Being in an adult love relationship can be a difficult task for many people. Even when we function very well in work or in friendships we can find ourselves experiencing emotional extremes in a love relationship that simply do not exist in these other areas. These extremes include intense love and connection, as well as intense rage, suspiciousness, disappointment, fear of abandonment, neediness, and entitlement. Most experts agree that this is related to our re-creation of the early symbiotic bonds we experienced in our families. Our deeply engrained emotional “memories” emerge when we least expect them and we can respond to a nuance or a tone in our partner’s voice with an intensity that more realistically belongs to these past relationships. The art of being in an adult love relationship involves learning how to recognize our own emotional “triggers” and then making a commitment to managing these triggers in a more reasoned and effective way. In my work with couples, I’ve developed these strategies for this ongoing work of being in-relationship.
Stop, Identify Your Feelings, and Check Them Out:
Just because you feel something (attacked, threatened, blamed, hurt, rejected), this does not necessarily reflect your partner’s intention. In fact, in the case of intense and repetitively occurring feelings, this is probably not the case. As stated, these intense and repetitive feelings are usually deeply ingrained emotional body memories and sensate responses related to childhood trauma. Check out the reality of these feelings with your partner.
For example: “I’m feeling criticized. Is it your intention to criticize me now?”
Instead of: “How dare you talk to me like that?”
Listen to What Your Partner Has to Say:
Breathe, stay open, and reach for empathy. Stop explaining or defending, and really listen to the content of what your partner is saying; even try to repeat it back (active listening). It is unproductive to counter-attack, counter-threaten, counter-blame, or counter-reject in an attempt to manage your emotions. As an adult you can survive being blamed, rejected, threatened, or attacked, even if it is actually happening. You do not have to fight as if your survival depends on it, and you do not have to be vindicated in the moment. The need to “win” or be “right” also cuts off the opportunity to have a dialogue about what may be our partner’s legitimate need or disappointment.
For example: “You’re saying that you’re upset that I didn’t think about making dinner. I see that this was very important to you. You would have liked me to think of you.”
Instead of: “How can you talk to me about making dinner? When was the last time you did anything for me?”
Contain Your Feelings, Don’t Act Out:
Stop, breathe, and attempt to make contact with and support the frightened, hurt, or angry child within. This is your job, not your partner’s. Your sense of well-being cannot be dependant on your partner’s behavior or validation. This is how you felt as a child, when your survival did depend on the good will and validation of an often irrational or non-respectful adult. Remember that your partner is probably imperfect, rather than of truly bad intention. Remember that two people of good will can have different perceptions of the same situation, each rooted in his/her own experience. Support yourself, so you can be open to your partner’s experience.
For example: Say to yourself: “These are my familiar childhood feelings. I don’t have to defend myself. I can breathe through these feelings. I can wait to react. I can be open to what my partner is saying.”
Instead of: “Unless you admit what you’re doing, this relationship is over. I can’t be with someone I don’t trust.”
Ask for What You Need:
Just because your partner has not intuited your need, does not mean he/she has actively rejected or shamed you. Your partner may be anxious, depressed, threatened, unaware, or even self-involved. Hopefully, he/she is educable and of good will, and hopefully you are working on building a relationship together. Hopefully, your partner will learn to be more aware and responsive over time. Ask for what you need, rather than making a statement about what you’re not getting. This creates a shift toward hopefulness and openness, and away from blame and self- fulfilling negative prophecy.
For example: “You know how easily I feel criticized. Could you try to say the same thing without any blame attached? Could you try and just tell me about your own need or reaction.”
Instead of: “You are just a mean person. You’ll never learn how to talk to another human being.”
Accept Frustration or Disappointment:
Your partner cannot always give you what you need, even when you do ask directly, usually because of his/her own emotional trauma and imperfections. In a good relationship, we get some of what we need most of the time. In a great relationship, we get most of what we need most of the time. Over time, you can assess whether you have a “good enough” partner and a “good enough” relationship, and you can make decisions about the relationship based on your assessment. This cannot be done in the heat of the moment, during one fight or because of one disagreement. As adults, we can survive not having our needs met, even needs that are deeply felt. This is part of accepting our partner as an imperfect, separate human being. Again, our survival does not depend on a specific emotional need being met immediately, and we can only assess the value of the relationship and the full measure of our partner over time.
For example: “I’m disappointed that you keep criticizing me and I feel upset by it. I hope we can work out a better way to talk about your frustration (hurt, disappointment…) in the future.”
Instead of: “This relationship is hopeless. I’ll never get what I need from you. I’m leaving.”
Attempt to Work Out Feelings Inside the Relationship:
This is especially important when you find yourself confirming familiar negative thoughts or feelings (triangulating) with a friend or even with a therapist, or when you find yourself withdrawing into a private self-congratulating mental dialogue. If you confirm your negative world-view, you will feel morally superior and you may even feel safe, but you will not develop a partnership. This is the opposite of being in a relationship. It is like being alone—either with yourself, or with someone who is offering you a mirror image of yourself–and it only serves to confirm your childhood emotional world-view and set of expectations. As Harville Hendricks once asked, “Would you rather be right or be in a relationship?”
For example (to a friend): “I know you’re trying to support me, but I should really bring these feelings back to my relationship and see if I can work them out there. It’s too easy to confirm all my negative feelings.”
Instead of: “Don’t you agree that I’m right? Can you believe how badly he/she acted? Isn’t he/she unbelievable?”