You chose your partner, and your partner chose you. From all the friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in your life, you chose your partner. You could have chosen anyone else, but you chose this person. You might ask, “What was I thinking?” your partner may think the same thing. So is the number one relationship problem you, your partner, or your approach to having a healthy relationship?
Romantic Relationships are made up of two people who both bring their own experiences to the table. Each person has their own ideas, beliefs, feelings, and values that can shape the dynamic between them. This can create underlying issues and potential problems in a relationship. Two people must try to understand each other’s point of view.
Common issues in everyday life hurt feelings, and failed expectations can all lead to a lack of communication, arguments, and resentments that can damage a relationship. Two people with expectations of each other contribute to relationship dynamics and intimacy issues that can and often morph from a rough patch to bigger issues, from poor communication to financial issues and chronic relationship conflict. In all too common instances, these expectations even lead to physical abuse and substance abuse.
On the day the two people meet, they neither owe nor deserve anything from each other. They have no expectations of each other because they don’t know each other. They are individually free to be themselves and free to be as connected as they choose. Every intimate relationship must inhale and exhale. Being connected to your partner can be considered inhaling while being your own person is exhaling. This contributes to healthy communication and honest communication. If you can’t connect or be yourself, you will experience relationship problems.
Therefore, every successful relationship must breathe to live. Expectations emerge regarding the level of closeness or distance each person expects from the other. These expectations of how to have a relationship come from each individual family’s growing up experiences and present relationship challenges. These differences are always present in a relationship because two people come from different families. Managing these differences brings us to the differences between healthy couples and unhealthy couples that exhibit toxic relationships.
Each person’s expectations come from their growing-up experiences and are always different. A husband may come from a family where both parents worked, and he expects his wife to work full-time too. On a one to ten scale of intensity, his expectation is an eight.
On the other hand, his wife grew up in a family where her mother stayed home and raised the children. She expects her husband to support the family like her father did financially. On a one to ten scale of intensity, her expectation is also an eight. While they have different expectations of each other, the intensity of their expectations can become a problem. This particular example of how two people have expectations of each other doesn’t surface until they have children.
The number one relationship problem all couples face is not sexual intimacy, trust issues, a lack of communication, or financial issues. The number one relationship problem for all couples is emotional intensity. Having two different expectations of each other is only the beginning of relationship troubles. The intensity with which these expectations are held can damage the healthiest relationship. Feelings of disappointment, frustration, and resentment can brew in one or both partners if their expectations are unmet. This leads to all kinds of issues in relationships. Emotional intensity becomes a problem if it leads to arguments and blaming, as this divides the couple and makes it harder for them to spend quality time together.
Being more loyal to your expectations than your partner generates polarization, a lack of trust, and a lack of intimacy. Like magnets with a magnetic field, people have an emotional field filled with expectations. Initially, this emotional field draws people together, but can also drive them apart over time. Just as a magnetic field’s intensity draws magnets together, that same field also drives them apart when turned away from each other. Codependent relationships are a breeding ground for drawing couples together but result in constant fighting and unresolved conflict.
Although two different people from different family histories find each other attractive and are drawn to each other, an often overlooked reality brings them together. On a one to ten scale of emotional intensity, one is characterized as someone who left home physically, but patterns of interaction, expectations, norms, and family rules dictate their reactions. This person has not left home emotionally and wants what they want when they want it leaving a trail of hurtful feelings that can lead to unique relationship problems. At the lower end of the scale, this person is immature, may keep a relationship scorecard, and be demanding and rigid. Fear of not measuring up or being good enough also characterizes this person’s unresolved issues.
The person at a ten on this emotional intensity scale is a non-anxious presence and has their own thoughts, their own mind can speak and think for themselves. This end of the scale is characterized by self-regulation, the ability to manage adversity, persevere through adversity, and develop character. This end of the scale is most characterized by boundaries, maturity, and humility. Married people come to their marital relationship at ten from a position of strength, not for the strength their partner may give them. These people enjoy effective communication, a strong sex life, physical intimacy, and spending time together.
Every Couple’s Number ONE Relationship Problem: Will-Conflict
Every couple’s number one relationship problem is that both people enter a relationship at the exact same level of emotional intensity. Yes, every person is different from their partner. Being different is not the problem. The number one relationship problem is the intensity of the difference or the significance of the difference for each person.
At the extreme, communication skills, couples therapy, and marriage counseling are useless when the emotional intensity is too great. Constant bickering, communication issues, verbal abuse, and failed repair attempts lead to a loss of intimacy and a dead relationship.
A husband, afraid of conflict and avoids at every turn, marries a wife determined to get to the bottom of every circumstance. A wife who escapes into spending money or shopping marries an enabling husband who doesn’t know how to set boundaries for himself. A very moralistic and self-righteous wife will marry a man who cannot tell the truth. In each of these scenarios, both people are profoundly different from the other. Nevertheless, the intensity of their emotional reactions is exactly at the same level on the theoretical one to ten scales.
Therefore, if you and your partner are at the same level of emotional reactivity, is your partner your problem? The answer to this question is no. The intensity you bring to the relationship is yours. Asking a husband what he wanted, he replied I just want to be loved. He didn’t say I want my wife to love me. I dare say 95% of people would have answered similarly. This husband wanted the feeling of being loved more than he wanted his wife to love him.
Wanting to feel loved in and of itself is not a problem. His problem occurs when his wife doesn’t bring him those feelings. The more he insists on her making him feel loved, the more she suspects he is using her as a means to his end. Her question is whether he is in a relationship with her, for her sake or in a relationship with the feelings she can bring him. Is he just using her as a means to his own ends to feel loved? While this is the right question for him to ask himself, it is wrong for his wife to ask him because she can’t do anything about the answer.
The right question for her to ask herself is how she reacts to him at the same level of emotional reactivity, just in different ways. individual therapy would be helpful for her to discover these answers for herself. He is not her problem, nor is she his problem. His emotional reactivity is his problem, and her emotional reactivity is her problem.
No two people are ever in the same relationship.
Recognizing that your emotional reactivity and your partner’s emotional reactivity are at the same level of emotional maturity is encouraging and challenging. This doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship; it does mean you may need honest conversations and a way to improve your relationship quality.
In short, we can learn to manage our own emotional reactivity rather than trying to fix it in someone else. This is the first step towards constructing a sustainable, healthy, and growing relationship.
One to Ten scale of emotional reactivity
Emotional intensity and emotional reactivity are related. A person may feel immense intensity yet be externally not reactive. Many men have been called emotionless when they are intense and afraid of how their intensity would result in reactivity if they let out their negative feelings. Often a person who distances or withdraws from another is considered disinterested or not caring enough. Again, this assumption may be wrong. People distance themselves because they cannot manage the intensity of their negative feelings and keep from reacting, withdrawing, or distancing themselves. The issue then would not be that they don’t care enough but care too much. Successful couples don’t assume they know why their partner does what they do.
Recognizing that emotional reactivity comes from an individual’s expectations and those expectations come from their growing-up family experiences or life experiences is helpful for not taking another person’s reactions personally. Again, on a one to ten scale of reactivity, an event that could be characterized as a two is insignificant. An insignificant event at two theoretically should result in a two reaction. A two-event results in an eight reaction; that reaction comes from expectations, life stressors, and experiences that pre-date your partner. Leaving those six extra points of reactivity with your partner is critically important for building greater relationship success.
Asking the Wrong Question
You are responsible for your thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. Your spouse or romantic partner is responsible for their thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. This doesn’t change when you establish a relationship. Other people do not make you think, feel, act, or react in a particular way, although others’ behavior influences and affects you. A contributing factor to this emotional reactivity is that when two people start a relationship, they place their lives in each other’s hands from time to time. This is classic codependence and does not work in relationships because it doesn’t allow for personal space.
Placing in your life and in each other’s hands, you believe your partner will take care of you at the same level of personal investment, interest, and involvement you provide them. While this is common ground, it leads to relationship problems and unhealthy relationships. This thought process does not leave room for two people to be themselves or exhale in their relationship. Therefore, when your partner reacts, you ask the wrong question. The wrong question is, “What did I do to make you react that way?” When you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer. The right question is, what in your previous relationships caused you to have that reaction? This question leaves the responsibility for thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions with your partner while you support them.
If you focus on your expectations and reactions, you can better understand your emotional reactivity. Then you share those thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions with your partner. This will help you build a stronger relationship instead of trying to fix the other person. It also honors your partner by not making them responsible for your emotional intensity or reactivity.
Two approaches to having a relationship exist. The first approach to having a relationship is the default position. Most people assume is the only approach to having a successful relationship. Therefore, you should find it good news that there is more than one approach to having a relationship. Unfortunately, 95% of people are only aware of the default approach. I would suggest your approach to having a happy relationship is up to you, your partner is not your problem. So let’s examine the two different approaches to having a relationship. One is characterized by fairness, and the other is characterized by freedom.
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Matthew 16: 25 (ESV)
Life is not fair. In an effort to structure life on our terms, we attempt to use the mental and emotional construct of fairness. Fairness has two sides; obligation and entitlement, or what you owe others and deserve from them. Placing your life and your partner’s hands yet maintaining the standard of how they should care for you based on how you care for them set your partner up to fail.
As both people use the standard for holding their relationship together, it falls apart. A developing sense of entitlement emerges as people believe they have done more household chores leading to chore wars, for example, than their partner. Both people feel like they have the short end of the stick and invested far more than their partner resulting in painful feelings and insurmountable relationship problems.
You Lose Your Life
Feeling taken advantage of and manipulated by your partner, you begin resisting them, doing less to balance the ledger, and the repair process is less effective. As both people in the relationship resist each other and do less for each other, resentment and victimization build in each person with fewer repair attempts too. Expectations, a synonym for your partner’s obligations, are unmet and resisted. Attempting to save your life through the construct of fairness, you lose your life and the relationship ends. Productive conversations are not even possible at that point.
Insisting that your partner be the person who fulfills your idealized image of who he or she should be in an attempt to heal the pain from growing up experiences is only one way of saving your life; the result is losing your life. As your partner experiences your demands, he or she may comply for some time. Retaining some small measure of self-respect, your partner defies your efforts at manipulation and eventually realizes there is only one person in the relationship: You.
Expecting your partner to respond based on how you give is another way of saving your life and losing it. This quid pro quo results in obligation, resentment, entitlement, and emptiness, with both people feeling objectified, diminished, and minimized due to this relationship approach. Insisting on saving your lives results in chronic anger, resentment, and bitterness, ultimately ending the relationship with so much polarization neither knows how nor why they ever got to this point. Most people hold to the core belief that fairness should be what keeps them together when it drives them apart.
Freedom from Will-Conflict
The key to losing your life is surrendering what you have to have when you have to have it. Your motivation for losing your life is “for my (Jesus’) sake.” The reason you do what you do is not to overcome these old and deep unconscious patterns of hurt and pain. Losing your life for Jesus’ sake is the motivation.
But what are you surrendering? You surrender self-reliance and self-protection, understanding that everything you have in life is a gift. The breath in your lungs as a gift. The hearing of your voice is a gift. Sight is a gift. Relationships are a gift. Your partner at one time in your life was a gift. Initially, you did not owe or deserve anything from each other. Even after years of marriage, the approach focused on losing your life advocates neither owing nor deserving anything from each other.
Realizing that life is a gift, with its ups and downs, allows you to live with an attitude of gratitude. You give grace when your partner fails to meet your expectations, knowing you are not owed anything, nor do you deserve anything. You celebrate the freedom in letting go of control over your partner’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. You accept your partner, flaws and all.
Losing your life is the path to finding life in a relationship. The path to freedom in a relationship begins with a connection that doesn’t diminish each other. The connection can be found in the moments spent together and the simple gestures that show care for one another. Opening an individual’s heart to being vulnerable and present with their partner creates a safe space for individuals to express themselves without fear of judgment or repercussion. Connection is also seen in the ability to forgive, to accept one another’s humanness and flaws.
Finding life leads to a relationship where love can be expressed and accepted without a hidden agenda. It is a journey of understanding each other’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions without taking them personally. This connection allows for individuals to give themselves permission to be seen, heard, and understood by their partner for their sake leading to a deeper level of intimacy.
Losing your life and finding life are the two steps necessary to build a healthy relationship with your partner. When individuals surrender their expectations and accept each other with grace, the result is a safe and secure connection that transcends what they want when they want it and gives them what they need instead.
In conclusion, every married couple’s number one relationship problem can be overcome by understanding that losing your life leads to finding life. With gratitude and acceptance, couples can experience the freedom of being vulnerable and connected with each other in a way that will not diminish either partner for a lifetime of love.