“If we are in love, this should be easier, right?”
You may ask yourself this question after having another major fight. Even more maddening, the cause of it seemed so silly. You look back and wonder how something so ordinary could cause so much conflict and distance.
Here’s the familiar pattern. You bring up something that seems to you to be pretty simple - say you want to know why he forgot to pick up the eggs on the way home. You’re thinking “not a big deal”, if he did forget you’ll just have to rework your plan. He gets defensive: “I can’t remember everything! Cut me some slack - I work my tail off for this family.” Confused by his defensiveness, you push back. He picks up on this and becomes more angry. Tired of the unfair attacks, you bring up how frustrating it is that he’s so often forgetting things that matter to you. Chaos ensues - where it seems all of your past faults and hurts are resurrected from their graves, the rotting tombs that were never adequately grieved or cared for in the first place.
You consider giving up. If it’s this hard, can it really be love?
The quality of your relationship can feel like it teeters on a knife edge, so often falling towards pain and distancing. Here is a hopeful truth: you are not far off from turning the other way, towards closeness and comfort. The relationship turns on a very important moment, one steeped in your brain chemistry and past emotional experiences. You see it in the look he gives you, or in the way she says a certain word – the causes can be infinite. The result: you are no longer talking about a thing (finances, scheduling, toothpaste). Instead you hear “he doesn’t care about me.”
Here your brain shifts – out of your prefrontal cortex and into your amygdala. The shift happens rapidly. The purpose: avoid pain. Throughout life, we long for closeness, acceptance, and love. When receive something different, we experience pain and loss. Our brains capture these moments - the sounds, the sights, the facial expressions, the contexts – and then actively compares them to our present experiences. When there is a match, our brain instantly transitions to protect us. What instinctive actions protect us? Defensiveness, distancing, hyper-vigilance for threats: the very things that also happen to correspond with negative relationship outcomes. A brain/behavior system that acts to protect us from pain so often also serves to perpetuate our pain.
What are we to do?
First, on the surface you can act with understanding of your brain’s emotion processing. Watch for the early signs of emotion intensity. Make a plan with your partner or spouse to leave the conflict or situation. Not for good – that would be stonewalling (another disaster for relationships). No, leave to cool off: literally – cool your body temperature, slow down your breathing, and allow your brain to regain access to your prefrontal cortex. Think about what you feel and why you feel it, what you need from the other person, and what the other person may need from you. Only then, return and rejoin the conversation.
Second, you may have some personal work to do. Those past injuries that remain uncared for need attention. They keep coming back up in present conversations because they remain unresolved, unforgiven, and uncared for. Honesty and humility are helpful guides here. Take the time to take a real look at your own pain, why it is there, and how it impacts your relationship.
You may need some help with this, and so might your partner or spouse. Good couples therapy can help each of you learn to give and get what you need, to come to peace with each other, and to find ways to give empathy while also retaining your independence. At the heart of that work is a very important truth: you can show you care about what someone is feeling without agreeing with the reasons or causes for that feeling.
We don’t water a plant once, and then expect fruit the next day. No, we till the ground, pull the weeds, work the soil, care for the plant, give it time and space, give it no more or less than what it needs, and after much time and care it produces fruit. It is no surprise that psychology research has found that the most satisfied in relationships are those who have been together a long time. It takes a long time (and thus a lot of work) to create something good. So, let’s get to work – you and the person you love are worth it!
I am a licensed psychologist practicing in Denver, CO.