When did the honeymoon end in your relationship? Was it the first time you realized that your mate wasn't all you had hoped for? Or maybe it was when you discovered that sometimes their cheerful optimism could turn to resentment or depression for no apparent reason. Do you remember your first fight? How about the first time that you wondered whether you had made a mistake in your selection of a partner? If you're typical, then you've had the experience of disappointment, frustration, confusion, resentment or helplessness more times than you'd care to admit since you exchanged vows.
If you're like most of us, you may have taken these feelings as an indication that something could be seriously out of line in our marriage or relationship. And if you're human, you've probably attempted to influence your partner's feeling, attitudes or behaviors only to discover that you'd now created a new problem.
Most of us spend between 12 and 20 years of our lives in school, yet nowhere are we really informed as to the specific requirements of sustaining and enhancing the quality of our relationships. We hope, believe or pray that despite our ignorance of the nature of interpersonal relationships that we can make it work anyway. And when the inevitable upsets arrive, we may feel defeated, angry, or despaired.
Though conflict may not be avoidable in marriage, it is not necessarily a foreshadowing of doom. Differences in opinions, feelings, temperaments, and even values are an inherent aspect of relationship. In fact, we generally select partners who will help us to expand our inner and outer lives by offering a life perspective that differs from our own. Unfortunately, opening up to these opportunities for growth can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Often it is easier to tell ourselves that "it's just not meant to be." And yet how many of us are acquainted with couples who called it quits in frustration, only to turn around and play out the same pattern with another person?
What if the object of relationships was not to eliminate or even minimize conflict but to work with it in an effective, responsible and conscious way? What if each breakdown that occurred between you held the seeds of the possibility of becoming a more loving and wiser person? What if your experience of your relationship had more to do with you than it did with your partner? What if there were no mistakes or wrong choices in the selection of a mate, and you really do have the perfect partner for the lessons that you're in this relationship to learn?
The purpose of these questions is to generate an inquiry and to begin the process of going beyond the models, expectations, and beliefs we all have about relationships. In this way, we discover and create new possibilities. The biggest barrier in the development of a high-functioning partnership is our own preconceived beliefs about being in relationship.
Observing the suffering of other couples that are struggling in their marriages, it's easy to presume that things inevitably break down sooner or later and that for most couples, the breakdown is permanent. It's easy to wonder, "Who's next? Is it us?" The tendency to feel resignation and hopelessness in the face of fear is a choice, often made out of a desire to avoid looking more directly at some of the more difficult questions, such as:
"How might I have contributed to the current situation?"
"What beliefs about myself or others might I be validating by holding on to my position?"
"What is it that I'm so attached to being right about and why?"
"What, if anything, might I have done that I need to reveal to my partner?"
"What fear is underneath my fear of losing (or staying in) this relationship?"
"What unfulfilled needs or desires have I failed to disclose to my partner, and why?"
"What forms of manipulation (examples: intimidation, nagging, fault-finding, guilt-tripping, shaming, raging, withdrawing) have I used to try to coerce my partner into accommodating my desires?"
"Am I making my partner responsible for fulfilling needs within myself that are my responsibility and not theirs?"
The common thread that runs through all of these questions is that they are all self-referential. They require us to redirect the focus of our attention away from our partner and look instead at ourselves, to look at our part in the chain of events that led us to the point where we currently stand. Doing so does not absolve them of their responsibility in the breakdown, but it empowers us to focus our energies on the only person that we have the power to influence in this scenario, and that is ourselves.
Taking our attention off of our partner will enable us to embody a higher level of vulnerability and encourage them to them to feel less defensive and consequently more inclined to listen to our concerns and needs with a more conciliatory attitude. Such openness is likely to promote a greater likelihood that he or she will be more willing to reciprocate by responding more non-adversarially themselves, thus interrupting the cycle of defensiveness that turns ordinary differences into destructive conflict.
There is, of course, no guarantee that their response will be reciprocal. Our vulnerability is merely an invitation to respond with vulnerability. It is not assurance that such a response will be forthcoming. There is, however, no better way to find out how willing your partner is to undefend themselves than by providing an example for what this can look like by disarming yourself of your own defenses.
When we can interrupt these patterns, we can move beyond the concerns of day-to-day survival and raise new questions having to do with greater possibilities, such as, "How great could our relationship really be?" Once we understand that there is so much more that is possible than we may have previously realized, old dreams are reawakened and new ones come into being along with a newfound confidence to implement them.
Paradoxically, it's only when we accept that there is no magic involved in the process of relationship building, and no perfect partner with whom we can effortlessly co-create the partnership of our dreams, that we begin to experience the degree of ease and joy that we had previously hoped for. But first we need to free ourselves of our limiting beliefs and expectations. Like the saying goes, to find the partner of your dreams, you must first become the partner of your dreams. In so doing you will become irresistible to that person that you have been waiting for, whether you haven't met them yet or whether you've been married to them for 30 years!
For more by Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW, click here.
For more on conscious relationships, click here.