Relationships can inspire, nurture, enrich and fulfil us or be destructive, tear us apart and grind us down. When things go wrong and (sometimes they do spectacularly) partners are often so caught up in the hurt and anger that a future together appears impossible.
Having worked with so many couples now I have a pretty clear indication of when it’s time to walk away and make a new life and when couples can deal with the challenges and find the way forward.
I’m not talking about having a half- life full of recriminations, bitten tongues and unsaid words. I’m talking about moving forward and creating a loving, inter dependent relationship where both partners are 100% committed to making things work in the long term, where they want the very best for each other and themselves. It is what we all deserve and I believe what we should all be striving for.
On the surface there are so many reasons why relationships fail, yet in reality the actual issues boil down to a few core issues.
Couples who have the same values in life are at a huge advantage. Our values are those unwritten rules by which we live our lives, the things we feel to be really important. Great stress is created when one of the partners begins to engage with behaviour which is at variance with values of the other.
Fidelity and trust are common examples. When one partner betrays the trust of the other by having an affair it triggers a huge range of emotions in the person who feels betrayed and let down. In my experience it often feeds a crisis in self- confidence – if I was good, pretty, clever, rich etc enough they wouldn’t have looked elsewhere. Anger at the straying partner is mixed with feeling worthless, this is then combined with a tremendous fear of what the future holds. This generates a huge level of anxiety about the uncertainty for the future and a feeling of their life being completely out of control.
In my experience of working with couples the person who has been unfaithful usually feels guilty and bad about themselves. They either get bolshy and try to justify their behaviours at least to themselves or completely shut down their emotions. This emotional withdrawal is often seen as a further insult by the partner who feels abandoned and the situation spirals out of control.
Things are made worse as partners who have been together for any length of time know exactly which buttons to press. The trouble is that everyone in these situations is working on a short fuse, their partner’s behaviour is setting off triggers all over the place and a self- perpetuating pattern is established.
Relationship with self and others
In a close partnership there are actually 3 relationships. The one that each person has with themselves and the one they have with one another.
Relationships work best when both partners feel confident about themselves. where they are able to love themselves and who they are. This doesn’t mean an indulgent love, but one where you are comfortable in your own skin and where you feel good about yourself wobbly bits and all.
When one or both partners have a poor sense of self-worth and limiting beliefs about themselves they generally look for their partner to love them unconditionally. The trouble is they are often dealing with their own issues and can rarely provide the constant reassurance and support the other person craves.
If you have had a string of negative relationships it is important that you look to yourself before trying to find someone else to make it right. People who love and value themselves expect to be treated well and with respect. They create appropriate boundaries which avoid being treated badly.
Recognising that there are three relationships in the partnership makes it easier to understand that there are also three different languages within the relationship. The challenge it to recognise that although people use the same words they rarely mean exactly the same thing. We talk of love, trust, respect, passion etc but everyone had a different interpretation of what that means to them.
If you imagine that one person speaks oranges and the other grapes the way to success is for couples to create a shared language of fruit. To do that each partner needs to share their understanding of the important things. If every couple had a shared understanding of their values AND the behaviours they need to experience from the other in order to feel loved or that they can trust etc many relationships would be far more successful.
Let me share an example. I was working with a couple who were considering divorce. Both felt unhappy and unloved and appreciated by the other. We were working on their values and both identified “love” as a high priority. I asked them what they needed to experience from the other in order to feel loved. She said “I want him to buy me flowers”. He was indignant!
“But I buy you flowers every Friday”
“No what you do I’d dump a bunch of flowers in the shopping trolley, and usually they are the ones on special offer”
I asked her what she meant by buying flowers. Her response was very interesting. ” I don’t need them every week. I want him to go to a florist and pick flowers I like. I’d like them wrapped and for him to give them to me, to give me a kiss”
In reality what she needed was to feel that some thought and effort had gone into the process.
The same couple demonstrated other common issues. He found it difficult to express his emotions. When things got difficult he withdrew. She felt rejected and alone. She on the other hand often played the martyr. She wouldn’t ask directly for what she wanted. She would hope and expect her partner to be a mind reader. When he failed to interpret the sighs and looks she was then angry and felt like a victim.
Understanding each other’s needs and being able to articulate them calmly, to truly listen to one another is vital if a long and happy relationship is to be achieved.
Habitual Patterns Of Behaviour
When we begin to interact with another person everything is coloured by the way we see the world. Our beliefs underpin our behaviours, 95% of which are habitual. By that I mean that we don’t consciously think about our response. It is an instinctive reaction to the words we hear, the tone of voice or the behaviour. In turn our responses or lack of them trigger an equally habitual response in the other. Patterns of behaviours are established and for the most part people are oblivious to the part they play in them.
If you have always done what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got. If you don’t like the way things are going and you want things to change for the better the best place to start is with yourself. You are the only person you have control over. Trying to change others is far more difficult. The wonderful thing is that when you change your pattern of behaviour it has the capacity to act as a catalyst for change in others.
The next time you find yourself ready to bite back with a sharp or unkind retort to something your partner has said which has annoyed you stop. Think about how you respond. A hug, a “sorry you feel that way – I love you” can bring about a very different response if you mean it.
Learning to forgive yourself and others is truly a gift. Holding on to old resentments, bearing a grudge is like taking the poison yourself and expecting someone else to suffer.
Forgiveness is not about forgetting or condoning the action which has caused the problem. It is about letting go of the hurt and the anger and moving forward. Not doing so keeps you chained to the past. Once you truly forgive it gives a future with huge hope and potential for things to be different.
The willingness to forgive past transgressions determines whether any relationship which have been in difficulty have the chance of a happy and loving future.
Of course it is dependent on lessons being learned. When someone indulges in repeated infidelity it is time to examine why you stay.
Can relationships where one partner has been unfaithful not only survive but thrive? I believe so.
Forgiving a partner who has been unfaithful is possible so long as they work to create a sense of trust which then remains unbroken and both partners are prepared to examine what went wrong in the relationship and to change those things. If either partner is unwilling or unable, to draw a line on the past and focus positively on the present and the future the relationship has a very uncertain future, I would say it is doomed. Where both couples are prepared to invest 100% in creating a loving inter dependent relationship there is every chance that they will make it work.