The Three Relationship Pitfalls and Why You Need to Side Step Them
When you first meet someone and find yourself interested a simple, natural thing happens. You focus on the things you like and give less attention to the things you don't like. Most importantly, you really pick up on the behaviors that seem caring. Not only is this what is known as "the honeymoon phase" it is also the recipe for attraction. This is different from physical attraction, not to discount how large a role physical attraction plays when we meet and consider someone. But physical attraction alone is not enough to sustain a relationship. The "glue" is emotional attraction, believing that someone's intentions are good, benevolent, caring. That's what makes the honeymoon phase so amazing. "We met for coffee and talked for hours". "We love very different kinds of music but she was really interested hearing me talk about the last concert I went to". "I told him about the problems my car is giving me and he offered to take a look at it."
It's as if, in the beginning, we only have positive radar that picks up on the good stuff. It is interesting how our negative radar, which is so much more powerful, seems to be on break. When you think about it, without this noticing of good and caring intentions relationships would just die on the vine. "He was really cute and funny at first but after a while I realized he was totally into himself". "My friends think I'm crazy for not going out with her anymore but they never saw how she was when she didn't get her way".
Relationships begin and can carry on for a really long time with that sense of attraction. They are nurtured by our positive radar that just keeps on picking up caring intentions. You want to spend more time with the person whose intentions toward you are caring, and, you give off the same caring vibe which results in them wanting to spend time with you. A really nice, healthy loop gets going that creates encouraging expectations, attraction, and the painting of a positive portrait in each of your minds. The Magical Honeymoon Phase. If you're lucky, it can last a really long time.
So where does it go sideways, what breaks the magic spell?
The First Pitfall: The Negative Expectation Portrait
A simple shift takes place in your thinking as negative radar overrides positive radar. It works like this. Those little things that you once found cute, endearing, or maybe only mildly irritating are now looked at differently. The last bit of toilet paper is used and not replaced. Only now instead of thinking with a smile "that is so like my Beloved" you say to yourself "Are you kidding me!? Who does this? It is totally disrespectful. I have asked you a thousand times to put on a new role when you finish one but you don't even care. You don't ever listen to me. I'm expected to do everything. I'm the only one who takes care of things in this house". And on and on you go with this kind of thinking.
This is how it starts. That beautiful, positive, loving portrait that was painted with thoughts and memories of how your partner cares for you gets overshadowed and eventually replaced by a negative expectation portrait painted with ugly, non-caring thoughts. It is important to point out here that your mind works in pictures. It is not like a web search where you punch in a question and get back a written response. For example, if I asked you to tell me about your favorite pet your mind would serve up pictures of your pet and little "videos" of your memories. These pictures are real to you, resulting in both emotional and intellectual responses. It doesn't matter how long ago you last spent time with this pet. Thinking about the pet, and the resulting pictures, generates beliefs and feelings that are real to you in the here and now, at the exact time you think about them.
The first time you have a negative thought about you partner you will take a small step off the previously well-worn path of caring thoughts and beliefs that led you to your positive expectation portrait. Remember, it was this positive path and this portrait that fostered the belief that your partner's intentions toward you were caring which, in turn, generated attraction. It should be no surprise that the more you step off the path of positive expectations the better worn and more familiar becomes this new path that leads you to this newly formed negative expectation portrait. In a very short time this becomes the default route which will support a troublesome negative belief; "my partner doesn't care about me".
The Second Pitfall: Reciprocal Inhibition (The Backwards Tango)
Here is the all too common response. When you get the thought in your head that your partner doesn't care about you, even just a tiny bit, you take a small step back. After all, you still care about them and this new idea doesn't feel very good. It hurts, it makes you feel vulnerable. However, instead of communicating this vulnerable feeling to your partner you withdraw, maybe just a little or a lot. Guess what happens next? Your partner's negative radar kicks in, senses your withdrawal, and reciprocates. The dance goes like this: Partner's Thought, "What's with my partner? It seems like they're pulling away. I don't know what this is about but I'll just go ahead and give them some space". Your Thought: "Now my partner has gone from treating me (fill in the blank with your negative thought) to giving me the cold shoulder. I knew something was up. I'll just give them some more room". The downward spiral has begun, driven by both partners' negative radar. Each of you kicks into high alert mode. Neither of you even hears the tango music. You (collectively) are on the way to feeling disconnected. Each of you is certain that you are not the cause. You know where your heart and your intentions are, you know that you care, yet there is "solid evidence" that your partner does not. You have only distanced, put up walls, stop trying, become indifferent because your partner did it first.
You know things need to get better, that you might even need couples therapy, and it is clear to you that your partner is the one who needs to change. At the very least, they need to change first.
The Third Pitfall: The Dissatisfaction Cycle
Unhappy, hurt, discouraged, even angry, you take the predictable step of protecting yourself. Our greatest mechanism for self protection is negative radar. It has helped us survive by detecting things that are dangerous, even potentially lethal. In a world no longer populated by predators seeking to do us physical harm at every turn, this negative radar has been re-calibrated to detect and protect us from perceived emotional harm.
Let's revisit the concept of the Negative Expectation Portrait. The mental picture you have of your partner has now evolved away from one characterized by thoughts and beliefs of caring intention. There was a time when your positive expectation portrait was solid and caring intentions were unquestionable. Thoughts of your partner generated images that made you smile and feel warm inside. Now, however, this picture has changed. You have painted a very different portrait of your partner.
The pallet you use to dip your brush has been covered with daubs of paint formed by your interpretation of negative experiences. I'm not saying that your interpretations or perceptions are incorrect. The point I want to emphasize is that the repetition of these perceptions contributes to strengthening this Negative Expectation Portrait which, in turn, forms a filter through which future interactions are experienced. For example, if your "pallet" holds the thoughts "My partner always yells at me and doesn't want to listen to what I have to say", this might lead to a seemingly well-intentioned attempt at communicating which devolves into something else. The two of you begin talking. Suddenly there is an accusation of yelling followed by an eye roll or sarcasm. References are made to the operating Negative Expectation Portraits such as "You always do this, we start out having a nice discussion then you get mad over absolutely nothing". "I get mad? You're the one who started yelling". "I wasn't yelling, I was trying to make a point but you interrupted because you never like what I have told you".
If we stick with the portrait analogy, what happened is that each person dipped their paintbrush into the existing negative colors and added another layer of that same tone onto the image. Over time the portrait doesn't change, the colors just get thicker and denser. Another way to look at it is that we progress from beliefs/opinions to truth/facts. "I used to think you might be this way but now I know it's true". Nevertheless, those portraits are characterized by perceived uncaring intentions, portraits each partner would vehemently deny as an accurate representation of what is in their heart. Yet they would not back off from their position that the uncaring portrait of their partner is accurate.
The result is a loss of attraction, escalating unhappiness, and an increasing belief that it is unlikely that there is a solution. The resiliency to snap back that you used to have during the Honeymoon Phase seems lost. Neither of you is sure if your partner wants to resolve things or has the resiliency to do so, which impacts your ability to assess if you have any resiliency as well.
Climbing Out of the Pit (or Avoiding It Altogether)
I'm going to address this in great detail in a future article but for now I want to give you some tools and references that you can begin to use immediately.
I believe managing our emotional health requires two key components: awareness and balance. If I am unaware that my standard response is one of anger it is unlikely that I'm going to achieve balancing it. On the other hand, if I lack the tools to create balance, my awareness does not directly serve me.
The most important tool to be used to address the pitfalls discussed is Mindfulness. Let me quickly explain this before your sense of discouragement and frustration pulls you away from reading further. Mindfulness means noticing/being aware of what is happening to you. As previously mentioned, the transition from a Positive Expectation Portrait to a Negative Expectation Portrait happens subtly, like the tide going out. Not only do most of us enter into relationships believing (to quote John Lennon) "love is all you need", we are poorly trained or equipped to respond when our love needs more. Added to this deficiency is the natural evolution of learning which moves us from being consciously competent at the beginning of something we are learning to unconscious competence as our learning progresses. Think about how far you have come from when you were first learning to drive a car or ride a bicycle to your ability to do either of these tasks without even thinking.
So what do we do, how do we get out of this rut we have created?
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
The four steps for reversing this pattern begin with (1) Recognition and (2) Acceptance of when you are holding up the negative expectation portrait. The third step, Investigation, involves recognizing your negative default thoughts and developing supportive alternative thoughts. The final step, NonIdentification, involves becoming aware of when you are taking a single trait or behavior and deciding this is the entire truth. For a more detailed explanation of the steps I would recommend you go to my website, richardcooktherapy.com, and read the article titled “R.A.I.N” in the Blog section.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) have been trained to address the dynamics experienced in relationships. Many of us believe strongly in and are committed to providing the guidance, skills, and tools that serve couples to find the healthy paths they are seeking. In my practice I experience great joy in helping couples recognize the unhealthy paths formed in their relationship while directing them to strategies that restore and enhance caring, attraction, and intimacy.
Richard Cook is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has spent the last 30 years helping couples rediscover their loving intentions. Contact him for more information or to set up an appointment