“Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world, depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
Relationships naturally go through various stages of development and changes over time as couples transition between romance, conflict, and resolution. Quite often, the same qualities that served as powerful early attractors toward your partner later become perceived as sources of discontent. The expectation for long-term relationships to remain entrenched in blissful romance, without any negotiation of needs/expectations or commitment to growth as a couple is unrealistic. It is when we start to view these natural relationship transitions as threatening and absolve ourselves of responsibility that a problematic relationship cycle can intensify.
While there are certainly a host of serious issues that can plague the core of any relationship, it is often the case that problems begin to appear larger than they truly are due to the attitude that we take toward them, the responsibility that we assume for the role we play in the relationship dynamic, and the meaning or interpretation that we assign (consciously or otherwise) to our partners’ behaviors.
It is important to recognize that when you enter into a romantic relationship with another individual, you bring with you a large body of personal values, goals, expectations, personality traits, and temperament that are all your own. Your partner is not responsible for the way that you were raised, your past relationship history, your belief system, or your sense of yourself as an individual. A relationship is the connection of two separate individuals who come together in the hopes of finding compatibility, sharing hopes/dreams, finding love/support, and building a life together rich with shared meaning and purpose.
Many relationship expectations are artifacts from your own history that you may be unwittingly bringing into your current partnership. For example, if your parent or previous partner(s) always did something like take out the trash, cook dinner, or pick their socks up off the floor, the absence of these habits in your current partner may stand out to you as being much more important than someone who was not “taught” to have these expectations in relationships.
The idea is that we learn through repeated experiences with our parents and romantic partners what to expect (and not expect) from current relationships. Awareness of these expectations can be an important step toward developing compassion for your partner and releasing expectations that may not be all that important in the grand scheme of things. When expectations go unmet that truly are nonnegotiable in your mind, the onus is on you to directly communicate those needs.
If you find yourself navigating through what feels like a conflict stage of your relationship, take a few moments to mindfully step back and look at the big picture. Take stock of what other factors in each of your individual and shared lives may be contributing to your sense of distress. Consider ways in which that distress can be transformed into a form of eustress that strengthens your relationship. If you truly want to work through the conflict in your relationship, you must be willing to clearly state your needs/expectations and then be willing to leave the relationship if you reach a point where it becomes clear that compromise cannot be reached.
During times of external stress, it is easy for judgments to become clouded and to direct negativity toward yourself, your partner, and the relationship. Rather than express your stress by labeling and judging each and every thing your partner does and doesn’t do, imagine what it would be like to focus on the things that you can do differently to bring about the playfulness, love, compromise, and harmony in your relationship. Unwillingness to reflect on the role that you play in creating the relationship dynamic has the potential of prematurely ending a relationship and ultimately trading one set of relationship problems for a “new” set of problems with another partner.
If you truly want to stay in your relationship, it is clear that things must change. Rather than focusing immediately on all the ways in which your partner could change, try starting with yourself. You may be surprised by the power that changing your attitude, perspective, and behaviors can actually have on influencing your authentic emotions in the relationship, as well as indirectly “changing” your partner for the better. Make the choice to put “we” before “me” in the relationship and notice the consequences.
Remember that if you look for something long enough and persistently enough, you’re quite likely to find some evidence to confirm your hypotheses about “what kind of person” your partner may or may not be. In fact, expecting negative qualities from your partner and being reluctant to give them the benefit of the doubt may even lead to confirmation that you were “right” after all, simply because your partner became increasingly influenced by your attitudes and judgments.
When you choose to focus on what you’re getting in a relationship, as opposed to what you’re giving, resentment and frustration may naturally build. No matter how irritating your partner’s behavior may be in the moment, remember that your interpretation of that behavior and the meaning that you assign to it plays a powerful role in determining a positive or negative outcome.
Interpretations of Problematic Relationship Behaviors
Consider the following typical interpretations of problematic behaviors in relationships. Take a few deep breaths and allow yourself to be open and willing to acknowledge tendencies that you may have to gravitate toward these interpretations. Consider how your relationship may be more positively impacted by consciously shifting the meaning that you assign to each (real or perceived) problematic behavior.
(1) It’s deliberate
This interpretive stance may be experienced as a tendency to take your partner’s behaviors very personally, perceiving each irritating or unwanted behavior as a personal slight. For example, imagine that your partner has come home from a stressful day and doesn’t greet you with the same hug or smile that you have grown accustomed to – interpreting this behavior as “deliberate” involves reacting to this behavior by deciding it means that he or she doesn’t care about or prioritize you.
A more productive way to approach this same scenario would be to engage in cognitive reappraisal, thinking to yourself, “It looks like my partner just had a really stressful day.” Remember that many of us periodically engage in behaviors without consistent mindfulness or attention to how those actions may be impacting others. If this is a regular habit, it is worth addressing, but it is also important to give your partner a bit of leeway if they occasionally come across as distant or overly focused on themselves.
(2) This messiness is unacceptable / disrespectful
Take a step back and honestly appraise the degree to which your partner creates messiness in their own personal “domain” (e.g., their personal office or closet) versus messiness for all members of the household to experience. In 80% of couples who live together, messiness or disorganization tends to be reported as a significant source of tension in the relationship. You must be willing to accept the fact that you cannot truly change another person… and expecting your partner to morph into a person who organizes and cleans just as you do is self-centered and unrealistic.
If you find yourself feeling openly disrespected by messiness, express willingness to verbalize in kind and direct terms what is bothering you. Give your partner specific examples of things you would like to be different (as they impact your shared living space or an expectation from your partner for you to clean up after him or her). When an issue such as this becomes gridlocked and resistant to change, remember that you always have the power to change your attitude. If the messiness bothers you significantly, choose to reframe the situation by reminding yourself of positive behaviors that you appreciate in your partner that are much more important.
(3) The way my partner does [.....] means he/she doesn’t love me
The ways in which we learn to express and receive love are learned over the course of time as a complex result of many interactions that we have had with important attachment figures in our lives. Just because your partner has learned what love looks like or feels like differently than you have, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the love you desire is not authentically present behind his or her actions. For example, perhaps your partner feels like a simple expression of love is a hug and kiss when you come home, where you feel like an expression of love is going out to do an activity together.
If you become willing to let go of the notion that there is a “right” and “wrong” way of expressing love (aside from abusiveness) and are open to expressing your feelings to your partner in a way that he or she can best receive them, love may arise more naturally. We often express and show our love to others in the way that we would like to receive love from others. That doesn’t make any one partner “bad” for expressing love in this way, it simply means that increased self-awareness and willingness adapt to your partner’s needs may be helpful. When you truly wish for your partner to feel your love and support, realization of this truth may make it much easier to consciously adapt the way that you express your love.
I look forward to exploring seven more common relationship conflicts in my next post, “Stop Trying to Change Your Partner: Change Your Attitude – Part Two” along with the importance of how we assign meaning and interpret those problematic behaviors. Keep in mind that the way you respond in any given situation, no matter how irritating or hurtful, is up to you. If you feel a sense of uncertainty over just how “important” any of these common relationship issues truly are to you, try investing time in reflecting on your authentic self in a mindful way. When you develop a clearer sense of exactly who you are and your deepest desires and expectations in a relationship, greater clarity and peace of mind may be reached.
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Dixit, J. (2011). “You’re driving me crazy!” Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200903/youre-driving-me-crazy
Featured image: I’ll Give You All I Can… by Brandon Christopher Warren / CC BY-NC 2.0