"When we are not able to speak authentically, our relationships spiral downward, as does our sense of integrity and self-regard."
―Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Connection
When we feel disenchanted with being in love (which most people experience), it’s easy to think that we’re the only ones struggling with such troubles. We tend to compare how we feel about our relationship (on the inside) with how other couples appear (on the outside). What’s ironic is that they too may be feeling unhappy about their marriage, though they act as if everything is fine. They may even be looking at us and secretly wishing that they had the relationship we have.
Given my work with hundreds of couples and my own marriage, which is my greatest teacher of all, I believe that a number of predictable troubles befall most long-term partnerships. As hopeless as they may feel in the moment, there are ways you can learn to overcome them and to move from surviving to thriving. Here are a few of those common struggles and strategies for getting past them.
Lumpy carpet syndrome:
Conflict is part of every relationship, yet many couples believe that strong differences of opinion means that their marriage is troubled, and because none of us wants a troubled marriage, we deny these differences by pretending that we agree, even when we don’t. What we get is something called "lumpy carpet syndrome," whereby we sweep the tensions that accompany our unspoken conflicts under the rug.
After a while, the carpet becomes so lumpy that we have to watch our step as we search for the few remaining smooth spots. It becomes increasingly difficult to cross the rug toward each other.
When we finally do face up to our differences, we may let loose with whatever we think and feel, and this is rarely an effective way to de-lump a carpet. Successful conflict management tends to seem counterintuitive, as it means listening to the uncomfortable things that our partner says about us.
[Conflict] happens without intention; like falling in love, it is outside our control. It’s what we do next that determines the future of the relationship.
It also means stretching to understand our part in the conflict and speaking in a manner that rationally communicates our feelings to our partner. It may even mean apologizing and finding ways to rebuild trust or to change our behavior. These skills take considerable courage, patience, self-awareness, and practice; yet all of us can — and must — learn how to restore openness and to reconnect.
How to deal:
It is essential to learn how to listen to and to talk about our partners’ grievances. We need to stop pushing matters under the rug and to deal with hurt or conflict right away or discard it as inconsequential. In healthy relationships, there are no lumps in the rug; instead, we need to stay in the moment. This means that instead of keeping a black book of resentments, we try to manage the situations that cause them when they happen.
According to Dr. Patricia Love — writer, speaker, and therapist — relationships run in a cycle, which it is essential to understand and to manage. Stuffing difficulties under the rug plays no part in this cycle. The cycle is as follows: Connection–Rupture–Protest–Repair–Reconnection.
We begin with a connection, and then, in all relationships, there is a rupture. This can be a big problem or something small, such as hurting your partner’s feelings unintentionally. The important thing is that it happens without intention; like falling in love, it is outside our control. It’s what we do next that determines the future of the relationship.
The person with the hurt feelings needs to find a way to 1) protest if it is significant or 2) truly let it go if it’s not. Sweeping it under the rug will not go well for either partner. Protesting skillfully doesn’t come naturally, nor does listening non-defensively. This is where our willingness to learn these skills comes into play. If we protest, and we understand the art of apologizing and forgiving, we can move forward to reconnection; if we don’t understand this art, we tend to sweep the issue under the rug, where it shows up as a grudge, a damaging blowup, or a quiet resentment that eats away at our love.
Rules to live (and love and fight) by:
One of life’s foremost myths is that the success of our relationship and our happiness is determined by what our partner says and does. The most valuable lesson you learn from releasing this myth is that all relationship change begins with you. Once you shift your focus from your partner to yourself, you gain enormous power to affect both your relationship and your own well-being.
The second point that I want to make is that many of the difficulties — both small and large — that we face when the rug has turned into a minefield will only be resolved when we apply courage and skill. Remember, long-term relationships have many seasons, some cold, others foggy or stormy, and this fact can help us to understand that, when difficulties arise, there is not always something wrong with our relationship; these seasons are normal, and now we have a map to help us traverse our lump-free rug.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.