downwards (with ongoing deterioration) or spiral
upwards (with ongoing improvement). This can happen quite abruptly. Because the happiness of each individual is affected by the health of the relationship, and the happiness and security of any children is also affected, it is good for each partner to be monitoring the pulse of the relationship, and doing what he/she can towards consciously starting an upwards spiral. This can include telling one’s partner what has been noticed and asking for a joint effort in spiralling upwards. With both partners sharing the same intention and working as a team to “spiral upwards”, success is likely.
There are innumerable ways of spiralling upwards: what they all have in common is promoting positive feelings and feelings of being cared about. Some examples include suggesting doing something together, offering validation of the other’s feelings and an apology if appropriate, expressing heartfelt appreciation, expressing admiration, offering a hug, making a favorite meal, expressing curiosity about some aspect of your partner’s life, expressing compassion, performing a task your partner has been asking you to, writing/sending little love notes…your imagination is the limit. Because you know your partner, you’re in the best position to know what he/she will appreciate and what will have special meaning for him/her.
In the meantime, refrain from getting angry, blameful, critical, discussing your
partner’s faults, putting your partner down, being less respectful,
withdrawing, being cold, resentful, or hopeless. “Venting” a lot of negative emotion is not too constructive. These are the types of interactions that tend to result in a downward spiral.
Instead, if you have a request or preference, by all means calmly and respectfully express it so that your partner can respond to it. It is very helpful to make your requests as specific as possible. This, too, is an important part of a couple’s life, to prevent resentment from unaddressed unmet needs and hurts. The key is to express yourself calmly and respectfully, feeling that you are giving your loving partner INFORMATION about your feelings, unmet needs, and requests, rather than feeling that you are facing your enemy who wants to hurt you. As the listener, it is very important to receive the communication as INFORMATION, not blame or attack, and empathize with your partner’s feelings, trying to help him/her “feel felt”.
People who love each other do hurt each other. It is inevitable. This is also true of parents who love their children, but hurt them unintentionally for the same reasons as below. It is important to trust that the hurt is not because you are not loveable enough or that your partner does not love you enough or is wanting intentionally to hurt you. Instead the hurt is because both we and our partners have emotional issues (we are grown-up children inside sometimes), that there are circular dynamics that keep themselves
alive between the individuals’ issues, as well as different cultural influences, circumstances, and misunderstandings. This is good news to trust, because it is reassuring, and makes healing possible.
It is very important for people to not continue communicating once they become ungrounded and angry. Calmly disengaging prevents the damaging escalation that leaves them both, and the relationship, hurt. Please read Damage Control in Relationships