It is no surprise that marriage and serious romantic relationships are fertile grounds for conflict. These relationships consist of two people, with often vastly different personalities, communication styles, family histories, ways of giving and receiving love, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. Add to that the relational wounds that each of us carries. And our human condition as people who are far from perfect. Sprinkle in some stress from the daily pressures of life, work, and maybe even raising children. Smack those lives together, and what do you get?– Differences. Disagreements. Conflict. Often lots of it.
And this conflict often feels different than the conflicts we experience in other domains of life. It often feels deeper. If a random acquaintance insulted me, I would probably be upset, but I might even be able to shrug it off after a while. A friend’s insults certainly sting. But when we feel insulted by our spouse or significant other, it often creates a bigger and deeper reaction from us. At the end of the day, it’s because these people mean so much to us. The hurt is so big to us because the relationship is so big to us.
So the conflicts in these most precious relationships are often frequent and often big. It can often lead couples to feel like they’re alone or uniquely stuck. One of the first questions you might ask yourself is this– what’s the problem? Maybe you’ve even said these words amid a conflict with your loved one– What’s the problem?!
What is the problem? We often think of the problem as the thing we are fighting about. We often think of it in terms of financial stress, parenting differences, relationships with our loved one’s family members, household tasks, physical intimacy, work schedules, a difference in values, or even communication differences.
Sometimes, we are even tempted to see the other person as the problem. In our honest moments, we might think, “this relationship would be better if my loved one were different– the problem is with them!” Other times, we believe that we ourselves are the problem. Again in our honest moments, we might think to ourselves, “if I could just do or be better, this relationship would succeed.”
What is the problem? I believe that if we view the problem as being reduced to an issue, the other person, or even ourselves, we will short-circuit the process of healing. The problem is not fundamentally a person or an issue. It’s that these closest relationships end up bringing out our deepest insecurities. And our insecurities interact with our loved one’s insecurities. And our negative reactions in moments of insecurity bring out negative reactions from our loved ones. And their reactions reinforce our reactions, and our reactions reinforce their reactions. And on, and on, and on. The problem is that all couples end up getting in these negative spirals where they feel stuck. And like a truck spinning circles in the mud, the longer you go, the more deeply you feel entrenched.
So how do you get unstuck? It starts with no longer seeing an issue, the other person, or even yourself, as the sole problem. It starts with seeing this terrible cycle of interacting as the problem, and teaming up with your loved one to fight against it. The cycle becomes your common enemy. Fighting the cycle includes courageously and vulnerably addressing your insecurities as a couple. It also includes addressing the deep-level emotions that drive your negative reactions towards one another. When these emotions and insecurities are worked on, your bond with one another is strengthened, and your negative cycle begins to reverse. Positive momentum and intimacy are sparked.
It might sound complicated, but the solutions actually are not. There are well-researched and straightforward paths to getting out from feeling stuck and moving forward with connecting. Couples can and do get unstuck. Connection happens. Couples find a new and deeper way.
A therapist can be a great asset in helping a couple learn how to get unstuck and connect deeply with each other. Likewise, the books Created for Connection (Johnson and Sanderfer) and Hold Me Tight (Johnson) are also great resources that walk couples through this journey. Wherever you are at, I hope that you will find that the problem is not a person or an issue and that the solutions are full of hope and worth the fight. The right kind of fight.