Contributed by Nadia Persun, PhD
She married him because he was hardworking. She was considering divorce because he turned out to be a workaholic who was barely ever home. She loved his smile and sense of humor. Now she was blaming him for being bitter and sarcastic. She appreciated his easy going nature and laid back demeanor. It was maddening to her now that he would rather watch TV than talk to her about their relationship, that he did not help her to keep their house clean, and that he missed their bill payment deadlines on more than one occasion.
He married her because she was open with her feelings and straightforward about expressing her opinions. He now was irritated with her level of complaining, her blunt way of pointing out his mistakes and being overly focused on things that he considered small and unworthy of notice. He once loved spending time with her and telling her his deeper thoughts and feelings. He now was quietly terrified to bring up any issue of relative personal importance, as her tongue became sharp as a knife when it came to judging him. He would rather spend his after work hours watching TV and working on his car in the garage over the weekends.
She felt unhappy, lonely, misunderstood, and rejected. He felt hurt, criticized, unloved, and taken for granted. They both desperately yearned for love, respect, and appreciation, wanting nothing more but a hug. Unfortunately, their wicked way of negotiating their needs and expressing desires made them both decidedly unhugable. With perpetuating resentment and increasing distance, they were heading for destination called a Splitville. What has happened to this couple, so connected and loving only a few years ago, promising to each other with eagerness to love “till death do us part.”
Ironically, the qualities that initially cause love and attachment may, over time, morph into resentment and contempt. At the beginning of the relationship, our mindset is on building closeness. We focus on cooperating and seeking agreement. Over time, unfortunately, there is a shift in focus. Not because our partners change drastically and deteriorate in character as time goes by, but because we no longer notice what they do well. Such things become like air or water: much needed but taken for granted. We begin paying more attention to shortcomings. The focus perpetuates its motion: the more we zone in on the problematic habits and behaviors of another person, the more evidence of this sort we gather.
When picking on and criticizing our partners for their flaws and mistakes, we may even genuinely feel that our intentions are pure, that we point out these problems out of love, trying to correct things, and wanting what is best for the relationship. Despite good intentions, this approach has a strategic flaw. Trying to motivate someone to change, not by support and encouragement, but by bitter and steady criticism only creates hostility and a relational standoff. Unless we notice and disown this pattern, confrontation will become a habit, leading to the erosion of trust and making connecting conversations impossible.
In a safe relationship, partners can say awkward things, act conflicted, make mistakes, and still be forgiven. The opponent chooses to listen, support and connect, rather than judge, confront and correct. Feeling safe allows genuine communication and disclosure. On the contrary, when trust level is low, we listen to another person with increased guardedness and alertness. Most wisely chosen words and carefully selected arguments are easily misinterpreted. As conflicts increase in frequency and intensity and the negatives outweigh the number of good times spent together, partners not only avoid talking but become wary of each other’s company. The anticipation of spending time with a partner who is punitive and does not feel safe brings the same trepidation as the prospect of sticking hand in a mousetrap.
How do you end this bitter cycle and rejoice about the qualities that initially brought you together? The first step is trying to end the frantic search for self justice, tempering down the high expectations and judging stance. It is not about shifting to low standards but increasing patience and neutrality toward behaviors and points of view that disagree with your own. Examining your personal level of fairness and integrity in treating another person may be a painful but much needed introspective examination. Some of us may realize that instead of connecting and acting with integrity, we are having a one sided conversation about ourselves, our needs and preferences, while also being forceful, controlling, and even manipulative. Of course, personal goals and opinions are important. But in all honesty, they are a measure of preference, not superiority.
It is also important to keep the emotional intensity in check when communicating. Some people deliver messages to their loved ones acting like kettles at full steam. It only creates negative emotional contagion: partners retaliate with anger or retreat in defensiveness. The validity or goodness of the initial message becomes irrelevant as it can’t be received. Calm down and realize that your partner is a human being who just like you wants to be treated with respect and talked to politely, without demands and put downs. Maybe our imperfect partners can still be lovable.
Maybe this person next to you is not broken and in need of a complete personality and behavioral makeover. What if it’s your own emotional nearsightedness developed over time is to blame for honing in on the relational shortcomings? Relationships are complicated and couple’s circumstances are unique. Yet, it’s worth examining if some partner related frustrations are at least, in part, relate to your own compulsive cycle of digging in a bin of apples and acting increasingly frustrated about why you are not pulling out any tomatoes. This realization may lead to a new way of fixing the problem and improving your relationship: being more flexible and kind, having a more positive and forgiving attitude, rather than trying to perpetually criticize and and forcefully mold habits and behaviors of other person.