Breakdown to Breakthrough: The Eight Questions You Need to Ask When Facing a Relationship Challenge
By Linda and Charlie Bloom, authors of Happily Ever After…and 39 Other Myths about Love
When did the honeymoon end in your relationship? Was it the first time you realized that your mate wasn’t all you had hoped for? Or maybe it was when you discovered that sometimes their cheerful optimism could turn to resentment or depression for no apparent reason. Do you remember your first fight? How about the first time that you wondered whether you had made a mistake in your selection of a partner?
Many of us have had the experience of anger, frustration, hostility, or resentment more times than we care to admit. If you’re like a lot of people, you may have taken these feelings as an indication that something is seriously out of line in your relationship, so much so, perhaps that you may even be considering calling it quits. And if you’re human, you’ve probably attempted to influence your partner’s feelings, attitudes, or behaviors, only to discover that you’d now created a new problem.
Most of us spend between twelve and twenty years of our lives in school yet nowhere are we really taught the specific requirements of sustaining and enhancing the quality of our relationships. We hope and pray that despite our ignorance, we can make it work anyway. And when the inevitable conflicts arrive, we may find ourselves entrenched or embattled with each other.
Though conflict may not be avoidable in marriage, it is not necessarily a foreshadowing of doom. Differences in opinions, feelings, temperaments, and even values, are an inherent aspect of relationships. In fact, we generally select partners who will help us to expand our inner and outer lives by offering a broader range of perspectives to our own. Opening up to these opportunities for growth, however can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. Often it is easier to tell ourselves that “it’s just not meant to be.” And yet how many of us are acquainted with couples who called it quits in frustration, only to turn around and play out the same pattern with another person?
What if one of the objects of relationships is not to eliminate conflict, but to work with it in an effective, responsible and conscious way? What if each breakdown that occurred between you and your partner contained the seeds of the possibility of becoming a more loving and wise person? What if your experience of your relationship had more to do with you than it did with your partner? What if there were no mistakes or wrong choices in the selection of a mate, and you really do have the perfect partner for the lessons that you’re in this relationship to learn?
The purpose of these questions is to generate an inquiry and to begin the process of going beyond the models, expectations, and beliefs we each have about relationships in order to discover and create new possibilities. One of the biggest barriers in the development of a great partnership is our own set of preconceived beliefs about conflict and anger.
Observing the suffering of other couples who are struggling in their relationships, it’s easy to presume that things inevitably break down sooner or later and that for many of them, the breakdown is permanent. It’s easy to wonder, “Who’s next? Is it us?” The tendency to feel resignation and hopelessness in the face of fear is a choice, often made out of a desire to avoid looking more directly at some of the more difficult questions, such as:
- How might I have contributed to the current situation?
- What beliefs about myself or others might I be validating by holding on to my position?
- What is it that I’m so attached to being right about and why?
- What, if anything, might I have done that I need to reveal to my partner?
- What fears are underlying my fear of losing (or staying in) this relationship?
- What unfulfilled needs or desires have I failed to disclose to my partner, and why?
- What forms of manipulation have I used to try to coerce my partner into accommodating my desires?
- Am I making my partner responsible for fulfilling needs within myself that are my responsibility, and not theirs?
The common thread that runs through all of these questions is that they are all self-referential. They require us to redirect the focus of our attention away from our partner and look instead at ourselves, to look at our part in the chain of events that has led us to the point where we currently stand. Doing so does not absolve them of their responsibility in the breakdown, but it empowers us to focus our energies on the only person that we have the power to control in this scenario, and that is ourselves.
Taking our attention off of our partner will enable us to embody a higher level of vulnerability and encourage him or her to feel less defensive and consequently, more inclined to listen to our concerns and needs with a more conciliatory attitude. Such openness will promote a greater likelihood that our partner will reciprocate by responding more cooperative themselves, thus interrupting the cycle of defensiveness that turns ordinary differences into destructive conflict.
There is no guarantee that their response will be reciprocal. Our vulnerability is merely an invitation to them to respond with vulnerability. It is not assurance that such a response will be forthcoming, but it does increase the likelihood of them doing so. There is no better way to find out how willing your partner is to disarm himself than by modeling what this can look like by disarming yourself of your own defenses.
When we can interrupt these patterns, we can move beyond the concerns of day-to-day survival, and raise new questions having to do with greater possibilities such as “How great could our relationship really be?” Once we understand that there is so much more that is possible than we previously realized, old dreams are reawakened and new ones come into being along with a newfound confidence in our ability to implement them.
Paradoxically, it is only when we accept that there is no magic involved in the process of relationship-building, and no perfect person with whom we can effortlessly co-create the partnership of our dreams that we begin to experience the degree of ease and joy for which we may have previously hoped.
But first we need to free ourselves of our limiting beliefs and expectations. To find the partner of your dreams you first become the partner of your dreams. In so doing you will become more irresistible to that person that you have been waiting for, whether you haven’t met the person yet, or you’ve been married to them for thirty years!
Based on the book Happily Ever After…and 39 Other Myths about Love. Copyright © by Linda and Charlie Bloom. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com
Linda Bloom, LCSW, and Charlie Bloom, MSW, regularly teach at Esalen Institute and the Kripalu Center and have served as adjunct faculty at institutes of higher learning including UC Berkeley Extension, and California Institute for Integral Studies. They live in Santa Cruz, CA. Their website is www.Bloomwork.com.