"When we are not able to speak authentically, our relationships spiral downward, as does our sense of integrity and self-regard."
When we feel disenchanted with our relationships (which most people experience), it's easy to think that we're the only ones who are struggling. We tend to compare how we feel about our relationship with how other couples appear. We forget that they, too, may be feeling unhappy about their relationships 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.
Through my work with hundreds of couples and my own marriage, which is my greatest teacher of all, I have come to believe that there are several common issues that eventually befall most long-term partnerships. As hopeless as they may make you feel in the moment, there are ways you can learn to overcome them and to start thriving again, instead of just surviving.
Lumpy Carpet Syndrome:
Conflict is part of every relationship, yet many couples believe that strong differences of opinion mean 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 "lumpy carpet syndrome," whereby we sweep the tensions that accompany our unspoken conflicts under the rug.
After a while, the carpet becomes very lumpy, and 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. 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 apologies 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 do it:
It is essential to learn how to listen to and talk about our partner's grievances. We need to stop pushing matters under the rug and to either deal with hurt or conflict right away or to discard them as inconsequential. In healthy relationships, there are no lumps in the rug; instead, we 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 are cyclical. It's essential to understand this cycle in order to manage it. 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 an eventual rupture. This can be a big problem or something small, such as hurting your partner's feelings accidentally. 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:
- Protest if the rupture is significant.
- 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 nondefensively. 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 blow-up, or a quiet resentment that eats away at our love.
Things to remember:
One of life's foremost myths is the notion that both the success of our relationship and our level of happiness are determined by what our partner says and does. The most valuable lesson this myth teaches us is that all relationship change begins with ourselves. Once we shift our focus from our partner to ourselves, we gain enormous power to affect both our relationships and our 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 become a minefield will be resolved only 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 bumps are normal, and now we know how to smooth them out.
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.