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“What’s happening to our relationship?”

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

With our new book, Why Couples Fight, being released on Jan. 26, a mere three weeks away!, I would like to use these blogs between now and then to talk not so much about the book itself but to take you inside and talk about why we wrote it, why it’s important, and what we learned doing the research for it.

Why is it so hard for us to figure out what's really the problem when things are going wrong in our relationships? This is worth exploring. It can be a painful subject, but fortunately, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

One of the worst parts of being sick is when you don’t know what’s wrong. Now you’d think that in the old days—like, the first 30,000 years of human history—we really didn’t know what was wrong. But now, over, say, the last 150 years, we’ve learned to identify what’s happening when something goes wrong with our body.

None of this is exactly true.

For all those thousands of years of our history, there were always names for what was going wrong. People and practitioners of traditional healing spoke those names quite confidently. You have a bad spirit. Your humours are out of balance. It’s the sins of your ancestor that are crying out. You have camp fever or chilblain, dropsy or flux, milk leg or plague, purples or scurvy, maybe even worm fit or wolf. None of these things actually exist as diseases, but depending upon when you lived professionals and ordinary folk talked about them as if they were real.

So people always sort of know what’s going wrong. And the things they think they know are usually nothing more than the jargon or fads of the day. But if you’re living in that particular day, it seems real to you.

It’s the same for people in relationships. We all—me too—watch things going in the wrong direction in our relationship and at first it seems like an insane mystery. How could this happen to me, to us?

But pretty quickly we glom onto an explanation. The most common one—one we’ve all grabbed for—is that the cause of the problem is our partner. I am normal, reasonable, sane, modest in my needs. But my partner...yech!, that...what!?! Idiot, moron, jerk, lazy oaf, nut? You name it!

But if you’ve ever been to a therapist or read a relationship book, there’s another disease to point to. You’re not suffering from “bad-partner-itis,” even if you still feel that way. You now know that the socially acceptable answer to the question, “Why are things going downhill for us?” is that the two of you have a problem communicating. Never mind that the two of you used to be able to communicate beautifully before. Never mind that you are both, perhaps, professional communicators right now. But just the way people had dropsy and purples in the olden days, now if you can’t stop being mad at or distant from each other, it’s gotta be because you can’t communicate.

I have to say that early on in our clinical work and research simple explanations like this proved worse than wrong. They proved about as useful clinically as bloodletting was a cure for dropsy. A non-cure for a non-disease!

So one of the things we worked at was digging down into people’s perceptions of what was actually going on in the relationship. Words in the “angry” area came up a lot. So did words in the “scared” area. Also words in the “sad” area. But these are very broad areas!

As we probed more and more deeply into the experience of each and every downturn in a relationship, we noticed a pattern. Two main things were going on. You tell me: have these things sometimes, maybe too often been going on with you?

The first is a buildup of unmet needs. Nothing huge, necessarily, just things you need to be happy in your life. Like, say, time to relax and be quiet when you come home from work. Or like, say, having someone to pitch in and help when you’ve been busy for a while already dealing with the kids and the house and the dinner.

The second thing going on was a feeling of helplessness. An odd feeling of helplessness for someone like you so used to being fairly effective in the world. But here, in your very own home with your very own partner who’s supposed to love you and be willing to jump into rivers to save you from drowning, you can’t get your needs met. Worse! You can’t seem to talk about your needs without getting into a fight or an impasse.

This was progress for us. We were seeing, perhaps for the first time anyone’s ever seen it, the source of the disease that makes good relationships go bad.

More to come!


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