How to fight for a relationship in trouble? an interview
“After the first phase of being in love, after the feeling that everything is going to be wonderful, it becomes clear, that that’s not what’s going to happen. From this point on, people start to look at each other differently. And this is a fantastic moment! As long as we don’t stay stuck in this place.”
Grażyna Lubińska talks to psychotherapist Mikołaj Czyż about how to fight for a relationship in trouble. Published in Wysokie Obcasy Extra, issue № 9 (30), November 2014.
Breaking up? Not yet…
People say there’s nothing worse than loneliness in a relationship. When do people start to feel lonely, even though they’re with somebody?
– When they feel that they have needs and values that have not been attended to for a long time – for example the need for conversation, intimacy, a sense of shared business. And they don’t try to find out what they really want, what this lack is really about, but instead move away from each other. They withdraw in the relationship, and don’t fight for it. They don’t say: “For God’s sake, give it to me! It’s more important to me than life itself!” But they also don’t leave, they don’t say: “This is lacking in our relationship and it’s very painful for me. And since this is something fundamental for me, I’m going to look for it in another relationship.” The key in these situations is to find out what it is that has changed. What’s not working?
What can we do so that the distance between us doesn’t last forever or get too great?
– Sometimes its unavoidable. Our relationships are immersed in the world, and the world creates a lot of problems for them. Sometimes a couple tries to solve these problems, but it’s not possible, because these are clearly societal problems, not theirs. For example, there are people who work 14 hours a day, and if you give 95% of your time to your work, and 5% to your relationship, that’s OK. But if you try to pull the wool over the other person’s eyes so that they think that the 5% they’re getting is actually 90%, then that’s manipulation, not intimacy.
Does that mean that people who work 14 hours a day shouldn’t get into relationships?
– Why not? Maybe they have an agreement that one or both of them are going to work that much. Or one of them says “I don’t mind you working that much as long as I know where you are and what you’re doing.” People have different concepts of intimacy. For some people, their concept is the kind of intimacy that grows out of childhood experiences, and it means that somebody gives me something, holds me, and I feel fantastic inside. For others, it’s a kind of union – people live together because they love each other, solve problems together, experience success and failure together. Intimacy isn’t a goal in and of itself, it happens as a kind of side product.
And it’s possible to lose this intimacy?!
– When people fight or lose touch with the deeper stuff that brought them together, then they can feel lonely in their relationship. But you can take care of the foundation of this kind of relationship. You can agree, for example, that we’re going to work like crazy for three months, but we know what’s “underneath”, and we make sure we “go back there” – to our union, that we create and that happens between us. This means that we can take care of our relationship, our intimacy, even when things are hard. The relationship becomes something we can take care of, like a child.
Why do couple who seem to be made for each other break up?
– In my opinion, there are two basic reasons behind breakups. The first one is that the something that created the relationship, something subtle and deep – some call it love, others an atmosphere, something that was created between the two partners – this something ends.
So they no longer go to the same bus stop without arranging it, so that they can meet by accident?
– If only it was just that! They might start to have fruitless arguments, for example, with no clear point to them. The argument can’t lead to a resolution, because they’re not actually arguing about what’s really on their minds. Maybe they used to love each other, or maybe they didn’t, but now they definitely don’t love each other, and they feel it. They’re together for practical reasons, to a greater or lesser extent – one of them works and the other one doesn’t, they have a family, a system, which works in some way. Questioning this involves a considerable risk. Often it comes down to fear – fear of a lower standard of living, of suffering after a breakup, of loneliness, of being left alone with the children or of having limited access to them, sharing responsibility for the breakup, etc.
This situation might last for a long time or a short time, but after a while, you start dreaming, recognizing your needs and deciding to fulfill them. Sometimes this might mean that what brought you together is no longer there, so you leave. Or another relationship becomes interesting, or something different still. You decide on something. You take a risk.
And what’s the second reason why people break up?
– It’s simply the fact that people cause each other a lot of difficulties. After the first phase of falling in love, after the sense that all of my needs will be fulfilled in this relationship and that it will be wonderful, it becomes clear that this isn’t going to happen. It’s not how we expected, and it’s not going to be that way. From this point, the couple start to see each other differently than they did at the beginning of the relationship.
And this means the end, inevitably?
– This is a fantastic moment! As long as we don’t get stuck in it. We get the chance to create an actual relationship with a real person, and not our imaginary version of this person, an ideal, a dream. At this point it’s easier to identify our own needs, which we wanted our partner to meet, and in this way to glimpse part of our own inner world. And then to decide – am I going to leave this relationship or am I going to work on it?
Which relationships have a chancing of lasting when the first stage of being in love has passed?
– The first phase of being in love is a matter of months rather than years. At the beginning, there is usually fascination, and hope that our dreams are going to come true. People come together as future partners, look at each other, listen to each other, and get a sense of which of their needs the other person will be able to meet – that’s one aspect.
The other aspect is deeper, and goes beyond personal preferences and each partner’s conscious needs – it’s the atmosphere of the place they met, special events, smells, which they remember. It’s that something that their shared story grew out of. After years together, and especially in difficult times, they both will look back to the things that brought them together.
What is the something that enables a relationship to survive?
– It might start with a memory: “do you remember that café?” and lead to the thing that created a special feeling. It might have been a ray of sunlight which came into the room in such a way that it evoked a strange, mysterious state of mind in each person. And that is the “underground heartbeat” which sustains their relationship. It is meaningful for both of them. It might be called a mystery. Process psychology talks about “relationship myth”.
These unintentional events are more voluminous and far-reaching than the initial fascination. This atmosphere of a meeting is the thing that people can call on later. When you are in touch with this inner experience, you can even argue about anything without endangering the relationship. People on the outside think it’s impossible that a couple who fights so much are happy together, but they are.
Can this something be brought to mind deliberately?
– This something is an “underground heartbeat”, so it’s invisible, but tangible. Each person has experienced it in their own way, they feel it and nurture it within themselves, bring it to mind in difficult moments. It’s more than an emotion, it’s a kind of contemplation. While it lives in each person, they stay together, and make decisions together.
Sometimes people break up, seemingly because they haven’t noticed that the first stage of being in love is over and that they need to come up with something new.
– They don’t have plans, and they don’t have an idea of what their life together should look like. They don’t decide to have children and they don’t even talk about it. Their relationship supports this indecision, this lack of engagement with life. Disappointment with our partner takes over, regret, we see him or her as the cause of our failure, and we become very one-sided about it.
Is this a turning point in our relationship story – we either break up or we try something new? How can we make the decision easier for ourselves?
– I suggest asking oneself: am I interested in this new person, this person I’ve only just noticed? At the beginning it was wonderful, but now it’s not and I can cut the relationship off at this point. I can also stay here in my disappointment and complaints for some time. But maybe I’m interested in who this other person is. And if I am interested in him or her, then do I want to try to build something together?
And if I am interested, then what? Maybe the man in my life is so crazy that life with him can be exciting. Or maybe he’s so solid and dependable, that I can develop and grow without worrying about anything. How can I start a relationship with the same man, when he’s actually a different man than I thought he was? And without being in love, because that part is over.
– Let’s take a situation in which your partner turns out to be messy, and this bothers you. You’ve chosen a partner like this, so maybe there’s something more to it than just messiness? For example, a sense of freedom, being unfettered by convention, being relaxed, something that you fell in love with? Can you start to love the messiness in that case? Or maybe you can’t handle it, maybe he’s so messy that you absolutely can’t let it turn your life upside down. Then you tell him, you break up, you take responsibility for the fact that you don’t want someone who is messy.
Or maybe I promise myself secretly that I’ll work on his messiness, and I think that in time “I’ll be able to change it”?
– You can’t change another person! What we can do is to work on our own limitations in a particular situation. We can only change ourselves. The idea that we can force somebody else to change is one of the most common mistakes we make in relationships. We can only ask other people to do things.
So what can I do about the messy person?
– One aspect is “I’m so angry about all the little things on the desk and that the kitchen worktop isn’t shining.” The other is looking for the answer to the question of whether I might be messy myself. Why don’t I say “no” to the messy person? What’s stopping me? What does this experience really mean to me? Apart from the fact that I’m fighting somebody else’s mess, struggling with it and getting frustrated, or apparently winning when it’s tidy for a week? It might turn out that I see the positive side of the mess. I might think that there’s a very laidback attitude in the mess, that I like and admire in other people. Or maybe I might experience something deeper – relaxation, acceptance of the fact that things are where they are.
How come two people, who are together because they were once madly in love, argue so much that their relationship is shaken to the core?
– Differences between partners strengthen a relationship. When people argue, it that means they care, that they are standing up for their themselves. I consider it a sign of intimacy. They are fighting about something. Arguments and conflicts can be very creative, surprising things can come out of them. Circular arguments are destructive. The woman accuses the man: “You never come straight home, and when you do, you don’t look after our child, I have to remind you to do it.” The man does what he’s told and looks after his child, but he doesn’t get into the role of father, he doesn’t think about his child. He is doing what his awful – in his opinion – partner demands of him.
What can be good about arguments?
– Learning self-defense. It’s very important to be able to defend ourselves. When accusations are made, we need to say: “You’re wrong”, “I’m innocent”, and put forwards appropriate arguments. But when we have defended ourselves, then we need to listen to what our partner is accusing us of. When we reject an aggressive tone of voice, we can get to the heart of the matter, because there might be some truth about us in what we heard.
In an argument that both people are participating fully in, usually somebody is defending the status quo, but sometimes something completely new will come out of it, for example we might hear something like: “I don’t want to go to see your parents anymore, I want us to go to the woods alone!”. And what comes up may be very valuable for the relationship. Apart from that, in arguments people get to know their own strength, they learn about it.
And that’s a good thing?
– Definitely. It’s a good thing when both people in a relationship see themselves as strong and believe that they have a major input into their relationship. That’s when they take responsibility for their relationship and their level of participation in it. If both parties see themselves as weak because “he accuses me of …” “she criticizes me”, then usually nobody takes responsibility for what is happening. When people are in this kind of defensive position, high caliber bullets go flying. And people seriously injure each other.
What can we learn during an argument?
– Through arguments – although not through pointless, fruitless arguments – you can learn about your relationship, about your partner, but also about yourself. We find out about the other person – about his or her needs, position and so on – but also about our own capabilities, beliefs, and strength. Strength is very important, because the most obvious strategy to adopt during a conflict is to get the other person to change his or her mind and adopt our position. But if each side gets to know their own strength, they learn that this won’t happen. They know that if they force their partner to give in during an argument, then he or she might dominate in another area, in the bedroom for example. During an argument, it’s always worth asking “what is he or she really saying?”
So it would seem that people who don’t argue are not fully participating in their relationship.
– People who don’t argue are not highlighting the differences between them, and people are not identical. I want to go right, you want to go left. I explain why I want to go right, and I won’t change my mind for any reason. Or perhaps I’ll go left with you today, because I see it means a lot to you. We have to agree on something. People are alive and relationships are alive, and during the course of time, new situations come up in relationships. The ways that we used to reach agreements or negotiate may not work anymore when we reach a new stage of the relationship. But it’s a problem when people don’t argue because they think it’s wrong.
What’s the best way to resolve a conflict?
– Making concessions is rarely enough, as they usually lay the ground for future difficulties. A lasting solution is possible if both sides find new ways of being, for example I might realize in the middle of a conflict that I am more independent than I thought. That I can do certain things on my own, without my partner’s participation or permission, and I can enjoy that. Or I might realize that I have never told my partner how important it is for me that we do something together, I simply expected her to join me.
It’s rare for both sides to make changes at the same time. Usually when one person introduces something new, it’s a challenge that the other person needs to meet. Sometimes an honest conversation about the problem is a big step towards resolving the conflict.
When the conflict is heated and it’s not possible to set aside our difference of opinion, it’s worth considering whether the other person is saying something about me that’s true, or whether he or she is just an enemy that I’d like to shoot – and can’t shoot. I can get rid of my partner, but the same conflict will probably repeat itself in my next relationship. Because arguments are not just a clash between two people, but also a reflection of my own inner conflict.
What do we gain by trying to tackle the difficulties in a relationship, even when we’re not successful? Are there benefits for us – as individuals – even when our attempts become a fiasco?
– We almost always do. We become more competent and grow as people. We learn about ourselves. Relationships are extraordinary in that the problem is never only on one side of the fence – it’s always about both people, or involves both people to some extent. When I work on a relationship or a conflict, I’m learning how to cope with emotions that I’m drowning in.
After a number of experiences like this, I will know that good things come out of this participation, even if I might lose my head during the conflict from time to time. This means I’m not so afraid of conflicts, and I know I can deal with them – this is a hugely important ability. We learn to take risks as well. This can allow the relationship we’ve been in to grow, or allow something else to grow that we decide to build in the future.
Conflicts, misunderstandings, difficult scenes. Why is it worth going through all this?
– Fully participating in a relationship is terribly difficult and incredibly demanding. On the other hand, it gives both sides an extraordinary opportunity to grow in return. In a relationship, one can experience the deepest experiences and gain access to extraordinary resources. If, of course, we want to make use of them.
Mikołaj Czyż is a psychotherapist from the Institute of Process Psychology (Instytut Psychologii Processu). He founded and runs the Centre for Couples’ Development (Centrum Rozwoju Par) with Agnieszka Serafin. He is an author of “Couples Psychology” blog.