About 50% of all relationships fail. We all know that by now. But why?
The reason most of them fail is because we are not doing the work. The work in a relationship is all within ourselves. It is in our resolution and ability to embrace the strong emotions that get stirred up inside of us simply from being in a relationship, and then to take the quiet time to learn the deep seated roots of these feelings and beliefs.
We often believe, mistakenly, that our partner is creating the anger or frustration that we are feeling. We blame the other. But the truth is, our relationship with our partner is waking up embedded emotions that have been sleeping inside us.
I tell my counseling clients, “Your relationship with your husband or wife started when you were 6 years old.” That is, the emotional and psychological dynamic between you and your parents, what you saw and felt and literally absorbed while growing up, are all stored inside your limbic system. Our “early emotional experiences knit long lasting patterns into the very fabric of the brain’s neural network” (Thomas Lewis, General Theory of Love).
And as neuroscience has recognized, 95% of life is driven by these unconscious feelings, our subconscious world of response patterns that have etched our beliefs and reactions. You never knew you were learning these responses.
Just to apply some statistical evidence around this epidemic of broken relationships, about half of the 60 million couples in the US gave up in 2015. That is a staggering number of individuals that walked away from the arena of their relationship. Of course, many tried hard but realized splitting up made more sense. But across the board, most individuals bailed when things got tough. That is simply not good enough. Why?
The main reason why is because half of the roughly 74 million children 17 years and younger in the US were part of these breakups. That is a lot of long faces around kitchen tables. Parenting, and the role modeling we do, sets the framework of our children’s lives, especially during their first 8-10 years. Our kids absorb, inherit, and become who we are and what we do. We owe it to them to do more work on ourselves!
The great physicist John Bell (Bell’s theorem) summed up the powerful importance a parent’s behavior has on his kids when he said “once connected, objects affect one another forever no matter where they are.” Children are programmed “from the start with mother and father’s beliefs” (Perla Kaliman, Journal of International Society of Psychneuroendocrinology).
The work you do right now on yourself, in your relationship, echoes through eternity. If you become more courageous about using the challenging, argumentative, and passionate interactions with your partner to better understand yourself, you will change the lives of your grandkids’ grand kids. That is how far the molecules of your emotional intelligence stretch and there is ample evidence to support this.
Two years into my now 20-year marriage, I cornered my wife and said “If we don’t work on this thing, our marriage, we’ll be a statistic.” She looked shocked and did not necessarily agree. I knew though that the relationships we grew up around were unexamined and unseasoned. We had both inherited the silent storms of our ancestors’ feelings and beliefs of being incomplete. I just knew there was big stuff inside both of us.
Five marriage counselors later, along with 3 kids (girls), 4 dogs, 2 sets of in-laws, 4 houses in 2 countries, 8 jobs, 12 years of graduate school loan payments, and 9 years of counseling other couples, my relationship with my wife flourishes. Sure, if I had a $1 for every time she asked for the big D (divorce), all my debt would be gone!
But I have been relentless in my desire to use the interactions with my wife for self-awareness. I continually probe and challenge my wife and myself by asking the hard questions that often create friction, and then using these mutually fired up emotions to smoke out my own self-doubt, fears, and longings. The only way to really know who that insecure 14-year-old boy is inside of me is have his feelings be called up. And our wives know where that boy lives.
Of course at times my wife and I want to kill each other, but that is how a relationship gets its legs, through the friction. And that is how I learn and fully complete my life.
Every minute of every day, you and your spouse are dripping your conscious and unconscious beliefs and feelings into the space in between each other. This space is the field that you grew up in, between your parents, and this is the zone that your kids now breathe, soak in, and emerge from. But don’t worry… if you are not conscious of this loud world of your silent hopes and yearnings, and anything else that is somehow not complete, I guarantee you your kids will be.
There is great news ahead though — the path to becoming more aware and making meaningful changes that will positively affect yourself, your relationship, and your kids stretches out right in front of you. The key is actually stored in the actual word relationship which comes from the Latin root relatus which means “carry back”
As mentioned above, the exercise and trial of being in a supportive and mature relationship is all about learning how to stand in the fire of all the intense emotions stirred up inside of you, and then taking ample amounts of time by yourself in a therapeutic and reflective setting to trace how these emotional memories were started.
The frustration your husband incites in you has its archeology in how your dad treated your mother, and how you silently responded.
How many times have I kicked allegorical dirt on my wife’s shoes in a fit of defensive rage because her response to me unearthed my teenage need to prove my parents wrong? A thousand times! My wife stands in front of me, but my unconscious response pattern flashes memories of being in 6th grade and hating to be corrected. The son/mother friction is elicited by my wife, inciting my lashing back, which then fires her up. That is endless cycle of unexamined self in relationship.
But I learned to grab hold of my defensive feelings, for instance, and take them back with me into my long hours of sitting quietly. I would guide myself back into those 6th grade scenarios and re-feel those emotions, often shedding long tears of sadness or longing. By allowing myself to re-experience the feelings in the present, with the benefit of age and awareness, I can then better accept them.
My wife helped me find them. She did not cause them, she shined light on them. The friction of our relationship guided me to them. I now understand these feelings, accept them, and can actually change how I respond when my wife kicks them back up. Carl Jung explained that “we cannot change anything unless we accept it”.
Now with insight, I get to “carry back” my renewed awareness to the relationship. That is the work, relatus that holds the key to the growth and success of your relationship. As you become aware, the whole dynamic of your relationship will change, in turn changing the direction of everything that touches you, kids especially.
Start with self, move towards the fire of your relationship, and let it awaken old feelings. Then go to your cave, to a therapist, to your sitting cushion, and get quiet and in there you will find the source of these feeling. In turn, bring this new recognition back to the altar of your relationship. This exercise will continue forever, and you will pass this courage and conviction on to your children.