You could say that couples are the foundation of our society. When couples are functioning well with one another, everyone around them is more at ease and more optimistic about life in general. But when they’re dysfunctional it can be a horror show. It may even become traumatizing or re-traumatizing for everyone involved.
The fact is, most of us are ill-equipped to successfully navigate the waters of intimate relationships long term. It’s humbling, but it’s true.
We may love our significant other deeply, but we simply don’t have the practical tools to navigate our primary relationships well.
For many of us, no one taught us how to truly listen or compassionately relate to ourselves while relating to another at the same time (and let’s be honest, that is a quite complex process). No one warned us that we would project, involuntarily and incessantly, all our unresolved wounds onto our partner and those closest to us. No one warned us that relationships take a great deal of effort and are terrifying in how much they expose about our own unresolved shit.
We are so quick to believe there is something innately wrong with us or the relationship itself. Relationships are supposed to be EASY, right? Wrong.
We set out to work on ourselves, but it’s often colored by unkindness and what I call “fantasy thinking” – For example, the whole, “I just need to love myself more” trap. It’s easy to give up on your relationship and chock it up to the relationship being too hard, growing apart, or needing time to “work on yourself”. But you know what’s difficult and totally WORTH IT? Navigating intimacy for real. It takes skill, but the payoff is amazing- and I know you can do it.
If you don’t have a good map, you sink before you ever set sail. So what is the map?
Well, first let me tell you what a map is NOT. It shouldn’t be full of flourishes about “flow” and “ease” and other unrealistic expectations. A road map for a relationship shouldn’t tell you to avoid bumps in the road- it should tell you now to navigate them. It should not tell you not to fight, but HOW to fight fairly and with respect.
Relationships are a microcosm of the greater human drama. They are an endless battle of narratives and there’s no way around that. The simple fact of having two people with very different perceptions of what’s happening at any given moment complicates matters.
A good relationship makes you a better person. Point blank. I wish someone had warned me that my own relationship would be a crucible designed to burn up all my entitlements and selfishness!
We need to recognize our neurobiology. Once the drugs of the “honeymoon stage” have worn off, the partner ceases to be novel and instead ends of becoming “deep family” (as my teacher Stan Tatkin calls it). It will unfold differently for each couple. Some may experience feelings of abandonment or not being seen or “never being good enough”. It becomes focused on safety and security. People don’t want to reduce it to something that simple, as they are tied to a romantic notion of what a relationship is. They want a fantastical partner who completely cleared all of their relational past. Yet this is impossible!
There are now decades upon decades of research about what human beings need to feel safe and secure in a relationship. Attachment theory, developmental neuroscience, interpersonal neurobiology and biological anthropology are great places to start. And there is a legacy of practitioners in the trenches doing their best to crack the code of how to make relationships endure.
The fact of the matter is, you can’t self-diagnose. There’s way too much going on in your world and in your relationship. You need an impartial observer.
I strongly believe that relationships need to feel held by others that are encouraging the couple to be sober, aspirational and compassionate as they grow through pain together. My wife and I have come to the brink multiple times in our marriage and it was only through the compassionate wisdom of an impartial other person that we were able to recommit to practices like slowing down and letting go of being right.
There’s an understandable hesitance to bring your relationship “dirty laundry” out for others to see and experience. What if you’re the only one with a whole lot of crazy going on in your relationship? Well, I’m here to tell you…you aren’t. In fact, I wish to advance a cultural shift where we normalize crazy and difficult relationships because more often than not, that is the reality. To me, it’s just plain unhealthy to contain this “dirty laundry” within a household, between two people and expect everything to thrive. Let us normalize this process!
It is understandable that partnerships will have difficulties. Every couple could use some guidance. Getting a clear picture of which issues are important to focus on gives the relationship a root and foundation upon which to grow and mature in a healthy way.
Even if you’re currently frustrated in your relationship, don’t give up just yet! There is so much untapped energy and (I’ll just say it) LOVE. Real love, the kind of love that naturally comes out when a human feels safe and met by another.
You are both going ALL IN, seeing what actually happens as things unfold. Issues may dissolve once there is a true place of security. The relationship becomes a healing ground. Each person holds the other to a higher account of one’s greatest self and purpose. Rising together, recognizing that you may have to let go of shortsighted to goals to really create a stronger, long-term vision together.
It is a humble quest. A vulnerable one. A profoundly powerful one that has the potential to radically shift the lives of each individual as well as the third entity that is the relationship itself. Though most are ill-equipped to successfully navigate the changing waters of relationship, it doesn’t mean we can’t get the help and support we need. It is here. And it’s waiting for you.
Resources for couples: