Dealing Successfully with Relationship Problems

“Intimacy requires courage because risk is inescapable.” – Rollo May

Dr Susan Cummings Nicholson

Afraid to risk feeling

What do we really fear in our relationships?  According to Richard Moss, author and teacher on the transformational power of conscious living, the answer is FEELING.  Moss believes that what we are unwilling to feel, or what we believe ourselves unable to feel in relationship, defines the limits of our willingness to be honest, to speak our truth without rancor, and to be loving and open-hearted.  Image how our reactions in relationship, particularly a primary love relationship, might be different, if we took the risk of sharing openly and deeply about how we think and feel, and of listening without judgment to our partner’s experience.  When we become courageous enough to feel the vulnerability of giving up our need to control or be right, or have things only our way, we open ourselves to experience our partner in a new way, which invites the emergence of our rich potential to deeply love another person.

What feelings do we avoid?

In relationship, we may be working hard to avoid multiple feelings that can arise from open and honest communication with our partner, such as:  feeling hurt, misunderstood, unimportant, rejected, invalidated, unsure of our partner’s caring or intentions, emotionally abandoned.  When there has been a history of experiencing any of the above feelings in the relationship dynamics with a partner, many people react so quickly with irritation and anger, that they don’t even recognize their deeper feelings beneath those reactions.  Some people then start to do whatever they can to avoid this second level of feelings/reactions, especially once they recognize that their angry behavior is causing even greater problems for the relationship.

How do we protect ourselves from feeling?

People use various ways to protect themselves from deep feelings that can arise from the dynamics in a love relationship.  The openness and honest sharing, which are an integral part of emotional intimacy between two people, are the bedrock of a healthy, growing relationship.  Unfortunately, it iscouple picthese moments that are avoided by countless people in their marriage or intimate relationship.  A common way to avoid these moments is through offensive, angry behavior, which involves aggression in some form.  Although many people resort to physical violence, the majority of angry people use verbal violence – shouting, blaming, cursing, accusing, perhaps threatening – anything to divert attention from their partner’s perspective – and to shift blame onto the partner.  Another way is generally a quieter, but just as manipulative, form of avoidance.  It involves the more defensive move of withdrawal from situations in which emotional closeness might occur.  This is accomplished quite effectively through behaviors ranging from avoidance of eye contact, withdrawal of affection, claims of  ‘too busy’ or ’ too tired’ for quality time together, actual physical absence, to pretending not to hear or literally refusing to listen when one’s partner has something to share.  Yet another way to protect oneself from feelings is through numbing.  This can be done effectively, although only temporarily, through uncontrolled indulgence in a myriad of substances or activities.  When we take a really honest look at this dynamic of avoiding feelings, it reveals to us a focus on only one person – ourselves.  When the primary focus of either partner in relationship is on self-protection, the relationship is headed for disaster.  The very term relationship infers a merging of two people into the space between them, forming a connective bond.  When one or both of those people are focused primarily on their own needs, there is no bond.

What does the relationship need?

What the relationship needs is really simple – although challenging for most humans.  The relationship needs to be nurtured, to be fed, just like a living plant.  It needs for both partners to bring to it those components that produce strength and that sustain both the relationship and the couple.  It needs those qualities highlighted by Richard Moss (quoted above) as missing, when people are trying to avoid feelings: honesty, absence of anger and blaming, loving and open-hearted interactions.  This is the overwhelming consensus of teachers throughout history, who have spoken of strong and lasting connection in relationships.  David Richo, author of numerous books on the practical applications of remaining present for life, speaks of the needs of a love relationship this way: “Precisely what we need for happiness in our adult love relationships [is what] we need in childhood to develop self-esteem and a healthy ego [:] attention, acceptance, appreciation, and affection, and when we are allowed the freedom to live in accord with our own deepest needs and wishes.”  When speaking about the effects of nurturing the relationship and listening to what it needs, Jack Zimmerman and Jaquelyn McCandless, respected authors and teachers of transformational intimacy, report, “… [the lovers] .. begin to formulate a joint vision that gradually takes the place of what each of them thought he or she wanted from the relationship.”

How does relationship counseling help?

Most people have no idea how ingrained their self-protective efforts are, even when they are trying to save a relationship.  I see my job with hurting couples, as a catalyst to help them see what their relationship needs, in order for it to survive.  Ways to insure the personal integrity of each individual is always explored before relationship counseling begins.  During ongoing sessions, I offer encouragement and support to both partners, as they consider how they might find it within themselves, to shift their attention from emotional self-protection, to engaging in the kind of openness and honesty needed for repair and ongoing sustenance of the relationship.  The transformation needed within the partners, that can allow them to bring new loving qualities to the relationship and to each other, is actually activated and sustained when they allow the relationship to be a mirror, to reflect back to them what they need to know.  This is where the fear of feeling comes in.  In my experience, it is only those people who courageously allow themselves to experience the feelings that may accompany the image mirrored back to them, who build the strongest, most successful relationships.  When I accept a couple, who desires relationship healing, my role is to guide, support, and be fully present for them, as they make their way through what can be an extraordinarily meaningful process.