One Essential Ingredient You Need to Strengthen Your Relationship

photo by Bhavishya Goel (cc by 2.0)

photo by Bhavishya Goel (cc by 2.0)

To keep your relationship strong and thriving, you’ll need courage.  You’re likely to think of needing courage to face adversity together.  You’re less likely to think you’ll need courage to stay in love with your spouse.  

When most people imagine the future of their romance, what comes to mind is loyalty, fidelity, facing difficulties together, having fun together, enjoying sex, feeling the contentment and safety of each other’s company.  What doesn’t usually come to mind is what will be required of you to actually fulfill your hopes and dreams. 

Every couple experiences frustrations.   Frustrations in relationship often center around seemingly incompatible differences - feeling judged, lonely, suffocated, criticized, sexually frustrated.  All too often partners just give up. You resign yourself to those frustrations never changing.  The solutions you sometimes agree to - "I'll try to not get so angry"  or “I’ll just accept things the way they are” - go by the wayside in a flash.

In an instant your resolve evaporates. You've likely said or heard "you are so irrational!"  That is a true statement because these intense reactions are not the result of some deliberative process - you are not pausing to think, "hmm . . . , does her comment make me mad?"  You are just reacting.  Reaction leads to reaction and the escalation takes on a life of its own.

During courtship we don’t get triggered so quickly and intensely.  The stakes just aren’t high enough yet.  When your commitment grows, your partner becomes so much more important to you.  Right alongside is her ability to threaten you, simply because she’s now ‘under your skin’.  He now has the power to make you feel small, suffocated, or abandoned and alone.  This inherent capacity to threaten and feel threatened underlies the tension which creeps up over time.  

You like to think you’re a fully rational being and that your behavior is simply a logical response to a current provocation. Right?  Not so fast.  Historical demons have a huge role to play and identifying them isn't an easy task.  

Reacting intensely is your signal to look deeper into the sources of the conflict with your partner.  These sources aren't apparent to you because this is all occurring in your 'lizard' brain.  This primitive part of your brain is the home of your survival instincts that trigger 'flight or fight' responses.  Thatemotional flash that erupts when something happens has an 'emotional thread', and with lightening speed, dips into a pool of hurt experienced earlier in life.  This adds massive fuel to the current fire.

Cue courage.  Along with those demons of the past come discomfort and anxiety.  If you felt criticized frequently by your mom or dad, you likely have a well of painful feelings stored away, often includingshame or self-doubt.  If your partner criticizes you, even in a small way, you react defensively in a split second.  You’re protecting yourself from a surge of painful feelings stored away from long ago. 

Your reaction is a little bit about the present and a lot more about that surge of feelings from the past. And it creates disconnection and distance in your romantic relationship.

The challenge then becomes the process of disentangling the present from the past.  This requires you to revisit your past feelings of shame, hurt, worthlessness, and self-doubt.  The threatening surge of old feelings is accompanied by anxiety because you don’t want to re-experience that pain. 

Anxiety is really, really uncomfortable.  Humans will do a lot to avoid anxiety -  I often say "we'll sell our souls to avoid feeling anxious.” Yet you need to build a tolerance for feeling anxiety in order to discover the roots of your troubles.  Then you can make the shifts in yourself to lead the life you want and fully connect in relationship.

How to build tolerance to anxiety?  There are moments - milliseconds, really - that you can grab before they slip away.  Anxiety is there when you are feeling intensely - frequently that is angry or defensive, and can cause you to shutdown and withdraw.  

In these moments, ask yourself, “what else am I feeling?”  Maybe not immediately, but this question allows you to pinpoint what feelings are hiding just below the surface.  You know you’re angry or agitated or anxious, but you might identify feeling humiliated or unimportant underneath.  If you follow that emotional thread back in time, you’ll land in an earlier time when you felt hurt, humiliated, unsure, frightened, alone.  

You will feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable- take a deep breath and just stay there in that feeling.  This ‘sitting with’ the inevitable feeling of anxiety allows you to access your emotions that aren’t known when you’re shut down or just reacting.  

This allows you to know yourself at a deeper level.  Being in touch with how you’re feeling allows you to have options because you’re no longer defending yourself against your pain.  Otherwise options just don’t occur to you. 

You now have the option and ability to express yourself in a way that another person can hear you.  Your partner’s ears open when he hears you speak from that place of vulnerability.  Both of you can come to understand how your histories are influencing the present.  You may be able to do or say something that hadn’t occurred to you. You and your partner can now work together to solve whatever is troubling you.  You’re on the road to building a more satisfying and constructive present. 

Lurking in your own personal underground are some the culprits that require courage to face.

If you are really going to thrive in your relationship, you’ll need courage to struggle with inevitable discomfort.  The cutting edge of change is always anxiety - a journey well worth the vulnerability you will encounter along the way.

Be curious - staying in love requires it.  Be willing to look inside of yourself, admit that you’re not so rational.  Following those emotional threads back in time takes courage.  The courage to grapple with those demons is what allows you to fall in love - again - this time with your spouse.