Where is our relationship at? How can I forgive him/her for what has happened? How can we go forward when my partner keeps talking about the past? Do we have a future? These are questions many couples struggle with in the counseling room, sorting through the mixture of ambivalent and often contradictory feelings about the relationship.
I have noticed a common dynamic with couples on a path to heal their relationship that at first glance seems counter-intuitive: When things get better, people sometimes get angry. ”Why?” you ask, first, let me set the stage. Research indicates that couples wait too long before actually getting help with a relationship in trouble: on the average six years. A lot happens during those six years of a deteriorating relationship; most often there are patterns of increasing levels of anger and/or emotional disengagement leading to indifference. Secondly, partners often carry hurts from the past that makes it hard to stay in the present or work toward the future. Now, back to that common dynamic, when things start getting better, sometimes partners get angry and frustrated. Why? Because the feeling is “Why did this have to take so long? Why couldn’t we do these things years ago?” So, what helps to manage negative feelings when things are actually going positively in the relationship?
There are no pat answers, but something that may help is to know that us humans are able to hold or feel contradictory feelings at the same time: “I love that we are doing better” with “I hate that we are doing better only after all this pain”. Or, “I feel close to you when you try and make efforts to improve our relationship” with “How can I feel close to you if I don’t know if I can really trust you?” These feelings may quickly alternate, sometimes within seconds of each other. I often talk to couples about this dynamic when things start going better after long periods of the relationship not going well. Protecting ourselves from pain is a normal, natural thing, so when these feelings come up it may help to see these feelings as very understandable.
It usually helps if couples can see healing as a process, managing the contradictory feelings, and at the same time working on strengthening the friendship part of the relationship by taking time for each other, remaining positive and not critical and being gentle during conflict. The challenge is to work toward developing a balance between discussing past hurts with working toward building a better relationship.
I would like to thank my colleague and fellow Certified Gottman Method Therapist, Andy Greendorfer, for sharing with me a wonderful metaphor he tells couples who are struggling with issues from the past. Andy wrote the following: ”Think of your relationship in terms of driving a car. You want to look in your rear view mirror to see where you have been, but not for too long. You will also want to look forward to see where you are going. You don’t want to ignore what is behind you as it informs the present, but if you don’t look forward and watch for where you are headed, you may drive off the road.”
When driving in traffic good drivers know how concerned to be with what’s behind them and what’s ahead of them. In relationships “traffic conditions” change too, so flexibility and adaptability of dealing with past, present and future is what usually is most helpful. If you are struggling or differing with each other about that balance, consider having a therapist help you, hopefully, sooner than later. Good luck.