Love is Hard- The Challenge of Romantic Relationships
Why are romantic relationships so difficult?
Why am I always fighting with my partner even though I know I love them?
Why can’t we seem to stop a spiral of arguments?
Emotions run high in some relationships. Can you blame us? Two humans enter a relationship with so much hope that all of their unmet needs and wishes will be fulfilled. Often the void that people are trying to fill is the one borne out of difficulties in childhood. So, in a romantic relationship, don’t be surprised when some of your childhood’s needs, vulnerabilities, old hurts and haunts surface again.
The early sensations of a romantic relationship are intoxicating. They mimic the sensual moments and exchanges we had with our mothers over the breast, and the mutually adoring and playful gaze. If that mother infant bond was satisfactory that will serve us well down the line. A secure attachment to our earliest caregivers will set us up for a better start in future relationships (although there are no guarantees!). However, if that relationship was mired in tension, upset, and unmet needs, it might mean we developed some unhealthy attachment patterns, ones that no longer serve us.
What are Attachment Patterns?
Through observing children and how they relate to their caregivers, psychologists have determined that there are generally four categories of attachment style which begin in childhood and also play out in the context of adult romantic relationships. One can have different attachment styles with different people, so it might be hard to pin yourself into only one category- however, one of these might resonate with you more than the others as a good description of your current romantic relationship.
In a secure attachment style,people feel confident in the other person’s love and commitment to the relationship. Anger or disappointments are weathered and not seen as a threat to the relationship; rather, they can be used as a means of deepening the connection.
Then there are two kinds of insecure attachment styles: avoidant and resistant.
In the avoidant style, the person has a tendency to withdraw when there is tension in the relationship because they learned that others will react negatively if they show emotion. For instance, they may have had parents who did not respond to emotions with compassion, or perhaps their parents sent a clear message that emotions were not to be shared. This child had no other choice but to keep feelings to themselves. To avoid upsetting or alienating the parent, they got into the habit of tackling challenges independently. Years later in their adult romantic relationship, they appear aloof, and uncaring, and their partner may complain about this. The attachment style that maintained their early relationships may now be backfiring.
On the other hand, a person with a resistant (also known as an anxious/ambivalent attachment style) received inconsistent care from parents, and had to resort to demanding love and attention As a result, they tend to be clingy and anxious in the face of relationships. Insecure about their romantic relationship, they ask for a lot of reassurance, but then they are angry that they have had to work so hard to get attention. They can’t just relax and assume that their needs will be met, or that someone will take interest. Like in the case of the avoidant attachment style, at some point the partner complains about their behavior, and they are forced to recognize the shortcomings of their attachment style.
The final attachment style is a “disorganized” attachment style. A person with this attachment style likely has a history of trauma, and sadly their caregiver may have been abusive, hateful, neglectful, and the cause of the child’s distress. Unfortunately, in this attachment style the child does not achieve the closeness that they want with their parent. This attachment style can look chaotic and combine some elements of the above two styles. Also, the person using this style may sometimes dissociate, going into a “freeze” reaction in the context of relationships.
To summarize, think of the reactions that are built into your autonomic nervous system when faced with adversity- you either react with calm, flight, fight, or freeze. Which one of these describes your reaction when there is tension or disappointment in your relationship?
Challenges in love beg us to look at these ancient relationship strategies and assess whether they are still working for us or whether they are actually causing the tension in our current relationship.
Why Does Love Sometimes turn to Hate?
Besides identifying your predominant attachment style, it can also be helpful to notice the specific defenses you are using to manage your own quite vulnerable feelings within the relationship.
People use many defenses to manage anxieties and emotions. A defense is a strategy that people use to avoid having to experience an emotion. Some can even work to soothe or temper anxiety. Humor, and art making can be great ways to react to a difficult feeling. Changing the topic, being extra nice, trying to reject someone before they reject you, always blaming other people are all different ways that people try to escape their emotions.The list of defenses can go on and on.
Sometimes, people use a defense called splitting in the context of relationships. Again, like with attachment styles, it is a defense that people start using in their earlier years. When a person is confronted with a disappointment in the other person, they are suddenly unable to recall that the person in front of them also has good parts, and instead they start to read the situation as threatening and the other person as an adversary. Fear of rejection is so intense that the person cannot tolerate it, and instead reacts by putting up a fight with the hated “enemy”. Suddenly the person that they loved so much is the very person they hate.
Remembering that a person has both positive and negative attributes simultaneously is a development that happens over the course of a healthy relationship with another person. Unfortunately, through no fault of our own, many did not have the kind of experiences that would have allowed for this to develop and we end up with some defenses that lock us into a love/hate paradigm.
Noah Cyrus beautifully captures the intensity of this emotional roller coaster, and shows us how our emotional needs in romance quickly become tainted with the venom of hate (a defense against the need!). Check out her song with Labrinth called Make Me Cry.
In fact, this song was the inspiration for this post. If you’re ever feeling alone with your romantic relationship woes, you don’t have to go very far to realize that you’re in good company. There are an infinite number of songs about heartbreak, relationship strife, infidelity, falling in love, every phase and nuance of the experience of romantic relationships.
So What Can I do to Improve My Relationship?
Identifying your own attachment style and your defenses helps you understand how you show up in relationships. That’s a great first step, and it is admirable that you are taking responsibility for your contribution to what might have been a difficult relationship dynamic. Your new insights allow you to pause long enough to try something different.
Now, how do you figure out a new way to relate?
Having a different kind of emotional experience, one where you’re seen and heard, helps you build the neural circuitry of a more satisfying interpersonal style. The safety of working with a skilled clinician gives you the opportunity to begin to reflect on some of these patterns, and experience a new way of relating. As you build your capacity to experience difficult emotions (i.e. that vulnerability we mentioned before that we’re always running away from), you will also build your capacity for emotional intimacy.
We exercise other muscles when we go to the gym, why not work on our love muscles as well? What do you think?