couples

Why are some relationships just harder?

 

Why are some relationships just harder?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

I’ve recently seen some articles asserting that ‘if people just communicated and committed to their relationship, then their problems would go away.’ While communication and commitment are very important, I think this overlooks the many people who are committed and communicating but still struggle.

In fact, I find that many people that come in for couples counseling are deeply committed and are communicating very clearly. Then why are these relationships still difficult?

We have outside stressors

Many of the sources of relationship difficulty have nothing to do with the effort invested in the relationship. In fact, studies show that some of the biggest predictors of relationship difficulty are largely outside of the couple’s control:

  • Poor health
  • Infertility
  • Miscarriage after 20 weeks
  • Low income
  • Multiple children with ADHD
  • Partner with mental health issues
  • Death of a child

If your friend seems to have an easier relationship than you, it may have more to do with your different stressors than it does with different effort. Actually, I find that most couples that come to counseling have been working tirelessly on their relationship. If they weren’t trying, they wouldn’t be coming to counseling. But with major or persistent stressors, communication can become a minefield. And it’s not always as easy as learning a few communication skills.

I am overjoyed when I see people who have easier relationships. But there is something uniquely encouraging about a couple that is still trying after years of difficulty. It takes a special type of courage and commitment to seek the help you need to better love your partner, even when it’s hard.

Our families are different

The families we’re born into also impact the ease or difficulty of our relationships. For better or worse, parents model what relationships are like, and some people have better models than others. We can choose to act differently than our parents, but in stressful times we tend to fall back into the patterns we saw modeled (or against the pattern, in an equally harmful overcorrection).  

Parents teach us what love is, how to show it, and how to receive it. They also teach us how to view ourselves. If our parents were neglectful or abusive, they gave us a distorted picture of our self. Without working through these issues, this lack of self-worth will lead us to look for that worth in our partner—creating challenging and often volatile relationships.

This requires more than a simple resolution to change. It takes awareness of how our families impacted our view of the world, relationship, and our self. Since our families tend to be our normal, we often need an outside perspective to help us heal from this impact. This doesn’t mean that you are too weak to handle it alone; it means that you are strong enough to pursue what is necessary to change it.  

We get stuck in a cycle

Couples often get stuck in patterns of relating that rob them of their joy in connecting. These cycles have nothing to do with their effort, compatibility, or how much they love each other. In fact, the fear of losing the other is often what escalates the conflict.  

The most common negative cycle is the pursue/distance (or attack/withdraw) pattern. People usually aren’t even aware that they are in this cycle. Most often, each partner simply sees the other as being unnecessarily critical or distant. It is hard for people stuck in this pattern to see the bigger picture.

Beneath this cycle, both partners truly value their connection, but they seek to preserve it in different ways: the pursuer by attacking  (to get through to them) and the distancer by withdrawing (to avoid conflict). Their mutual attempts to save the relationship (seen as criticism or lack of care by the other), only escalate the problem as each person doubles down on their ‘go-to’ strategy for preserving the relationship.

In these cases, demands for more communication will only push the withdrawer deeper into his bunker. Instead, we need help gaining awareness of our own role in the harmful cycle, so that we can interrupt it and develop a healthier pattern of relating.

Everybody’s relationship is different

It isn’t useful to compare our relationships to others, because everyone’s history and circumstances are different. Learning a few communication skills may be very helpful for someone whose relationship has had few stressors, had model parents, and hasn’t been stuck in a cycle.

For others, there will be too much anxiety and conflict in the relationship for communication skills to be the answer. This doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, that you don’t love each other, or that you aren’t compatible. Relationships are messy, and life often leaves us in places where we need help sorting out the pieces. In my opinion, one of the surest signs that someone loves and is committed to their partner is that they are willing to seek help during the hard times.

Different Isn’t Bad, It’s Just Not the Same

By: Andy Gear

A trip my wife and I took to Massachusetts reminded me of something I had learned as a kid from a man who had lived in Sierra Leone: “Different isn’t bad, it’s just not the same.”

 

Recently, my wife and I visited the town in Massachusetts where we spent our honeymoon. It’s just a little fisherman’s village, but it brought back so many memories of our first year together. One might assume that it made me nostalgic for that “honeymoon period” when we had no kids, no problems, and our whole life ahead of us. And it did.  But I also remembered how difficult that first year was.

No one ever told me that learning to live with another person would be so difficult. And if they did I ignored them, because we were young and in love. Why would we ever argue? We’re soul mates.

Different Isn't Bad

So I was surprised to learn during that first year that my wife is very different than me. We have different interests, different values, different ways of thinking, feeling, communicating, different views of money and conflict, and different ways of eating cereal.  Because she was different than what I grew up with, I assumed that her differences were wrong, bad, or illogical.  I remember going for walks with her in some of the old neighborhoods in U. City, talking about the things a young seminarian thinks important. I’d be in the middle of what I thought a life-changing idea, when she would stop me and make me observe a bed of flowers, an idyllic home, or the sun descending with the most beautiful shade of orange. I was so frustrated. Why didn’t she think like me? What was wrong with her? I tried to convince her to be more like me. That did not go over well at all. Then I remembered the saying I shared with you earlier, “Different isn’t bad, it’s just not the same.” I dwelt on this thought.

What if the things that are different about my wife are not only acceptable but are very good? What if my wife and I are custom made for each other and our individual qualities are meant to shape us into more whole, balanced, and fully functioning human beings?

I developed a new assumption: who my wife is now is very good.

With this new assumption in mind, I began to act upon it. I slowly began to receive my wife’s differences not as trials to bear but as gifts to be enjoyed. I tried to allow that person to shine through, to learn from her.

The result has been life changing.

I’m not convinced that I’m any better at marriage, but I appreciate who my wife is.  And in a small way I am becoming a more balanced, whole, and fully functioning human being. I believe that learning to embrace the beauty of who she is right now helped make my second trip to Massachusetts even better than the first.