Care and Repair: the staple of a loving relationship
March 11, 2019
We all want to feel loved.
Most people enter into a relationship in the hope of enhance their life; and imagine the relationship being a place of love and replenishment. We imagine we have found someone to care for and who will care for us. We have each others back while facing the inevitables of life.
As a couple counsellor, I often see the absolute antithesis of this. Couples who believe their partner is intent on hurting them. They both tell terrible stories of how awful their partner is to them. They are convinced their partner goes out of their way to misunderstand and hurt them. Each believing their reality to be the definitive one. They hold onto their stories and rehash them in another attempt to expose them and shame them into admission; hoping this will protect them from any future hurt. This cycle can go on for years!
If these stories were true, I could not imagine why either party would want to stay in the relationship? That would be torture in all combinations; self and to the other. There is no question that both parties are in pain. However, when asked directly if they believe their partner consciously intends to hurt them, the individuals in the couple will nine times out of ten say no. After all they coupled in the first place because they felt a strong bond of safety and connection. In these moments, where does this deep knowing of the other go? Where does the care go? In any other circumstance if their partner was this upset, they would not hesitate to move forward and comfort them.
So what happens? We come to relationships with an internal model of what relationship “look and feel like”. The main blueprint that influences this is the one/s witnessed growing up; between caregivers, as well as with us. From this we carry expectations and assumptions into the relationship. This includes how close or distant feels comfortable. As well as the level of comfort or stress that feels “normal.” With these lenses in place, we will view our partners reactions through this limited and bias perception. Sounds like a recipe for confusion, misinterpretation, and it is! This is where couples can get stuck, especially when conflict arises. Meaning is assigned to actions that may have very little to do with what has occurred. Yet, viewed through these limited lenses of expectations, it can not appear any other way.
Most of us are pretty shit at dealing with conflict! Few of us grew up seeing conflict processed in a healthy way. In fact most of us become highly anxious when conflict arises. When we feel threatened we go into our fight-flight response depending on how threatened we feel. For some, this will mean fighting to the end. While for others this will mean silence and retreat. Either way both parties are stressed and in emotional pain. Fight flight is always a reaction from the past and registers in the body as if they are in a life threatening situation. Consequently, an extra layer of ‘blindness’ around the present conflict arises, as the couple is responding from a survival patterned from the past. This is where we colour our present situation with what happened before. Interpretation becomes the new reality.
Yet conflict is inevitable in relationship. In fact John and Julie Gottman from the Gottman institute have spent many years researching healthy couples and the qualities that make them work. They suggest there is a place for conflict in a healthy relationship; after all, we are all different. Thus we will have differing opinions. This is not a sign of incompatibility! Our capacity to accept the differences is what gets tested every time we disagree. How we repair after a conflict is an indication of the strength of a relationship. If we priorities being right over understanding the misunderstanding, then we are doomed to a cycle of stonewalling and/or compromise.
When being ‘right’ ends an argument rather than understanding the differing experience; the quality of the relationship will ultimately suffer. Finding a mutually beneficial resolution does not mean compromise. A win-win arises from wanting the best for our partner, ourself and our relationship. For example, hearing what it means to your partner if you attend that boring concert, can translate into an act of love. Time spent seeing how happy they are when doing something they love can provide a whole new focus and experience. When reciprocated this strengthen the bond. Understanding that there are many sides to a situation can open up possibilities.
In summary, its about Care and Repair. For a healthy relationship, caring for each other has to have a higher value than being right. There will always be multiple realities to any interaction. Fighting for a ‘definitive rights’ will harm the bond and ultimately the relationship. Prioritising curiosity around why our partner sees things the way they do, increases understanding and intimacy. Committing to repair misunderstandings over being right increases a sense of equality and having each others back. This all leads to a deepening more secure bond and happier relating.