Relationships go through phases. At one point in time, for example, both life partners can literally do no wrong. Toilet paper backward on the roll, coffee too weak or too strong, calling a former love interest more than once, refusing to have dinner with the in-laws. It’s all good.
Then come those times when nothing is right. She has PMS, he is inattentive; she wants to move, he is perfectly content to let the old house settle around his ears, as long as it involves little or no effort.
That, in fact, seems to be his (or her) entire life strategy. It is easier to suffer infinite pain in the current relationship than it is to find a new love interest.
Why? Because in his childhood his father stayed instead of leaving, and drilled it into his son that staying was what “real men” did.
For the adult son, picking apart that martyr complex until it loses its power is probably the most important thing he can do. For her, it may be donning sweats and – yes – getting sweaty, because her mother never appeared at the breakfast table (let alone in public) in anything less than fashion-statement clothing and full makeup.
When You Are Old Enough To Leave Your Parents Behind
Psychologists agree: adult relationship issues often stem from childhood traumas. In fact, it may be that everything we do stems from childhood lessons and impressions. He simply can’t bear to spend money because his father never did. She can’t find anything other than shopping to make her feel happy, important, and whole, because that was the message her mother conveyed – if not in words then certainly in actions.
If you have passed the critical and vulnerable 2- to 3-year stage of the relationship, and there haven’t been too many rough spots along the way, you might be ready to forgo breaking up in exchange for a mutual analysis of the relationship chains you have carried since childhood. That way, even if you end up separated, you will hopefully have resolved those very issues that prevent you from being truly happy in any relationship.
Start small. The backward-facing toilet paper roll is a good place. As long as the two of you explore “same size” problems – i.e., toilet paper vs. weak coffee – you can commiserate with each other without either side “winning” or, conversely, feeling shamed. And that is the goal. If either of you feel the need to get the upper hand, the relationship is already dead.
Therapist to the Rescue
You will need a therapist, if only to keep the “drilling down” fair. Once you have worked through the little annoyances and their causes, you can both move on to bigger issues.
This is where it gets painful, and where an experienced therapist or relationship coach can prevent both of you from making ego-destroying.
Ask Yourself Who Needs Who
This is also the time to examine control and dependency issues. Let’s face it, some relationships are so codependent that everyone but the people involved can see where they are joined at the hip.
There are any number of reasons why some couples stay together. They may have gotten the message very early in life that they didn’t deserve any better. For some couples, the ball and chain is a child; for others, it is a tangled web of finances, and the belief that they can’t make it on their own. For a few, co-dependency fills a need to suffer. For others, it provides a very subtle kind of control, in which the co-dependent protects the transgressor in exchange for leverage. For too many, it is never knowing what’s normal because childhood was pure chaos.
Interestingly enough, it is this relationship dynamic that comes strongly into play when alcoholics, drug addicts, and other addictive personalities start going to AA and find that they no longer need (or even want) their excessively devoted and clinging life partner. It may not be entirely fair to the clinger, but resolving dependency issues is always a step in the right direction.
With the help of a qualified therapist, couples who see more positive signs in their relationship than negative ones will work through even the most difficult issues. They will also discover not just a better relationship, but a better, more adult, and more complete human being, themselves.
Carolyn Ehrlich LCSW, CGP specializes in Relationship Counseling NYC