There are those difficult times when partners don't get along and are emotionally disconnected. Frustration and hopelessness builds in when instead of greater closeness the efforts of both partners produced only disappointment. During such times can the love and the relationship survive? Relationship experts and conventional wisdom instruct us that we shouldn't try to change our partner, but within real relationships, partners always try to change each other. Our relationships are nature’s pathway through which to strongly encourage change and preferably growth. Most of us desire a strong partner. Universally a partner will seek to transform the other’s weaknesses, the cause of diminished attraction, inconvenience or pain. So what happens when the other steadfastly and chronically refuses to be influenced? Pressure builds between partners. It isn't pretty.
Living between a rock and a hard place is uncomfortable. Within the silent desperation are so many lovers’ deep cries for love, growth and strength. In that deepest place inside we all are aware of a lover who is perfect. By comparison, our flesh and blood partner fails to match up. What is one to do? If tension grows unabated within a relationship, the emotional well-being of the partners will deteriorate.
Satisfied partners believe that what they put into the relationship is equal or less than what they get back, otherwise it does not feel like a good deal. Being loved, belonging in a partnership and being nourished by another are all soothing to one's self-esteem. If a relationship’s environment is emotionally toxic, a partner’s self-esteem may to fall to unhealthy levels. Most lovers are strongly motivated to make their relationship habitable, passionate and vital. If it is troubled, a partner will try to make it better. Repeated unsuccessful attempts at repair place him or her in a bind characterized by powerlessness and undesirable options. “Should I give more or should I end it?” This is a difficult question when years of togetherness, kids, a house and savings are all on the line.
These are the two wings of loving, and the bird of love needs two wings to fly. The first is being true to oneself; this is where love starts. The second wing is giving of oneself so as to love the partner and build a connection of love. When in a bind formed by a troubled relationship, the partner will emotionally swing between these two opposing good values. He or she will act in a way that is out of self-interest at some times and act very differently at others when he or she is reacting to the value of giving love. To others, the swinging between these poles can seem irrational, disturbing and similar to the symptoms of bi-polar disorder. To the partner this emotional ebb and flow can feel internally like craziness, but represents the internal struggle about which direction to go in order to get important relational needs met.
When attempting to be true to oneself the partner’s actions will be influenced by an internal dialogue that goes something like this: “I am tired of feeling hurt and disappointed. I am sure that my partner can do better than this, and if he/she cannot, I am certain that there is another person who will love in a way that will be satisfying. How is it that my partner cannot see that loving me in a way that is satisfying is not unreasonable? It makes me so frustrated and infuriated.”
Conversely when “giving of oneself”, the partner’s actions will be expressed in accordance with this kind of internal dialogue: “While I am aware of my own frustration and unhappiness, I’m certain that my partner does not intentionally disappoint me; he/she is essentially a good person. Perhaps if I just love him or her more fully and completely, then it will all work out. Perhaps I am not patient or giving enough and by improving myself so that my partner is more deeply loved our relationship will improve. I’ll try that and maybe our relationship will be more satisfying.”
Actions generated by each of these “sides” will produce behaviors and emotions that are quite different. An unhappy or frustrated partner will switch between these two “sides,” causing them to appear inconsistent, unstable and highly confused.
Einstein said that a problem cannot be solved by thinking produced on the same level on which the problem was originally generated. A problem can only be solved from a higher level. Within the troubled relationship, this means one or both partners must out-grow the problem, through strengthening of love and acceptance. If accomplished, the relationship survives and flourishes. Without growth, partners risk remaining together while stuck in patterns of anger, resentment and depression, in an unhealthy relationship. The last alternative is that the relationship ends. Andrew Aaron is a relationship and sex therapist who practices in the New Bedford Seaport.