Exiting Love's Perpetual Tug-of-War

Where Happily Ever After Meets Never Again

In seeking love, we engage in a never-ending tug-of-war with ourselves that dramatically colors our connection to our partner. On the one hand, we take actions that we hope will make permanent (as in, "lived happily ever after") our connection to the “other” (spouse, partner, lover, or friend). We act from the barely conscious belief that “if only” we make the right choices we will achieve our romantic/intimate ideal. On the other hand, we are haunted by the dim awareness that no matter what we do, our efforts will ultimately end in separation from that ideal partner. They'll disappoint us, leave us, or we'll end up leaving them. (In this blog, I’ll use partner to refer to our intimate other, regardless of the form of the connection.)

The Couple's Clash - Is it About You or About Me?

The titanic clash of those urges, needs and desires is evident whenever I work with couples in therapy. Their hurt, anger, jealousy, resentment, and mistrust reveal the emotional collisions that have occurred within each partner as their hopes and dreams of the ideal relationship “union” comes into conflict with the deep-seated fear of what life may be like if they can’t find a means of rekindling their vision of ideal love.

The challenge, of course, is that each partner is simultaneously engaged in this tug-of-war within themselves but plays out the tension in their relationship in ways that often inflames or intensities their conflict with their partner. Too often, we fail to recognize that much of our relationship dissatisfaction and emotional pain stems less from our partner’s true shortcomings and more from how we have unfairly burdened our partner with our unrealistic expectations. This is not a new discovery, but the tendency to see it as true for others but not for ourselves throws open the door to the relationship struggles we swear we couldn’t see coming until the conflict’s presence is undeniable and unavoidable. The writer Anaïs Nin recognized this all-too-common self-delusion when she said, “We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

A Tale From the Therapy Archives

To not appreciate the distorting power of our unacknowledged and unexamined relationship lens is to risk dooming ourselves to reoccurring relationship dances that almost inevitably end the same way. I recall a client who experienced a long series of relationships with women that invariably ended the same way: He again went out of his way. He again was excessively accommodating. He again opened his heart. And, he was again betrayed by a self-centered partner he didn’t see as self-centered until it was too late.

Then, when on the verge of giving up on love he felt his fortune had at last changed.  He excitedly shared with a close friend that he had finally found a woman who was so clearly different from all the others. Unlike the others, this woman was the one. His friend, all too familiar with this dance, sarcastically and emphatically said, to my client, “You are right. This one is a brunette!” The client later came to me in frustration and despair because it turned out his friend was right. The different hair color was not sufficient to induce a fundamental change in the underlying tug-of-war that continued to play itself out within him and in his romantic male-female relationships.

Taming the Triggers

In relationships, we all experience recurring patterns of conflict. We can all identify something that triggers strong reactions in us. We can often recognize that, in hindsight, our reactions can seem out of proportion to the triggering event. And, we can too often admit that knowing what bothers us in advance doesn’t necessarily prevent the triggered reaction in the moment.

What can we do to make lasting changes in these patterns of relationship conflict so we don’t become prisoners of relational revolving doors? What are practical and powerful steps we can take to quell the reactive, conflict-maintaining impulse in favor as actions that build stronger, more intimate connections with that special other?

3 Steps to Building Better Connections to Self and Other

·         A tough but critically important question to ask yourself is; What are the most private emotional expectations I have of my partner? Approach the question gently, repeatedly, and courageously. The path to answering it will take time and evoke both a deep longing for its fulfillment and a deep fear that it will never be fulfilled. Many clients, when learning to ask this question, begin to appreciate how their expectations of their partner, so deeply rooted in personal unmet needs, get pushed onto their partner in ways the partner can never hope to satisfy. In that expanded awareness, what is emotionally possible and rewarding can begin to replace the unattainable ideal.

·         When it comes to love, we must learn flexibility. Our careful plans, our rigid expectations, and our over-idealized dreams block our ability to allow into our hearts what is in reality available to us. Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist said, We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” As we learn to peel back what we’ve unrealistically projected onto our partner, we can begin to appreciate what he or she actually possesses and offers. Long-term happiness is associated with the ability to appreciate what is in favor of what is supposed to be, according to some mythical ideal. Learn to see your partner for who she or he is.

·         Being loving is fundamentally about giving, not receiving. The paradox is that through giving, we are most likely to receive just what we need in return. Jewish wisdom practice says we are naturally oriented to give. These ancient practices describe a condition (timtum ha’lev – a stopped up heart) in which our natural inclination toward generosity of spirit, time, attention, or assistance is plugged or constipated. Breaking free of burdening our partner with unmeetable expectations can be stimulated by practicing ways small acts of unrequited kindness and loving attention. The dividends can pay out over a lifetime or intimate connection.

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