No relationship out there is without its issues. Even couples that swear they never fight will have a disagreement every now and then, it just may not amount to much. What about when it does, though? When a seemingly small argument causes a major fight and leaves two people feeling lost about what they could have done better, or done differently?
When that happens, it's time to do some soul searching. Not on your own, though, but alongside your partner so that you can both solve these issues together.
When relationship troubles strike, it can sometimes feel like they come out of nowhere. There was no obvious buildup, no clear instigating event, it was just one disagreement and boom, the couple appears to have imploded on itself.
There are two important things to remember in situations like these. One, there's always a root cause. It may not be obvious or even easy to figure out at all, but it's there. Two, whatever harm was done was more than likely unintentional.
We Never Mean It
Everyone does or says hurtful things by accident at some point in their life. We speak without fully thinking and our tone comes out wrong, we forget something we shouldn't have, the list goes on. None of these are intentional, but that doesn't mean we're right to downplay the harm it caused to our partner or otherwise.
The mix of these two things—accidental pain caused and strife with no apparent cause—can be the silent killer behind many relationship endings.
In understanding these elements and their psychological workings, we may be able to avoid them, or at least properly address them when they crop up.
Cause And Effect
Psychologist Betsy Holmberg ,Ph.D., wrote for Psychology Today about a specific brain function that may play into these relationship struggles. It's called the Default Mode Network (DMN), which is an automatic, responsive thought pattern that sparks in our brains which then causes us to react to outside forces in strange ways.
"Evolutionarily, [our DMN] supported us living and working in clans. When it feels that your belonging to a clan, or your value to the clan, is threatened, it activates a stress response. You lash out. A fight ensues," Holmberg wrote.
Where Your Reactions Come From
"Because the DMN operates automatically, emotions swell up seemingly from nowhere. And the person doing the hurting doesn't understand what they did wrong."
But why do we feel like we're in danger after one accidental slight or small misstep within our relationship? Holmberg recommends sitting with your partner and talking over these three questions so you can find the root of the problem. Not only will you understand why you're both feeling so out of sorts about whatever's going on, but it will also help explain where your reactions came from, fostering understanding and compassion between you two.
"When Do I Feel Left Out?"
The DMN places immense, significant emphasis on fitting into a 'clan' or group. In this instance, the clan just consists of you and your partner, which is more than enough for your brain to cling onto. Any act, sentence, or otherwise that makes your brain think it's being pushed away from your 'clan' generates an extreme stress response.
As Holmberg explains, "Studies show that ostracism creates a stress response comparable to an injury or illness. It literally feels like life or death, because in our hunter-gatherer days, it was."
In Fear And Panic
Feeling left out in a relationship might not amount to death anymore, but our brain's physically can't tell the difference, and that moment of heightened panic can make us lash out.
To solve this, you have to find out what acts specifically are causing this feeling in you. Do you two work opposing hours and thus don't get much time together? Does it feel like they often choose their other friends over you? Do they jokingly mock your interests in a way that feels a little too real?
Figuring out when you feel at risk of being left behind, no matter how baseless it may seem, will allow both of you to avoid those situations or tackle them differently in the future. It also helps to discuss when you two truly feel like a team, when the 'clan' feels strong and bonded, to be able to bounce back from moments of contention.
"Where Do We Compete?"
It probably comes as no surprise that unnecessary competition can really cause rifts in a couple. This doesn't always mean direct competing where you both try to outdo one another, sometimes it's little comments that suggest you could have done the same or better.
An example Holmberg gave was more like this. "When she made a home-cooked meal as an act of love, he'd say, 'Oh you did? I could have done that.' It made her feel undermined and unseen. She was looking for an expression of love back—a hug or a kiss—but instead felt hurt."
Again, rarely is hurt like this intentional, as oftentimes our mouths work faster than our brains and we just say whatever pops into our heads, but that doesn't mean the harm can be written off.
Our brains already do enough comparison as it is. Every day, we automatically compare ourselves to others in a number of contexts, even our partners. The way we combat this is by focusing in on our emotions and recognizing when these comparing thought patterns start to pop up.
Once we can notice this, we can also shut it down. You shouldn't be seeing a partner's victory as something you have to match or overcome, but something to celebrate! Focusing on the mutual benefits of indulging in joy rather than competition will bring a lot more love into your relationship.
"When Do We People Please?"
People-pleasing is another extremely common behavior we all exhibit from time to time, though some of us more than others. It's that metric that truly matters when it comes to tension or struggle in a relationship, as people-pleasing to an extreme amount can start to make things feel insincere or forced.
Not only that, but stretching ourselves too thin in other areas of life like work can mean you have less mental energy you're able to spend on your relationship, thus leaving your partner feeling like a second choice.
Grant Them Some Independence
This people-pleasing behavior also includes things like over-empathizing. If your partner is a frequent complainer, you may find that you're spending more energy empathizing, coming up with sollutions, and focussing solely on your partner's needs, which will eventually burn you out.
There's nothing wrong with wanting to help the person you love, but remember that they are their own person too. They're an adult, they can work through their troubles on their own, and sometimes they're complaining just to vent, not actually needing or wanting some expertly thought out advice.
You are not responsible for anyone else's happiness but your own, and yes, that includes your significant other.
These questions aren't only for struggling couples on the brink of breaking up. Even if your relationship is happy and healthy, it's still worth talking these over every few months or so just to make sure you're both on the same page. Any issues present won't get the chance to fester into something worse, allowing you both to continuously flourish and grow together.
Preventative maintenance is key these days. We're no longer letting ourselves dwell over issues that could be solved with a simple conversation, instead remaining open, communicative, and willing to both give and take constructive criticism when needed.
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