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Relationships • Conflicts

How to Break Logjams in a Relationship

We spend a lot of time in relationships feeling annoyed and upset by the other’s evidently maddening behaviour. Why can’t they be more emotionally present? Or less needy? Or more reliable? Or not so interested in what their friends think?

The questions can go on for a very long time – and are not without their private satisfactions. We may be forlorn, yet at least we know where the problems lie.

Christian Krohg, Sleeping Fisherman, 1882

However, if ever we get bored of the pleasures of this kind of frustration, we might take on a challenge that can initially feel extremely strange and even offensive: we might imagine that, to a critical extent, we share in the problems which we have until now concentrated on forensically locating in the partner.

We might set ourselves the following exercise: to write down the many things or thing that we feel the partner is doing wrong and that we know very well indeed by this point. For example, that they are:

— A social climber

— Always dissatisfied with their career

— Too nervous around authority

— Unable to open their hearts properly

— Unwilling to discuss emotions.

Then, when our list is complete, with our courage in our hands, we should write down a title at the top of the list: ‘My faults’. In other words, we should imagine that all those appalling things the partner does are actually also behaviours in which we are in key ways implicated.

We can lean on a general law of psychology: it’s a customary human habit to relocate in others what one can’t bear to see in oneself. The things that most upset us in our friends, acquaintances and lovers are typically the things that are simultaneously most unresolved in our minds. They would not touch us so much if we didn’t at a deep level recognise them as intolerable elements of our makeup. We may not so much be stumbling on flaws in someone else as needing to find them in another so that we aren’t so much at risk of encountering them in us.

We know this phenomenon well enough in the case of the school bully. We know that this unfortunate person tauntingly calls the other child ‘weak,’ ‘a mummy’s boy’ or ‘a scaredy-cat’ because they have an intense fear of such fragilities in themselves. 

We may not directly be bullying our partners – but the psychological mechanism at play might be soberingly similar. We too may be calling our beloveds ‘cold’ or ‘snobs’, ‘chaotic’ or ‘rigid’ because these terms point to some very sore spots in our own histories from which we are in manic flight.

To bring a new atmosphere of creativity and generosity into the relationship, we should be prepared to assume a bold new dictum when we next encounter a conflict: that the problem is probably also in us. In other words, I am probably also a little afraid of intimacy or somewhat nervous around the judgements of others or overly impressed by some of my friends. It’s been an interesting move to burden the partner exclusively with this until now; it may be a lot more interesting and fruitful henceforth to say: ‘it could be both of us.’ 

This has the added advantage of endowing us with agency. Rather than presuming that there is nothing we can do to help our relationships until the partner decides to change, we can lead the way by smoothing out some of our share of the neurotic structure – which may encourage in the other the very evolutions we have been seeking in them in vain for so long.

We may not just have picked on a partner with a set of faults that we happen to find annoying. We may have carefully opted to accuse a partner of burdensome pieces of our own stories to lighten our minds. It may be time for a new mantra: it’s probably in us both.

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