Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
From time to time, I see people who have trouble staying calm in their intimate relationship. They may have endless patience with co-workers, customers, and friends but struggle to offer their partner that same calm presence.
They describe becoming agitated or even furious over minor transgressions or differences in point of view in their intimate relationship. They may become stubborn in the pursuit of proving what is right. They may tell themselves they should let things go but they don’t. They worry that their partner will leave them because of their nagging, relentless approach.
If you are struggling with this problem, first work to understand why these patterns persist. Some common problematic themes that underlie this problem are:
• Believing you will be perceived as weak if you let something go.
• Believing that unless your partner agrees with you they don’t understand your point of view.
• Believing that you must always be understood in a relationship.
• Your partner is either inadvertently or deliberately triggering an emotional reaction based on old memories and experiences.
• Fearing you will become a copy of a powerless parent. This is usually accompanied by the declaration “I swore I’d never become my mum/dad”.
Knowing the how and why only gets you so far. Real change occurs by creating helpful relationship beliefs and habits.
Some strategies that can help:
• See letting go as a choice you are making. If you are someone who fears being perceived as weak, choose to see letting go as a choice as opposed to something you are submitting to. Remind yourself of other famous icons who did not use aggression or warfare and yet still made a powerful impact on this world. Think Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jon Lennon, Oprah. If they can do it, so can you.
• Stop defining listening as agreement. Accept that your partner can listen but they are not obliged to agree. It is enough for your partner to hear you. Once is enough, maybe twice at the most. If you catch yourself on repeat, choose to take some space. Go for a walk, do a mindfulness practice or whatever it takes to stop repeating yourself.
• Accept that your partner may not always understand your point of view. Your partner is not inside your mind, has not lived your experiences and has a whole other frame of reference from their own experiences that they bring to life and your relationship. It is enough for them to listen with compassion but they may never fully understand your point of view. When you hear yourself trying to convince your partner, remind yourself that they have their own mind and experiences and that is in part what drew you to them
• Work on your emotional triggers. This includes issues from childhood and past relationships. Self-help books such as Sue Johnson’s “Hold Me Tight” are helpful or seek counseling either individually or as a couple to work on reducing the impact of triggers from the past.
• If you are with someone who is deliberately triggering you, seek couples counseling as soon as possible. Most people have caring partners who do not deliberately trigger emotional reactions but as with most things in life, there are always exceptions. If your partner shows no willingness to stop this behavior either now or in counseling, consider whether you want to continue the relationship.
• Be selective in what you choose to assert yourself over. Not becoming mum/dad is a powerful motivator for many people. If you grew up with one parent who was all-powerful and the other had no voice, you may see letting go as becoming your powerless parent. Instead, choose to assert yourself only when it’s important. As the old saying goes, choose your battles wisely. This is very different to being your powerless parent, as they never saw speaking up as an option. Exercise your power by choosing when to assert and when to let go.
Relationships do end because of relentless struggles and lengthy, repetitive arguments. It is worth addressing these habits if you are in a loving relationship that is important and meaningful to you. Try these strategies. If you get stuck, try couples counseling for guided support. You, and your relationship are worth it.