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Distance: The cold side of the dark side of relationships

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

Conflict, power struggles. Too much yelling and screaming. You can’t talk to each other without bickering. Do you see yourself and your relationship in these words?

A lot of people know they are unhappy in their relationship and yet feel these words do NOT describe their relationship. They would say something like, “We get along okay. We just keep to our lanes. Though things are pretty bland. Boring, actually.”

This is the cold side of the dark side. The other way things go bad.

There are, in fact, four kinds of relationships, if you want to oversimplify, and I do!

  1. A lot of good stuff and not much bad stuff. (Sorry for the technical language.) This is a relationship where things are going well. No problem here.

  2. A lot of bad stuff and not much good stuff. This is a relationship where things are so bad the people are on a toboggan run to divorce. Not much good stuff to make them want to fix things.

  3. A lot of good stuff and a lot of bad stuff. Big dilemma here. There’s clearly fighting and power struggles and yelling, but the good stuff—maybe great sex, or great kids, or a great beach house—is holding things together and making working on the relationship worthwhile.

  4. Not much good stuff and not much bad stuff. That’s the cold side of the dark side. Nothing much to keep you in the relationship but nothing much to make you run screaming from it either. People can stay stuck in this kind of relationship for a long, long time. Or until an affair breaks things loose.

Now what I want to emphasize here is that people in a not-much-good-stuff-not-much-bad-stuff relationship struggle to understand their situation just like everyone else. And of course, they typically blame their partner—“She’s boring.” “He’s very limited.”—or they talk about how they don’t communicate—of course!—or they worry about how they’ve grown away from one another.

These are “truths” we find to explain our relationships because they’re the “truths” out on the shelf at the convenience store where we go shopping for the truth. But we're interested in the true truth, so let’s get back to basics. Last time I talked about couples whose relationship was in trouble, I mentioned they have two underlying problems:

  • Unmet needs

  • Feeling helpless or frustrated with respect to one another

And it’s very clear to us in working with the countless couples who come to us that whether the couples are bashing each other over the head—verbally—or being oh-so-polite to each other with fixed smiles, they ALL had a huge pile of unmet needs. Needs they were in conflict over but couldn’t for the life of them figure out how to resolve. And they had feelings of helplessness and frustration that ballooned every time they tried to address any of their unmet needs.

So in the face of them being unable to resolve their conflict and get their needs met, some couples take the let’s-fight-anyway path. And others take the let’s-never-fight-if-we-can-possibly help it path.

This second group of couples resolves their differences mainly by making distance, that is by not dealing. If they have a sexual conflict, they just...stop making love or else fall into a sterile, unsatisfying routine. If they can’t agree about what activities to share, they stop sharing activities. As we say in Why Couples Fight, there is no conflict that can’t be “solved” by two people creating more distance. It’s just that if you do that in a relationship, the distances add up, and pretty soon you have a relationship in name only.

In the end, whether a couple experiences the problems in their relationship as being on the hot side or the cold side, the approach and the solutions in Why Couples Fight apply equally. A relationship HAS to be a place where both people get their needs met.


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