Why Relationships Require Us To Face Discomfort, From A Couples' Counselor
A strong and thriving relationship requires a special brand of courage.
You're likely to think of needing the courage to face adversity together. You're less likely to think you'll need courage to stay in love with your partner.
When most people imagine the future of their romance, what comes to mind is loyalty, having fun together, facing difficulties together, enjoying sex, and feeling the contentment and safety of each other's company. What doesn't usually come to mind is what may be required of you to be able to fulfill your hopes and dreams with your life partner.
Why relationships often push us to the brink.
Couples argue. Every couple experiences frustrations. Frustrations in relationships often center around seemingly incompatible differences—feeling judged, lonely, suffocated, criticized, sexually frustrated. You might be inclined to just resign yourself to those frustrations never changing. You might commit to solutions, such as, "I'll try to not get so angry," or "I'll just accept things the way they are."
But in an instant, your resolve evaporates. These intense reactions are not the result of some deliberative process. You don't pause to think, "Hmm, does their comment make me mad?" You just react. Reaction leads to reaction, and the escalation takes on a life of its own.
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.
Have you ever wondered why seemingly small annoyances sometimes produce powerful feelings? Or why you immediately go into fight mode or want to run away from the situation as fast as possible?
During courtship we don't get triggered so quickly or react so 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 their ability to threaten you, simply because they are now that important. By threat, I mean that your partner now has the power to make you feel small, suffocated, or abandoned and alone. This inherent threat underlies the tension that creeps up over time and creates emotional distance in your relationship, endless bickering, a breakdown in communication, less sex, and all too often, a wish to separate.
The importance of facing discomfort.
Conflict is an opportunity. Reacting intensely is your signal to look deeper into the sources of the conflict with your partner. When your reaction seems to be out of proportion to the stimulus, historical demons may be playing a role.
We've all experienced hurt and disappointment in our lives growing up, and these experiences don't just evaporate into thin air as we become adults, as much as we'd like to think they do. When we feel insulted or misunderstood or not listened to in the current time, it's as if we dip back into that pool of difficult feelings we felt way back when. The power of those earlier feelings adds massive fuel to the current fire.
Cue courage. Along with those demons of the past comes significant discomfort. For example, if you felt criticized by your parents, you likely have a well of painful feelings stored away, often including shame or self-doubt. If your partner criticizes you, even in a small way, you react defensively in a split second. Yes, you are trying to deflect the hurt you've just experienced, but you're also protecting yourself from a surge of painful feelings stored away from long ago. It's likely you've spent a lifetime trying to avoid ever feeling these feelings. If there's conflict afoot, you change the subject or become overly accommodating or refuse to engage. All of these strategies undermine the satisfying relationship you've longed for.
Facing the discomfort of these feelings requires courage because you really don't want to re-experience pain. Yet as long as you keep a lid on those uncomfortable feelings, you're going to keep the destructive cycle going. Our emotional system is such that we can't let the good feelings in and keep the bad feelings out. With the lid closed on the bad feelings, our good feelings are muted, and our ability to think rationally and to solve problems is compromised.
In order to feel joy, you have to be open to feeling pain, hurt, and discomfort. This requires you to build a capacity to feel the uncomfortable feelings that you've buried over a lifetime. You build this capacity by intentionally feeling those past feelings of shame, hurt, worthlessness, or self-doubt that surface. There are moments that you can grab them before they slip away, buried in defensive anger or emotional withdrawal.
In these moments, ask yourself, "What else am I feeling?"
This question can allow you to pinpoint feelings that are hiding just below the surface. You know you're angry or agitated or worried, but you might identify feeling humiliated or unimportant underneath. Emotions may occur to you that you weren't aware of when you got angry or shut down. Take a deep breath and just stay there in that feeling, not distracting yourself, perhaps by picking up your phone. The more you can stay in touch with these feelings when they show up, the more you can tolerate them. Over time, they lose their power over you.
Building your capacity to be in touch with how you're feeling on a deeper level permits you to think clearly and see solutions because you're no longer protecting yourself from your pain. You are no longer designing your life around keeping a lid on discomfort. Options can now occur to you.
This begins the process of disentangling the present from the past. Your partner's ears open when they hear you speak from that place of vulnerability. Both of you can come to understand how your histories are influencing the present. You and your partner can work together to solve whatever is troubling you. The cutting edge of change is always discomfort—a journey well worth the vulnerability you will encounter along the way.
Be curious—staying in love requires it. Lurking in your own personal underground are some of the culprits that require courage to face. Be willing to look inside of yourself. If you are really going to thrive in your relationship, you'll need the courage to struggle with inevitable discomfort. The courage to grapple with those demons is what allows you to fall in love—again—this time with your partner.
Deborah J. Fox, MSW, is a licensed clinical social worker, couples counselor, and certified sex therapist with over 30 years of experience helping people enjoy their relationships and lives again. In addition to receiving her master's degree in Social Work from Catholic University, Fox is a certified sex therapist via American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists and a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist, Advanced Clinician. Her work has been featured at CNN, Mashable, Bustle, The Good Men Project, Thrive Global, and elsewhere, and her writing on the mind-body connection in sex is featured in Integrative Sex & Couples Therapy: A Therapist's Guide to New and Innovative Approaches.