No matter where we are in a relationship—newly dating or married for decades—we all want love and we all want connection. So what is it about conflict, uncertainty or disappointment with a partner that always seems to disconnect us and drive love away?
If you’re still dancing the “come-close-go away” with someone you care about, or just sabotaged yet another promising romance, maybe it’s time to look at what you’re doing and try something new.
Understanding the Pattern
Think about your last difficult exchange with your partner. Did you open up about your feelings, say what needed to be said, listen to each other, and actually resolve things? Or did you find yourself tiptoeing around the issue, becoming defensive, making accusations, retreating in anger or shutting down in fear? In other words, did you find yourself in the same old frustrating pattern, doing the same old dance, and wondering why?
Well, here’s why: Many of us in adult relationships tend to deal with conflict using the reactionary behaviors that worked for us as children. Fighting to be heard, needing to be right, closing our hearts or choosing not to open up are all strategies we devised in childhood to cope with feelings we couldn’t handle: Fears of punishment or abandonment, the pain of humiliation or feeling unloved.
Think about it: As children we lived in the land of giants, vulnerable to threats both real and imagined. If your mother was having a bad day (and even the best of mothers had them), seeing her tower over you, red-faced and raging, probably sent you running for cover—to the corner or a closet (maybe with a big bag of chips) until the storm blew over. As a protective strategy, it was actually brilliant. It kept you safe long enough for your mother to calm down and turn back into her sane and loving self.
Similarly, if you were misunderstood, shamed or humiliated, you might have saved face by pretending not to notice or care, or by laughing and swallowing the hurt, or by distancing yourself, or just shutting down and bailing on the relationship.
The Courage to Change
These strategies worked for us once, but to use them now, as adults, to avoid heartache, loneliness or rejection, can only backfire. Instead of protecting us, reactionary behaviors actually frustrate our attempts to ask for and/or receive the love, appreciation and understanding we desperately want and need from our intimate relationships.
The thing is, you can’t change your behavior patterns unless you’re aware of them and are willing to acknowledge the painful feelings and longstanding wounds behind them. That’s scary stuff. Trying something new is even scarier.
It won’t work to keep thinking, “If I tell him how I really feel, he’ll leave.” Or “Why do I always do that?” in a tone that says you’re a jerk. You need to challenge the belief that being yourself, exposing your innermost thoughts and feelings, is going to doom the relationship. In fact, it’s the only way you’ll ever make it better.
Of course, you’ll have to step out of “Ego-Land” to do it. You know Ego-Land, where we all live in our own protective bubble, avoiding risks and deflecting challenges. Where we lay blame instead of accepting responsibility for our part in the conflict loop. “It’s all your fault, you’re clingy and needy.” “No, it’s your problem, you never listen.”
To break the conflict loop, you have to look at your reactionary behaviors as they occur and shift gears. Which isn’t easy. In the heat of the moment, no one wants to stop and say, “Gee, let me step back and take responsibility for my part here.” But that’s exactly what needs to happen.
Try, in that moment, to let go of your pride and ego and become vulnerable. Be open to the possibility of pain and rejection, and reveal yourself anyway.
You Will Survive
You need to reveal yourself to know you can survive it. More importantly, you need to do it to understand who you’ve chosen for a partner—who this person really is. Instead of someone who shames or rejects you, you could find someone who embraces you, warts and all. Someone who appreciates your vulnerable, unguarded self, and who loves you all the more for letting him see it. Someone who validates you for having chosen him!
So speak your own truth, and listen bravely and without judgment to your partner’s truth. Create an emotional environment where you both know your attachment is secure, and then open up. Try looking at these difficult exchanges not as conflicts, but as opportunities to learn more about yourselves, to actually grow closer and more intimate, and to experience and celebrate the unconditional love and acceptance you may have missed as a child.