Navigating the Relationship Journey
Just to state the obvious, relationships are not easy. While we are “wired” to be in relationships and they can be a source of connection, fulfillment, and growth, they are often times filled with challenges and difficulties. I want to share a few things I have observed through my work as a psychotherapist, helping individuals and couples navigate the beginning, middle, and end of this journey.
To start a relationship we may need to overcome fears and doubts, old and new, that get in the way. Taking the risk of being open and vulnerable can sometimes be really difficult. Do we feel safe enough to let the other in? Do we allow ourselves to love and to be loved? Should we risk expressing our feelings despite the fear –or maybe the anticipation- of rejection and pain?
Many of the people I have worked with in my practice have struggled with these questions. Some believe that their emotions are too big, that they are too needy, or their baggage is too complicated, and wonder if they will be too much. Others, on the other hand, feel like they are flawed or broken, and wonder if they will ever be enough. Some others carry painful secrets and profound shame within, and wonder: if they really knew me, would they stay?
These questions are not unusual, but can sometimes be paralyzing. The answers are never simple and cannot be known in advance. Becoming aware of our doubts, fears, hopes, and motives, accepting them as part of us, and understanding where they come from, are usually helpful first steps. While self-awareness is essential, sometimes we may think too much, so it is important to listen to our mind, our heart, and our body. Looking inside of ourselves with love and kindness is also helpful, in order to have a sense of what is important for us in a relationship, what we are looking for, and what our own personal boundaries are.
The more time we spend together with our partner, the more opportunities we have for connection and intimacy, but also for friction and disappointment. The more history we share, the more opportunities to become closer and create meaning together, but also to harbor anger or to feel hurt. Whatever will happen to an established couple is a function of three elements: the two individuals and the relationship itself.
The first two include each person’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings. These will define what each person believes they need and want from a relationship, and how capable or willing they are to find a middle ground. For example, I once had a client who told me about his fiancée: “I want to do what my father did with my mom: I just want to tune out, find a way to ignore her.” The role-models we had in our life many times define, consciously or not, what we believe relationships are about.
The relationship itself is the third element, and it is bigger than the sum of its parts. For example, a dynamic I have observed many times is the “pursuer-avoidant,” in which one person wants more from the other (more affection, more attention, more communication, more time, etc.), and the other is evasive or avoidant, whether because he feels uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or afraid. This dynamic sometimes leads to gridlock in the relationship, undermines the possibilities for negotiation, and can generate resentment on both sides.
What to do when our baggage and our partner’s do not seem to match? There is not a single answer because a couple is a complex and evolving entity. However, it is important to keep an open and curious mind about our own and our partner’s experience, thoughts, feelings, needs, goals, and dreams. Truly acknowledging and respecting our differences is vital for understanding each other. Taking ownership and responsibility for our actions and the things we say (or do not say), as well as being open to receiving feedback and love, is important to maintain a strong friendship and a sense of safety and trust in the relationship.
Endings are rarely easy. Sometimes the difficulty resides in becoming willing or able to end a relationship that feels stale, is not meeting our needs, or has become toxic or abusive. Sometimes the challenge is to cope with the loss of a relationship, whether it was our own choice, our partner’s decision, or caused by life events out of our control.
The prospect of deciding to end a relationship can be daunting, especially after a long time together. Are we making a rushed decision? Is there no way we can work this out? How much more can I stand? Have I been waiting for too long already? How can I deal with not knowing what will happen? These are some of the questions I have heard several times. As a therapist, it is not my job to answer them, but to be present for my clients as they struggle with them, helping them untangle, make sense, and understand the meaning of the situation, before they decide on a course of action that feels right, even if uncertain.
Most times this process is anything but rational and linear. A wide range of feelings are likely to emerge, often in conflict with our rational thoughts. Love, guilt, fear, pride, avoidance, grief, sadness, anger, hope – we may feel them all at the same time, or we can go back and forth between them. Being aware of our feelings and how they shift is fundamental to understand what we are going through.
Paying attention to our patterns and personal history is equally important: do we tend to cut relationships as soon as we feel uncomfortable? Do we turn relationships into a personal project that admits no failure? Developing self-awareness to understand the nature of our fears is useful to reduce their effect on us. Kindness and patience with our difficulties, as well as respect for ourselves and for our partner, are some of our best allies in this part of the journey.
The question is not whether a relationship will be easy, but if it is worth it. Relationships sometimes take a lot of work, which involves both looking within and looking across. We must look within to become aware, understand, and accept our own patterns, thoughts, feelings, needs, wishes, and difficulties. We must look across to recognize, make space for, and honor our partner’s experiences and reality. Each step of the journey brings new challenges and opportunities for each person and for the relationship itself. It is in this journey, more than in any imagined destination, where the promise of love, connection, fulfillment, and growth can be found.