Your partnership is rolling along pretty well. Long gone are days when you wondered whether you’d be accepted and wanted. You’re in a solid partnership, or living together, or married. You’ve settled into a comfortable routine with each other: shared dinners, sleeping together, and maybe caring for the kids.
In short, you’re coasting in your relationship. Other tasks, such as work, clamor for attention and the partnership is low-maintenance. All is well. Or is it?
Some partnerships have earned their right to coast a bit. Through much effort, a solid foundation based upon mutual trust and caring has been built. Feelings have been shared, conflicts faced and worked through, and the difficult challenges around the in-laws or your sleeping schedule have been accepted and managed.
Conflicts that arise are dealt with promptly and talked about in a kind, respectful way. You feel safe sharing your feelings and desires. Being open and vulnerable with each other keeps renewing your connection. Maybe with the help of a therapist or couples counselor, you’ve learned to uncover and reveal your authentic feelings, heal the bulk of your defensiveness, and express your boundaries and limits in a way that preserves trust and intimacy.
Beware of Going to Sleep When All Seems Well
From my purview as a psychotherapist for thirty-five years, I’ve observed that many couples haven’t developed the skills and mindfulness to probe deeply into what makes relationships thrive. When things seem to be going well, especially when the sex is good and hormones are flowing, it’s easy to let things slide — suppressing feelings and ignoring what isn’t working well.
Even when things are genuinely good, seeds of disharmony have a way of sprouting into virulent weeds that contaminate the garden of love when not dealt with in a timely manner. Sudden separation or betrayals that seem to come out of the blue can often be traced to a gradual buildup or discontents that have not been adequately addressed and processed.
I’m not proposing that we become alarmed about normal disagreements or maintain a hyperfocus on the partnership–getting in our partner’s face with every minor discontent or irritation. We need to pick our battles wisely rather than tirelessly indulge every feeling of discontent. A hearty dose of self-soothing is an important foundation for healthy relationships — drawing upon inner resources to comfort us when things don’t go our way. Sharing every detail of what bugs us might exhaust our partner and harm the relationship.
Yet, there can be the human tendency to not pay attention to what’s important in our lives. We might shy away from expressing our hurts and fears because we’re afraid of stirring up conflict or losing the connection. Or, we might not fully take in our partner’s discontents, perhaps because it triggers the old shame of being criticized or doing something wrong.
As one client who resorted to an affair put it, “I kept telling my partner I needed more from him. He just didn’t listen.” Continually dismissing her concerns prompted her to meet her needs elsewhere. Of course, this doesn’t justify an affair, but it makes the betrayal more understandable. By not hearing her feelings as they were building, he fell asleep at the wheel, which eventually led to the relationship crashing.
As expressed in Love & Betrayal:
“Whatever the specific conflicts, there may have grown an incremental dissatisfaction and distance. In the midst of the mistrust and miscommunication, our partner may have decided that he or she couldn’t take it anymore. Although we have felt abruptly betrayed, he or she may have felt more subtly betrayed because his or her wants and well-being were not being adequately considered. Perhaps neither of us was being honored and respected.”
Avoiding a slippery slope toward disconnection means being mindful of when we’re unwisely coasting rather than paying attention. Relationships get off track when we take them for granted and neglect to nurture them with “fondness and admiration” (as John Gottman puts it), enjoyable activities, and ongoing communication about what’s working well and what isn’t feeling so good. Finding a balance — a middle path between avoiding issues and overdramatizing them — we can continually nurture the love and intimacy we desire.
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