People often get locked into frustrating relationships. They can be untangled— even by one person, if the source of the frustration can be identified.
I explain to my couples clients that it takes only four things for a relationship to work. These four things need to exist universally whether the relationship is one of love or arranged.
As I have been studying marriage since my parents’ divorce when I was five, I can honestly say that when a marriage is not working, at least one of the four things is missing. When this is the case, the partner(s) get frustrated at best and at worst the relationship breaks.
The first tenant here is that people who want to be in a relationship MUST tell the truth ALL the time. If not it breaks the intimacy, causing the partner who lies to hide from the person being lied to. The recipient of the lie(s) generally feels the distance the lie creates — the person lying, hiding to avoid being found out. The distance and being told their perceptions are inaccurate causes frustration, anger, and confusion in the partner on the receiving end of the lie.
Treatment: if you think you are being lied to you probably are. It is acceptable to search for the truth to both validate perceptions and to attempt to save the relationship. The lie(s) will erode the relationship over time.
The second tenant is that toxic issues MUST be discussed and negotiated. If they are avoided by one or both parties the resentments will ooze out.
There are only two things to do with feelings We either talk about them or act them out. Acting out negative feelings doesn’t resolve anything. This is often seen as Passive Aggressive behavior. That is, misplaced anger. Because it is misplaced the anger often gets denied. It is frustrating to deal with an angry person who won’t admit the anger or negotiate the differences at hand.
Treatment: We need to ask for what we want and negotiate after that. Asking a partner to read our mind generally leads to disappointment. I make it a practice to do as much of what I am asked as possible.
The third tenant involves HOW we deal with conflict. Many people fight to be right. This keeps conflict from being resolved and even escalates it. It is impossible to be in a loving relationship AND be right. The « right » one is the saint and the « wrong » one is the villain. This is frustrating at best. At worst it is one of the « four horsemen of the Apocalypse « as John and Julie Gottman have written. Doing this often lands people in the divorce court.
Treatment: Fight to find out what you are doing wrong. If your partner is bothered this fact alone means there is a problem. Therefore to treat the problem, you have to find out what has been bothersome and fix your end of it.
The fourth and last tenant is that we must ALL hear the message our troubled partner is sending.
Interestingly, the single most important way we ALL feel valued is by whether people do what we ask. It is frustrating to experience feeling discounted or ignored.
If I say that I would appreciate having you call home when you are late and my partner ignores the request, I feel discounted. I may feel ignored. If I can’t have my request honored I feel frustrated AND unimportant. I then need to change the subject—“what keeps you from doing as I asked?”
Couples who do not do these four things get profoundly frustrated.
What might interfere with couples doing the sensible things? Why can’t many people read what is sensible and do it?
Some people are more anxious than others. The more anxiety that exists, the less someone can think.
Sensible action requires that we think before we speak. The more emotional we are the less we can think.
Many things can trigger bursts of emotion.
Some people have been through trauma. They have what we call a “trauma “ brain. The brain goes from 0-60 if something triggers old feelings that threaten the individual. Then they react without the ability to think. The ability to think goes out the window. They can’t think to fight to find out what they did wrong OR hear the message. They may avoid. They may lie. Living with someone who does this can be very frustrating.
To treat it, at least the recipient must keep the emotional levels low. It is important not to go into battle. Maybe the partner can be coaxed into a problem-solving therapy where emotional reactions can be sorted.
Without high levels of emotion, maybe readers of this article can learn to use new skills.