When life is good it can be even better when there is someone to share it with, to enjoy successes, celebrate, have a laugh and relax with.
And when life isn’t going so well, it’s often easier to deal with disappointment, drama, disaster and loss when there is someone there who cares about us. Having someone at your back to give encouragement and strength and a necessary boost when you are unable to call on your own resources.
Problems can seem less overwhelming when you share them, when someone can give another perspective, or provide a safe place where we can offload and we can be accepted as we are.
Paradoxically it is often when we are most in need of this support, that we are most likely to withdraw emotionally. The fear that we will be judged and found wanting, often stops us reaching out. Most of the time we don’t realise we are doing it, it’s an autopilot or ‘default’ position in dealing with stress. We might see ourselves as strong and capable, and not like this perception to be challenged by admitting vulnerability and weakness to others, even our nearest and dearest in relationships. Or we may feel that we have to just get on with things, be independent and not trouble anyone else.
The more one person withdraws emotionally, its difficult for the other to keep things going; insecurities and defensive behavior can create patterns of behavior that are unhelpful and potentially damaging to the relationship.
As a result, when many people come and see counselors over relationship issues, the following are fairly common themes…
• I feel as if I am on a rollercoaster and can’t get off
• I have to tiptoe around my partner
• I seem do everything in our relationship
• My partner has stopped noticing and appreciating me
• I feel as if I am invisible
• My partner constantly nags or criticises me
• My partner doesn’t make any effort in our relationship
• We don’t spend any time together
• Should I stay or should I go?
• I’m not sure if I love my partner, but I don’t want to leave
• All we have in common is our children
Where counseling can be helpful is to take a look what you are doing in the relationship, and to be really clear on what your own behavioural patterns are. What needs are being met, and what needs are not being met. What behaviour are you exhibiting yourself when under stress. Do you withdraw emotionally? Do you get defensive and aggressive?
Often we will fall in one camp or the other, fight or flight, however sometimes we can be guilty of both. Understanding your own responses and reactions is essential for any change. Improving communication with your partner will only work if you have a good handle on what is going on for yourself.
Often there is a starry eyed romantic notion that we should not need to ask for our needs to be met, that our partner should automatically work it out. If they do, then that is unusual. More often it is trial and error.
An example of this is a client I worked with who had just walked out of a 10 year relationship and he didn’t really understand why. On the surface things between them appeared okay, they didn’t argue too much, had an active social life, shared interests and were planning to start a family together. He saw his partner as attractive, fit, healthy, successful in her own career. They had a good income, regular holidays and most people saw them as a happy couple, with an enviable lifestyle.
However, he recognized that his mood was low, and he often felt irritable and snappy, particularly with his partner. We looked at whether his needs were actually being met. And digging a little deeper, it transpired that they were not. In all their time together, he made very few decisions in their relationship. From where to go out for dinner, when and where to go on holiday, what programmes to watch on tv, what to eat, where to live, how the house was to be decorated, when to have children etc,. On one level, he felt that this didn’t bother him, as his partner seemed to feel strongly about things, and didn’t consult him much of the time. However, he recognized that he had gradually stopped giving his opinions, as he felt that they would be ridiculed and argued down, so he didn’t bother expressing them. He went along with it all. He thought he preferred a quiet life. However, his resentments had built up over the years, and one day, he decided that he just couldn’t continue.
Fortunately for them, it was a wake up call in their relationship, which took time and effort to un pick and put back together, however both wanted it to work, and were committed to renegotiate how they lived together. He was able to be clearer about what he wanted, what he felt was important and to feel that he was heard and respected, and that it was important for his needs to be considered.
In his discussions with his partner, he also realised that she had also become resentful as she had felt obliged to make all the decisions, she was then able to let go, be more consultative and not feel as if she was the one who had to ‘do all the work’ . He did have to make some improvements with his communication. However, he had to understand what the problem was, and to accept that he had it in his power to solve it.