Let’s face it. The longer you are with somebody, the more likely that person can really get on your nerves and continue to do things that upset you. Over time, these things begin to come together and accumulate into a formidable resentment. It’s surprising how many ways hurt and resentment can find their way into a person’s relationship, similar to how you can break open a bag filled with contents in different ways. One couple can experience a few but significant hurtful experiences, like poking a good-sized hole in a bag. At this point, the bag is not able to work correctly and uphold its contents. In another scenario, a couple may experience a slower and more drawn-out process of, what at the time, seemed like “no big deal“. This is similar to someone poking dozens of tiny holes into a bag. It’s hard to notice anything happening at first. Then suddenly, the bag begins to break and the contents spill.
The first break in communication is easier to identify because of the significance of the event and the clarity of what caused the tension in a relationship. Whereas in the second reason, it is often harder to put a finger on why “we don’t get along anymore,” or “we just don’t like each other after all.” It becomes hard to recall all of the minor problems over time that led to a break within the relationship. Whether the barriers in your relationship resulted from a few swift and abrupt changes or a slow and steady drain, there’s likely something going on beneath the surface that has led to the development of these barriers.
So, what does this all have to do with unresolved issues? Well, let’s say a conflict does happen between you and your partner. And let’s say you are both able to identify the issue and address it. However, this event may have also reminded you of other ways in which you have felt similarly unseen, not cared for, not prioritized, or unloved in the relationship. So, even though the larger issue has been addressed, residual effects or consequences result because of the unresolved issues that were present before this big event occurred. The smaller conflicts could have happened years ago but with time, similar to the small holes being poked in the bag, they didn’t become noticeable or present until the relationship or “bag” could no longer function like it once had.
These smaller holes can end up being just as damaging as the big ones, and they can lead to a lack of motivation to change. Partners become accustomed to how their companions behave. It often feels uncomfortable to hold standards in a relationship. However, these principles are important to maintaining a relationship with longevity and consistency. Couples are often stuck in a cyclical pattern in their conflicts because they are unaware of the small but steady holes that have been poked into their relationship. Inviting a fresh pair of eyes into the relationship can be a game-changer to preventing more holes that can grow into a bigger problem.
Have you ever been watching a movie or TV show and thought to yourself, Huh this seems familiar? The person watching with you then pipes up, “You know what? This is just a remake of that movie we watched together last week.“ Then, it all clicks. It is the same story playing out, just with different people in another setting.
This is often how old and unhealthy narratives play out in relationships like an old movie. It can be seen in arguments that come up over and over, through a lack of satisfaction with outside relationships, or by experiencing a consistent misunderstanding of one another’s intentions despite the attempts to repair these issues in the past. Situations like these can often lead to a break in a relationship, often not due to a couple’s lack of effort to repair it either. People who experience feelings of helplessness or failure because they can’t seem to identify or resolve recurring conflicts may also be struggling to identify the larger narrative they’ve become so accustomed to over time.
Couples commonly don’t think beyond the “surface level“ problem. Each partner can enter into the same fight 10, 20, or even 30 times. However, each one of these conflicts could be derived from just one or two narratives. Some examples of narratives are the thoughts, I feel like my partner ignores me when I need them, or My partner does not care enough to put their needs aside. These statements seem pretty straightforward, don’t they? Well, don’t be fooled! These seemingly simple thoughts exist in the undercurrent of multiple interactions that can be the death of a relationship by a thousand cuts. These thoughts become negative filters that alter and twist conversations and then funnel them back into a specific bucket that justify or validate an old wound.
The trickiest thing about narratives is that it doesn’t matter whether or not the narrative is true. The fact that a narrative is present in a person’s mind and becomes a filter for how they experience the world, can cause an individual to feel helpless in changing or controlling ongoing issues. Leaving the “rewrites“ of this old story to go unseen or unchecked within your relationship can eventually create a situation that may be overwhelming. Experiences like these can be incredibly difficult to catch without the help of a professional who is aware and trained on how to properly identify and explain them. Before this “story as old as time” has more time to continue playing or acting as a filter in your future interactions, invite one of our professionals to assist you in spotting and treating these old wounds.
One of the more unique experiences that comes along with being in a marriage is the wonderful and terrifying feeling of being known by your partner, which happens to also include the immature parts of you. Something that, while useful, is also often frustrating is how our partners can be a mirror of how emotionally underdeveloped we are in areas of our life. Who do you know that looks forward to looking into a mirror with flaws reflecting back at them, let alone being pointed out by someone else?
It takes the development of skills mentioned in the first post in this series in order to navigate ideas covered in this section effectively. Compare a healthy and safe marriage to a marathon that you want to run. It takes practice, determination, consistency, and a good amount of will to accomplish that goal. Granted, anyone can hit the streets and just start running. However, to make that distance, it takes good form, mental fortitude, and endurance built from long term practice. Something that’s incredibly important to remember is that if you’re practicing any type of exercise with an incorrect form, the muscles are not going to develop properly or be ready for what you want to use it for. Similarly, good communication is the form with which we follow in order to apply the other skills required to navigate a healthy relationship. Good communication is consistently top of mind, intentionally approached, and practiced regularly. The aforementioned narratives would be considered the mental roadblocks that get in your way, potentially discouraging you from pushing on when fears or insecurities tell you that things will never change, it will always be this way, or it’s never worked in the past, so why would it change now?
Just like exercising can bring attention to the muscles that have been weak for years, relationships can magnify the insecurities and hurt that we’ve been holding onto throughout our lives. However, where there is professional guidance in combination with good communication to push through the barriers in narratives, the unused and weak muscles will begin to grow and develop. Then, before you know it, you and your partner can communicate in ways that you never thought possible. With ongoing practice, combined with willpower and effort, you’ll be able to navigate some of the most difficult aspects of life and your relationship without professional help.
If you’ve ever seen the TV show, Amazing Race, you might be able to relate to the couples that experience ongoing conflict when they hit bumps in the road in their journey to win the grand prize. The stakes were a lot lower when they practiced with different scavenger hunts or riddles, so the tensions were not as high. However, with a great deal of money on the line, they begin to blame one another by pointing out how the other person isn’t doing their part or keeps messing up, which causes them to fall behind and potentially lose. When the couples on the show hit a barrier in their journey, do you see them take a step back to ponder with one another on how or why they’re feeling stuck? No, instead they are getting mad at each other and taking on responsibilities that are not theirs to carry, potentially exhausting themselves in the process while also resenting their partners.
So, wherever you are in this “amazing race“ we call marriage, so much can be learned from how we become agitated or respond to conflict. Instead of continuing to wear yourselves out by pushing one another through these stuck moments, ask a therapist to run alongside you. They can join you by correcting your form and helping you practice different skills that will help you more easily overcome the barriers and obstacles in your path.