This is a guest post written by Barrie Davenport, a life and career coach and founder of Live Bold and Bloom, a blog about fearless living.
“Problems in relationships occur because each person is concentrating on what is missing in the other person. “ ~Wayne Dyer
Our love relationships can bring out the child in us. Not just childish behaviors, although they bring out plenty of those too. I’m talking about the real child we once were umpteen years ago when we lived at home with parents and siblings and two cats in the yard. Or whatever your experience happened to be.
If you had a pretty good childhood without too many traumas or disruptions, then you probably got most of your emotional and physical needs met. If it was a more tumultuous upbringing, then you may still carry some of the scars and unmet needs created during your younger years.
Regardless of the quality of our childhood circumstances, we all transpose the imprinting and experiences we encountered with our parents into our primary love relationships.
Take a look at your spouse or partner. How does this person reflect qualities, either good or bad, in one or both of your parents? How are conflicts or hurts from your childhood played out in the interactions with your beloved? Some people choose a partner who mimics their own parent’s characteristics, while others look for someone distinctly different from their parents. Neither choice is an accident.
Why do we do this? Because it is through our primary love relationships that we strive to finish the business of childhood — getting our needs met and evolving into our authentic selves.
If our love relationship is trusting, healthy and supportive, then we can continue to evolve and heal hurts or trauma from the past. If our relationship is shaky and unhealthy, then the cycle of unmet needs continues and conflict is inevitable.
Every individual carries their unique experiences and perspective into a romantic relationship. It is impossible for even the closest of partners to get inside the others heart and mind to perceive the world through their lover’s eyes.
Add to that the inherent differences in men and women, as well as the possible cultural, social, or economic disparities between people, and it’s a wonder that two individuals can live and love together at all. Thank goodness for biology and chemistry. Without them, we might die out as a race all together!
The reality is that we are all individuals struggling to get our needs met, and we often look to our spouse or partner to take care of that for us.
Oh my, what a distorted vision that is. We see the world through the murky lens of our hurts and desires. When conflict arises, as it always will, we generally see the problem as his or hers — not ours. It becomes a tug of war in which we build defenses to protect our turf and ease our pain.
However, relationship enlightenment dawns when we recognize and accept that the problem is rarely with the other person. It’s within us.
Only by accepting responsibility for our own needs and pain can a mutually satisfying relationship be nurtured. There are exceptions of course. Certainly a partner’s abusive or mentally disturbed behavior doesn’t fit into this paradigm.
But in the average relationship (if there is such a thing), we must always look to ourselves first to begin the end of conflict and create a healthy, loving partnership.
In the heat of the moment, this is quite difficult to do. Buttons are pushed, words are spoken, and feelings spiral out of control.
That’s why most of the work on relationships should be done when things are calm and running smoothly. It’s hard to be rationale and loving when your head is spinning around and you’re frothing at the mouth.The self-work and relationship growth must happen before the first stone is tossed.
So how do we look deeply at ourselves when we are so very sure that our partner is the one who is really messed up?
You may believe with all of your heart that you are right and they are wrong. But guess what? You partner probably believes the same. So often we simply don’t view the situation the same way at all.
The only person you can truly understand is yourself. And the only person capable of changing your reactions and feelings is you. Start with that premise, and you will immediately shift the tone and tenor of the relationship.
Here are some ideas for working on yourself and strengthening your relationship before the next conflict occurs:
- Reflect on your childhood. Write down the behaviors and characteristics of your parents that you admire. Then write down those that were hurtful, shaming, embarrassing or unhealthy. What needs in childhood were met for you and what needs were not? Did you feel love and cherished? Were you physically and financially secure? Were you valued and respected? Did you have the freedom to explore and learn? Write down ways that your needs were not met.
- Ask your spouse or partner to do the same. Both of you must do this exercise to have a better understanding of each other and how you can support one another. Ask your spouse to write about his/her childhood and answer the same questions listed above.
- Study your partner. See how they mirror characteristics of your parents or how their behavior or personality might be highlighting unmet needs from childhood. For example, if you had a parent who was emotionally detached, maybe you’ve picked a spouse who is as well because that felt familiar. Write down the areas where your spouse reflects an area of growth for you. Ask your partner to do the same. Simply having insight into why you chose your partner helps remove anger and blame.
- Think about what makes you feel loved. Is it through words? Affection? Quality time together? Gifts? Write down everything that makes you feel cherished and supported in a relationship. You might consider reading the book The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I’ve linked to his web site which provides a quiz on discovering your own love language. This is a great exercise to do with your spouse or partner so that you can learn more ways to support each other.
- What do you need from your partner? You’ve examined your childhood to see what has served you well and where you have unmet needs. Now think about how your partner can support you in getting these needs met. Write down specific requests for actions or behavior changes that you can communicate to your partner. Ask him/her do the same.
- What other ways can you get your needs met? No matter how loving and supportive your spouse may be, he or she cannot be responsible for your ultimate happiness or meet all of your needs. Find other ways of filling your tank and finding fulfillment and satisfaction in life. This can be through your career, other friendships, your spiritual life, hobbies, exercise, or simply enjoying your own company. Take full and complete responsibility for your own happiness.
- Communicate often with each other. You cannot read your spouse’s mind nor can they read yours. You must be willing to talk about your needs and what you can give. Regular communication before conflict erupts can save both of you from anger and hurt feelings. Our lives are busy, so you may need to schedule this regular communication time. Make it a priority above work, children, or anything else in your life.
- During conflict, accept responsibility. When you are in the heat of battle, it is so hard not to lash out. Before you fling another arrow over the wall, take a deep breath and excuse yourself from the conflict if necessary. When you are calmer, ask yourself how you contributed to the problem and what deeper feelings your spouse’s behavior triggered. Examine your feelings rather than the other person’s behavior. What is really behind those feelings? Can you put it into words?
- Communicate feelings rather than blaming. Instead of criticizing your partner, talk about your own feelings related to the conflict. This may make you feel vulnerable, but it opens you up to real and loving communication. Try saying “I felt lonely and left out when you went out to dinner without me,” rather than saying, “You were so selfish and thoughtless when you left me at home”. The former focuses our your feelings and doesn’t criticize or point fingers. This language of feeling rather than blaming diffuses defensiveness.
- Take ownership of the relationship. Treat your love relationship like a prized garden that you are tending. Water it daily. Pull out the weeds. Admire the growth and beauty of it. If you don’t, the relationship will wither. Don’t let work, children, hobbies, television or other distractions pull you away from this most important daily work.
- Go to counseling when things get rough. This seems obvious, but so many couples avoid this like the plague. Yes, it can be unpleasant and painful. But a good counselor can help you navigate the rough waters and guide you toward healing. If you are the only one willing to go, then go by yourself but continue asking your partner to join you. Perhaps if they see you doing the work, at some point they will be willing to participate.