"I don't believe in marriage," the man protested. "How many happily married couples do you know? I don't see any. Everyone I know has been divorced at least once. All I see and all I've ever experienced is misery in marriages. I don't think it's possible to have a happy marriage."
As a psychotherapist who has worked primarily with people's relationship problems, I have heard countless renditions of this man's disparaging attitude. It indicates how many of us live out our relationships in emotional starvation and bitter disappointment.
The bitterness is understandable, given the poor quality of knowledge dispensed by relationship "experts." Most of the "solutions" offered to help couples sort out their discord are mere empty gestures or hollow exercises. Typical are suggestions such as, "What both of you need is a vacation together," or, "When you get angry with your partner, just count to ten," or, "Just think about the positive aspects of your relationship."
We are encouraged by experts to talk out our problems, express our anger, and use affirmations to change our negative behaviors. Though we try these methods, it seems positive changes rarely transpire and endure. These experts encourage us to speak the truth of how we feel--yet most of us don't even know how we feel or why we feel the way we do. Besides, we are terrified of revealing ourselves.
But we can't just blame the experts. We ourselves are reluctant to delve into the mystery of our relationship disharmony. Instead, we are eager for upbeat, simplistic explanations for what is wrong, as well as non-threatening techniques and exercises to take away the pain. We want to pop a pill of easy answers as we turn away from complexity, preferring to hope that time will take care of everything. If working out our problems takes effort, we feel it is not worth it.
We promise our partner that we will try harder, which usually means that for a while we pretend to be what we think our partner wants us to be. Meanwhile, we hope that in time our partner will forget the problem. We explain our problems in terms of what our partner has or hasn't done and rarely consider that we may be misinterpreting his words, actions, or intentions. Often we don't seem to have the energy or discipline to face our own inner battles, much less work on our relationships. This begs the question: Is there some secret gremlin residing in our emotional make-up that prevents us from manifesting the relationship satisfaction we are looking for?
Many relationships are doomed from the beginning because of impossible expectations. These expectations inevitably lead to disappointment and an urge to escape when intense negative feelings erupt. We strive to avoid negative interactions or confrontations, believing they indicate the relationship is wrong or not working. Rather than seeing the positive value in clarifying our negative feelings, we stuff those feelings inside and blame our partner for making us feel guilty, responsible, obligated, or criticized. Many of us avoid commitment altogether because "relationships make me feel bad."
Divorce is regarded as a final solution to marital problems. However, the inner conflicts that caused the separation aren't resolved by changing partners or external circumstances. Yet we remain convinced that a divorce will eliminate the misery we are experiencing and open the door for future happiness. But our inner conflicts slide into dormancy, only to infect our next relationship.
Divorce is not a solution but an admission of an inability or unwillingness to resolve specific conflicts within yourself and with your partner. You can divorce your mate but not your issues. Since most of us aren't even aware of our issues, we blame our partners for our emotional and behavioral problems. We hope we will secure emotional relief by ridding ourselves of our partners as we run from the truth we hate to see: our emotional investment in our negative feelings and our resistance to liberating ourselves from them. Divorce becomes the final attempt to deny our complicity in misery.
When we throw responsibility for our behaviors and feelings onto someone else, we place ourselves at the mercy of that person. How can you be free if your partner or anyone else is responsible for your misery? Unless the other person changes or sets you free, you remain a victim of his or her whims or actions. This manner of passing off your emotional problems accounts for much of the relationship theatricals we experience. We struggle vehemently against our partners, unaware that we are struggling against ourselves.
It is impossible to come to any genuine comprehension of what is happening until we recognize that we are governed by specific unconscious feelings, defenses, and self-sabotaging patterns. We like to think our actions are motivated by rational considerations and moderated by experience--but unconscious emotions that we cover up and repress are the source of most of our reactions and the culprits in our distress. And few of us are daring enough to get to the heart of our problems. In spite of the high divorce rate, explorations are seldom made of the unconscious factors behind disharmony and divorce. Rarely do we expose our true complicity in our relationship conflicts.
What then is the secret for maintaining emotional harmony in relationships? Is there any knowledge or insight that can help reverse misunderstandings and suffering?
The answer to the second question is yes. But it does not depend on finding the so-called "right" person or in getting our partner to change. Instead, it requires facing facts about ourselves and our relationships that we would rather not face. It means taking a journey into the mystery of our own human nature and exploring the realms of unconscious patterns that rule our way of perceiving and interpreting the world. It also means understanding the motives and intentions behind our surface behaviors. Genuine change occurs when we move away from playing victim or claiming entitlements and accept the premise that we are responsible for what happens in our lives.
True, we are living in a time that places a lot of external strain on relationships. Being committed and being responsible in today's culture all too often feel like sacrifice, deprival, oppression, and hard work. We want instant cures, instant food, instant success, instant gratification, with the least amount of emotional discomfort. Many of us are opting out of marriage and family because we don't want the burden and responsibility of raising a family, especially when doing so might interfere with a career. It seems that society values and rewards us according to our talents in the work place and the image we project rather than by our contributions as husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. So we may see children and spouses as inconveniences that inhibit our opportunity to make it in our own right.
However, I contend that external stresses on relationships pale in comparison with the power of internal or psychological factors to pull us apart and destroy our love. Wouldn't it be nice if we could put on white coats and peer at these internal factors under a microscope in a lab, identifying precisely the bugs and viruses of romantic love, and then producing a pill to destroy them? Well, of course, we haven't been able to do that, nor to reduce the mysteries of human behavior and emotions to a gene or cell nuclei containing DNA. But we do have remedies to cure the malaise. These consist of powerful knowledge that reveals how our emotions work and how we trigger one another. However, we have not always been willing to take this medicine because doing so requires humility and soul-searching.
A successful relationship involves a process of problem solving, conflict resolution, and compromise. It is an on-going experiment that entails effort, observation, practice, responsibility, sacrifice, and character-building. It requires consciously deciding to make it work, rather than passively waiting for things to be the way you want. A successful relationship means understanding the motivation behind your feelings and behaviors instead of blaming your partner or circumstances for your dissatisfaction. The integrity of each individual is honored and respected.
It means transcending your notions of right or wrong, considering your partner's point of view, and being open to challenge and criticism. In this process, we need to renew and deepen our sense of responsibility in a way that doesn't make us feel deprived or controlled.
This book doesn't give you an easy, up-beat, three-day answer for your relationship problems. But it does give you the most comprehensive understanding available of relationship dynamics. The book is intended primarily to solve problems in romantic relationships but its principles also apply to friendships, as well as work and family relationships. Achieving peace involves a breakthrough in understanding why our relationships are not working and why we feel defeated, neglected, and dissatisfied.
It is time to stop this futile exercise of trying to restructure the external in order to solve our personal problems. It is time to stop blaming others and face our secret willingness to feel that some outside force or person (whether a spouse, children, the government, minority groups, and so on) opposes our happiness and inhibits our self-expression. It is time to expose the self-sabotaging patterns we have carried forward from our childhoods.
Researcher and author Erik Erikson wrote in Insight and Responsibility that the key to progress is to help each generation face the conflict "between its ethical and rational aims and its infantile fixations." Little will change unless we look squarely at these underlying fixations and put the brakes on our tendency to cover up our problems with whipped-cream optimism and kindergarten solutions. We begin to overcome our painful emotional conflicts when we see that they are fueled more by our own self-centered beliefs and interpretations than by any opposition from others.
Many relationship books describe the symptoms of disharmony but not the causes. But making real progress in relationship harmony requires getting past the symptoms to an understanding of the causes. We have to freshen up our brain cells with dynamic insight. I describe in detail the secret agenda we all have to recreate and repeat with our partner old emotions from our past of feeling deprived, denied, controlled, criticized, and rejected. I expose the manner and degree in which we are under the compulsion to replay old scenarios in a new context, setting ourselves up to experience again the left-over hurts, grievances, and negative expectations that we felt with our parents and siblings.
The concepts I introduce are emotionally and intellectually challenging. Most of us feel great reluctance to expose our own secret games, or our unconscious collusion in the negative outcomes of our relationships. We are all stuck with self-sabotaging unconscious patterns and expectations that are unresolved from childhood. It is a condition of being human. These emotional entanglements can plague us, even as we consciously recognize them and strive to be free of them. Try to see these unconscious elements as "bugs" or "quirks" in the psyche rather than indications that we are somehow bad or defective.
Although some revulsion for what we unconsciously have been doing is inevitable, the point is not to judge or blame ourselves for our reactions or irrational behaviors. Sure, it isn't pleasant, but at least we now see a way out of our repetitive patterns. Becoming aware of these patterns enables us to regulate them and reduce their influence over us. We can have control over our destiny and gradually change our "script."