Okay; so that man or that woman did you wrong. Well maybe that’s not so okay, but the reality is that as long as we are in a relationship, we are going to experience some pain. Things definitely do not always go smoothly in love-land. So what exactly should we do when we find ourselves deep in the throes of relationship pain or anguish? We have a choice among several responses which will more or less determine how well we are able to cope with the seeming injustices of relationships. Of course I’m in no way suggesting that all relationship infractions are equal; breaking a date, constantly leaving the toilet seat up and being unfaithful are all distinct issues with varying levels of gravity. When an action or behavior by our spouse causes us to experience feelings of rejection, low self-esteem, extreme irritation or bitter disappointment, it’s within our power to determine where we will allow these experiences to take us.
The Pity Party
When we are hurt or angry, feeling sorry for ourselves can be fairly valuable; for about two minutes. We need that much time to hunch our shoulders, bite our lips and concentrate on our pain; before we decide what we’re going to do about it. This pseudo-comfort which a pity party allows is actually quite short-lived. There is perhaps nothing as dis-empowering as wallowing in a place of self-pity for too long. When we do this we are seeing ourselves as victims, as weak, as powerless and even sometimes as deserving of the “punishment” we are enduring. In a pity-party we don’t only own our pain (as we should) but we hold on to it for dear life. We come to identify ourselves by it and see ourselves only through the lens of our relationship pain or dissatisfaction. Ultimately, this is counter-productive and inhibits us from moving into action.
There is a very common human emotion which encourages us to want that “eye for an eye”. When we have been hurt and we are in the throes of pain sometimes we can be motivated to retaliate by causing similar hurt to our partners. It is not always literally feasible to perhaps do the same thing that was done to us but the objective of dwelling in this mode, is to try to damage our partner’s psyche as much as ours has been. Usually this is an extreme response to deep pain caused by infidelity or some other really serious infraction. Some actually do cheat or at least flirt in return for their experience of infidelity. For other infractions, there may be angry, insensitive words hurled at the offending partner, the withholding of sex or affectionate gestures, the withdrawal of financial support or even an act of secretive, wild spending, where the family funds, personal account or credit cards are splurged. These responses are of course surface responses to deeper issues and may only bring momentary satisfaction. They are incapable of addressing the real problem of relationship pain and what caused it.
Somehow, some of us believe that remaining silent, while fuming and seething on the inside, is self-empowering. Because we are not crying, ranting, raving or throwing things, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we have a handle on our difficult emotions and that we are somehow large and in charge. Actually, we couldn’t be farther from the truth. Refusing to talk about the things which our partner or spouse does that irritate us, only serves to give those things more power over us. When an issue remains un-discussed and unsettled, it retains the power to shape our thinking, feelings and emotions. This is why individuals who refuse to vent, tend to suffer from raised blood pressure. Just imagine, poor relationship habits can actually affect our health. While there may be critical times in our lives when silence may indeed be golden, a relationship confrontation or problem is not one of those times. Stonewalling represents a certain character weakness and a tacit refusal to confront issues.
Claiming Personal Power
Seizing personal power out of relationship difficulties sounds wonderful and resonates with a certain political correctness; it is, however, no mean feat. This preferred response often involves admitting personal weakness and exposing our own vulnerability. We have to be willing first to admit that what our partner has done or neglected to do caused us pain. Sometimes we even have to admit our own part in the problem. Whether we communicate this calmly or with loads of emotion, we must be willing to share our real feelings. This is the beginning of our own healing. While we cannot control what someone else does to us, we can control our responses to it. This brings us to the need to assume personal responsibility for our relationship well-being.
Assuming responsibility does not mean that we can manipulate our partner into doing whatever we what him/her to do. Nor does it signify that there is any secret behavior which we can do, which guarantees that our partner will never hurt us again (how I abhor those articles and books which make these false promises). Rather, it means that we are responsible for communicating honestly our feelings and our expectations. Even though I promote relationship education and believe that we should “clear the air” on certain issues even before getting together, the truth is that relationships are on-going and developmental. There will always be the need to grow, change and make adjustments; no matter how many relationship seminars we attend!
Seizing personal power also involves being willing to share our challenges and our ineptitudes with others. Admitting to friends and family that our relationship is far from perfect can be a cry for a help or a source of encouragement to others who may also feel that they are going through difficulties alone. It means admitting being wrong. It means being willing to acknowledge that we don’t know everything. More so, it involves using our relationship challenges as a learning curve to catapult us into better relationship practices.
If we truly want a healthier relationship, these best-practices should involve:
- Practicing greater openness with our partner; this means making communication sessions a regular feature of the relationship
- Communicating expectations in a non-threatening way; for example “Having a date with you once a week will help me to feel closer to you” instead of the anger filled sentence: “You never carry me anywhere.”
- Owning our pain without accusation by utilizing “I” statements, for example,: “When you . . . I feel undervalued” instead of “You don’t appreciate me.”
- Reading great books or articles on relationships together or if only one partner is a reader, using the subject matter as the basis for couple discussions
- Complimenting each other or showing appreciation when something is done right in the relationship
- Practicing random acts of kindness; for example, delivering flowers outside of special dates like Valentine’s or birthdays, paying for a spa-day for our spouse, making breakfast, rubbing tired feet at night, doing a body massage with no “sexpectation” (if you get lucky well so be it), buying a special item for our spouse which we know he/she has had an eye on for a while
- Spending valuable time together just connecting and having fun
- Setting up clear boundaries for the things we will absolutely not tolerate in the relationship, like infidelity, abuse or any form of dishonesty
- Accessing help from a counselor, pastor, mentor or friend when we think that things are way over the top and that we are clearly not coping
Getting to this point of positive relationship practices, is however not automatic. We must be proactive and willing to do whatever is necessary to breed a healthy relationship, even before the challenges come. This means knowing the pulse beat of our relationship by living in the moments and not avoiding them. Ultimately, when we are open about our pain, and seek help, we begin the cycle of relationship renewal.