Creating A Safe Couple Relationship with Your Partner Entails Finding a Way to Accept the ‘As Is’
(Ella Fitzgerald: ‘My Funny Valentine)
‘You’re my funny valentine, Sweet comic valentine, You make me smile with my heart…
But don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me.’
And yet, and yet…
How long does the sentiment that we would not change a thing about the person we love actually last? What happens when the unexpected intrudes with a rude awakening into our loved-up bubble? Life can suddenly seem disappointingly more ordinary when the pieces in the kaleidoscope shift and we no longer look through rose-tinted glasses. As we get to know more about one another we are faced with the full complexity of our partner’s character and there can feel a loss of a romantic innocence. Confronted with the reality of the person in full 3D we become aware of contradictions, irritations, disconcerting traits that had been missed. We have to widen our scope to now include a wide variety of previously unrecognised parts. After basking in the warmth of similarity, the realisation of difference can be unsettling and provoke anxiety. The relief that we had found someone ‘perfect’ can scarily become a fear that it was ‘hope over reality’ after all. We can reassure ourselves that, of course, our partner will change in the ways we want when they see it is important. We only have to point out the ways they can improve and what could be better. ‘If you really love me you would…’
But what if, yes, you are loved, but these changes are not part of the deal?
Of course real deal-breakers do exist: the serious obstacles that get in the way of creating a trusting relationship and can break it.
‘A deal breaker is any matter that would disqualify a partner from a committed relationship despite other wonderful conditions’ (Stan Tatkin ‘We Do’). It could be abuse, where you live, children, sex, infidelity, lying, addictions, money, violence. Whatever the issue, it has to be confronted and negotiated or the couple has to part. But, ‘because human beings loathe to lose the potential for everlasting love, partners may be prone to overlook, defer, or bend reality to avoid a deal-breaker’ (Tatkin) – OR they protest and clamour to make the partner change.
However, both strategies can cause problems for the couple and allow for the possibility of hurt, confusion, distress, resentment and anger. The couple can become stuck in disappointment and disillusionment. Both feel a certain topic has become an unresolvable ‘no-go’ area and they are walking on eggshells. They begin to shut down and close off from one another and the pain of this is what often drives a couple to seek out relationship therapy.
‘Our vulnerability is that we are susceptible to be wounded. It is part of our nature and cannot be escaped. The best the brain can do is to shut down conscious awareness of it when pain becomes so unbearable that it threatens to overwhelm our capacity to function… Our automatic repression of painful emotion is our prime defence mechanism even though we know that it is better to feel than not feel. Emotions have a crucial survival value. They offer us vital information – orientate us and interpret the world for us. It is how we learn what is dangerous and what is benign. Imagine how disabled we are when we cannot see, hear taste, or sense heat or cold or physical pain. Emotional shut down is similar.’ (Gabor Mate)
When we avoid and flee from our vulnerability, when we are flooded with anger, or become icily withdrawn, we lose our full capacity for navigating relationships.
‘How couples fight is as important as how they love and it is one of the most predictive factors for a successful relationship. All couples have conflict and will cause each other distress from time to time. There are two people with different brains, two different personalities, many different moods, and many different thought patterns… Yet there is a need move in tandem, as in a three-legged race. If not, you fall over, you lose.’ (Tatkin)
James Cordova (‘Walking on Eggshells With Loving Steps’) suggests the couple embraces the idea of walking on eggshells as a positive strategy – not as a negative. ‘Because we invite each other into an extraordinarily vulnerable space in our intimate relationships, we are necessarily exceptionally vulnerable to our partners, and our partners are exquisitely vulnerable to us – sensitive, fragile, exposed, precious. And we have invited that space for good and loving reasons. We want to be our beloved’s safe harbour in a hurtful world; and in turn, we want for our partner to be our safe haven, the person with whom we feel safe in being our authentic vulnerable self.’
And so there is an urgent need to find a generous acceptance of the other ‘as they are’. A need to move with sensitivity, gentleness, compassion and care: ‘Even when we are in a hurry. Even when we are angry. Even when we are exhausted or hungry. Even when we are stung and hurt. We need to walk on eggshells!’ (Cordova). It is acceptance that can create the windows of tolerance where it is possible to stay engaged without feeling threatened. Understanding the situation ‘is what it is’ allows for a more flexible menu of options that enables both to benefit.
‘When a person is encouraged to get in touch with and express their deepest feelings in the secure knowledge that s/he will not be rejected, criticised, nor expected to be different, some kind of rearrangement or sorting-out process often occurs within the mind which brings with it a sense of peace…’ (Anthony Storr)
‘We are all a little weird
And Life’s a little weird
And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours
We join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness
And call it Love