I'm a big believer in relationships. I don't often encounter couples for whom I think the outlook is hopeless. Granted, some relationships are bad for both parties. What attracts people to one another can be the very defenses that hold them back in life -- for instance, the shy, indecisive person who chooses a loud, dominant partner. Often in this dynamic, the couple becomes polarized. The shy person retreats further, becoming more invisible in his or her life, while the more assertive partner takes control and directs their lives. However, just rejecting your partner does not solve the underlying issue for either of you. Facing and challenging the defenses that lead you to choose the partners you do is the important task to breaking this pattern.
Changing how you interact with your partner, for instance, speaking up more if you are the "quiet one," will begin to shift the dynamics in your relationship. I have long believed that the best setting for developing relationship skills and breaking defenses against love is in the context of a close interpersonal relationship. If you just abandon ship or jump in to a new relationship, you never learn a different style of relating. So, for all those couples, who were once blissfully happy and genuinely drawn to each other based on real qualities they each possessed, I truly believe that where there is a will, there is a way. If people are willing to challenge themselves and overcome their defenses, they can often learn to create a happy, satisfying, long-term love relationship with the partner they've chosen.
Now, with all that said, of course there are some relationships that just don't work. Some couples actually have a toxic effect on each other, where the mental health of the individuals involved deteriorates. So, how can you tell when it's time to move on? Certainly, the answer is unique to your relationship. However, there are some red flags to look out for, most importantly those that indicate that you or your partner are experiencing an increase in psychological symptoms or a degradation in your ability to function. These would be signs that it may be time to call it quits or, at least, to seek counseling or outside help.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to evaluate the situation:
• Is my relationship negatively affecting other areas of my life?
• Do I feel upset and fragmented a lot of the time?
• Am I too distracted by my relationship to function in healthy ways?
• Do I rarely feel like myself anymore?
• Am I anxious or desperate toward my relationship partner?
• Do I feel like there is something wrong with me that I am frantic to fix?
• Has my relationship impacted or hurt my friendships?
• Has it affected the way I parent (i.e. I'm distracted from caring for my children or I'm too reliant on them to meet my needs?)
• Do I feel chronically ashamed of myself?
• Do I feel down or hopeless about my life most of the time?
If you or your partner is experiencing this level of psychological distress, it is important to seek help. The two of you might benefit from a separation or even the termination of your relationship. You may have formed a destructive fantasy bond, an illusion of fusion, within which the psychological wellness of both you and your partner is deteriorating.
Another important thing is to ask yourself is, "How am I interacting with my partner most of the time?" Dr. John Gottman, who is one of the leading researchers on relationships, has spent 25 years observing couples' interactions. By observing couples in a "love lab," he found that he can predict with 94 percent accuracy which will divorce. According to Gottman, happy couples experience a 20-to-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Conflicted couples experience a rate of 5-to-1, while soon-to-divorce couples are at a .8-to-1. With these numbers in mind, it's no wonder that Gottman's research showed that the most common reason couples split after five to seven years is because of high conflict levels. For couples who separate after 10-12 years, the break up is usually due to loss of intimacy.
If your interactions with your partner are predominantly negative, it's time to look at your behavior more closely.
Gottman lists the four most toxic behaviors between couples:
1. Criticism -- are you blaming or attacking your partner?
2. Defensiveness -- are you closed off to feedback from your partner?
3. Contempt -- are you rolling your eyes, mocking or pushing your partner away?
4. Stonewalling -- are you shut down in your interactions with your partner? Is your underlying tone and body language stand-offish or withdrawn?
These four behaviors are all characteristics of relating in a fantasy bond as my father, Dr. Robert Firestone, delineated in his couples interaction chart, which contrasts relating in an ideal relationship to relating in a fantasy bond. Okay, now before you panic, everyone typically engages in some of these behaviors some of the time. We are human. We are flawed. And most of us, to varying degrees, are actually intolerant or afraid of love. As you investigate your relationship, it is important to have what Dr. Daniel Siegel refers to as a COAL attitude toward yourself -- and your partner, for that matter. COAL stands for curious, open, accepting and loving. Even if you and your partner decide to go your separate ways, this is a healthy and helpful attitude for you to maintain.
With this point of view, you can start to ask yourself the following questions:
• Do I act critical, defensive, contemptuous or stonewalling toward my partner a majority of the time?
• After I mistreat my partner in these ways, do I feel remorseful or righteous?
It may surprise you that, based on his research, Gottman dismisses communication problems, gender differences and infidelity as the biggest predictors of divorce. The truth is, you may be better off evaluating the above issues if you want to assess where you're at in your relationship. If you answered "yes" to a lot of the above questions, it may be time for a serious change.
As I said at the beginning of this blog, I believe in a person's ability to challenge negative traits and behaviors in themselves. We all have psychological defenses that protect us against real love and closeness, and most of us select partners who fit with these defenses. The solution isn't necessarily to move on and find someone else, because, since we take our defenses with us, they will lead to the same troubles in a new relationship. To challenge and change our defenses is work we alone have to do, and a relationship is a great place to do it, especially when the pay-off is the joy we get to experience in being loving and vulnerable to another person. Nevertheless, the person you're with may not be this person.
Relationships will never be seamless or entirely easy. There will always be struggles and stresses at one point or another. Yet, when all you're doing in your relationship is struggling and stressing, there may be someone out there with whom things will be simpler -- someone who will be more accepting and loving toward you. You don't need to dismiss your partner 100 percent at first, but maybe take a break and see how it feels. Breaking up is hard, but sometimes it is what's best for both people. Every individual is born deserving of love, and real and lasting love is possible for the long haul if we let down our defenses and allow ourselves to be loved.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org
Learn more in Dr. Lisa Firestone's upcoming Webinar, "6 Reasons Most People are Afraid of Love."