Your "Real" Relationship Problem

A large part of my therapy practice involves the rewarding work of helping couples resolve many different types of relationship problems that are often very difficult for them to work through on their own.  I’ve often observed that even highly sophisticated, self-aware and sensitive individuals get stuck in unproductive styles of communication and conflict resolution, often because they don’t put into practice a simple concept that turns any interpersonal struggle into an opportunity to enhance intimacy, insight and emotional well-being.  Learn more about it now!

A large part of my therapy practice involves the rewarding work of helping couples resolve many different types of relationship problems that are often very difficult for them to work through on their own.  As a seasoned therapist I draw upon many different theories and techniques tailored to the unique qualities and needs of each couple I’m privileged to help. 

I’ve often observed that even highly sophisticated, self-aware and sensitive individuals get stuck in unproductive styles of communication and conflict resolution.  This is often because they don’t put into practice the following simple concept  that turns any interpersonal struggle into an opportunity to enhance intimacy, insight and emotional well-being: A relationship conflict is a personal dilemma with yourself and not merely an issue with your partner.

If you peer deeply enough into the core of any relationship difficulty you will always discover an internal personal challenge that resides within yourself.  The way you think, feel and behave is determined more by your level of emotional development than by anything your partner says or does.  This is the reason that two people dealing with exactly the same problem may respond entirely differently from each other.  Each unique couple is shaped by subtle but powerful unconscious influences, including both the positive and negative aspects of each person’s childhood family dynamics.  Both people in a primary relationship will therefore almost always project their unresolved – and often unrecognized – conflicts, traumas and developmental challenges onto each other.  As the writer Anais Nin famously stated, “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

Many people locked into relationship struggles are convinced that their problems would be solved if only their partner would act differently.  This belief that the other person must change for improvement to occur often insures that a relationship problem will either remain or get worse, especially when both partners cling to this limited perspective.  Making your emotional well-being dependent on what someone else says or does creates a vicious trap for both of you because you now have someone to blame when things don’t go your way.  From this point forward you have virtually volunteered to be a victim in your own life. 

A better strategy for helping rather than hindering a healthy relationship is to accept full responsibility for everything you think and feel.   Past a certain point it hardly matters what your partner says or does unless you are able to be an effective shepherd of your own thoughts and emotions.  The likelihood that you will enjoy a satisfying long-term partnership generally depends less on your relationship with another person and more on your relationship with yourself.   While this may seem like a simple concept, it’s one of the most challenging and ongoing tasks you will ever face. 

When your goal is to manage your emotions rather than your partner, a relationship problem turns into an opportunity for personal growth, which is much better than simply winning an argument.  On the other hand, difficulty regulating your thoughts and emotions often results in relationship troubles becoming too distorted by intensity or confusion to resolve constructively.  Anxiety spirals into panic; anger may either escalate into hostility, ferment into resentment or explode into rage; lack of approval feels like outright abandonment; and sadness can degenerate into deep depression.  

If you truly want to foster the healthiest possible relationship you must start by acknowledging that many aspects of your personality are immature and undeveloped.  Some of the most damaging of these weak spots in your character won’t emerge until you are in a relationship that is meaningful to you.  This is no reason to be embarrassed or ashamed but it is definitely a cause to diligently confront your character flaws when they emerge during times of interpersonal conflict.   It is also extremely important to be able to consistently calm and center yourself when you are experiencing difficult emotions.  These are not the kind of relationship skills that most people either witnessed while growing up or consciously practice as adults, resulting in a fundamental skill deficit that underlies most unproductive attempts to resolve relationship conflicts.  

The skill of self-confrontation can be confusing.  Many people think that confronting is the same as criticizing, but for purposes of managing your emotions it simply means that you accept complete responsibility for both your positive and negative thoughts, feelings and actions.  (See my article "The Most Important Question In Couples Counseling" for more about this vital skill.)  People who are familiar with 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous recognize this as the practice of “taking personal inventory”.   It requires you to consider that you could be wrong rather than right, to isolate the themes that are common to the various situations that bother you, and to recognize any repetitive patterns in your reaction to conflicts.  If you don’t face your contribution to conflicts you are making it more likely that your partner will either do it for you or suffer silently.  This will result in one or the both of you feeling persecuted or victimized, which is only going to lead to resentment and resistance rather than resolution of differences and a deepening of the relationship.  

The type of struggle that emerges within you in reaction to something your partner says or does is the best indicator of the developmental deficit you have carried into the relationship.  Whenever you are bothered by something your partner says or does (especially if there’s a repetitive quality to the experience), you have a unique opportunity to experience a degree of personal growth that can be attained no other way.  Inviting and respecting feedback during these times, especially when you both strongly disagree with each other, is one of the hardest and most valuable endeavors a couple can ever attempt.  On the other hand, denying the value of each others’ opinion can quickly cause the relationship to turn into a battle of competing perceptions, which is a terrible way to seek intimacy.   Remember that your partner is the most important resource you have for developing your ability to effectively manage your emotions, which is an essential skill for experiencing the most meaningful and fulfilling relationship possible.

The concept of self-comforting can also be confusing to people who are not accustomed to actively identifying and managing their feelings in a conscious manner.  The ability to calm and center yourself in the presence of intense emotions is an essential skill for successfully navigating the inevitable challenges of a long-term relationship in the healthiest possible manner.  If you get increasingly upset when things aren’t going your way, your partner must work harder to manage the interactions between you, which is exceedingly difficult when he or she is also struggling to effectively manage difficult emotions.   If you assume your partner is primarily responsible for taking care of you then you will never truly develop the skills to do this yourself.  Your emotional well-being is no one’s responsibility but your own.

When you are upset, it is your responsibility to soothe yourself.  Shutting down, lashing out or going to pieces when you don’t like what your partner says or does damages both the immediate and long-term health of your relationship.  Give your partner someone solid and stable to deal with by maintaining a consistent emotional “shape” instead of swelling up like an enraged giant or shrinking down to the size of a pouting child.  If you are struggling to manage your emotions, at least control your behavior.    Regardless of how justified it seems, avoid engaging in blame, disrespect, escalation or any other way of exploiting your partner’s emotional vulnerabilities.  Using the intensity of your emotional expression to convince or coerce your partner to change is like trying to steer a car by pushing it in the direction you want it to go.  Try to understand rather than to be understood, to offer love rather than demand it, to respect rather than revile differences of opinion.  This is not just an ethical or philosophical stance.  It is the way to avoid making yourself an easy target to fight against. 

To recap, your two primary goals in any relationship conflict are to insure personal accountability and maintain emotional balance, without expecting that anyone else should do the same.   Unhook your partner from your personal growth process by focusing less of your time and energy on how he or she acts and more on how you react.   If your sense of emotional well-being overwhelmingly depends on what another person says or does, you are at the mercy of an outcome you can’t control.    

Many people fear that this hands-off approach will risk widening any existing gap in the relationship, but the bigger problem faced by couples generally isn’t when two people differ significantly from each other but when they are so enmeshed that they both feel the other is responsible for their emotional well-being.  This misconception is partly based on the romantic myth that the person you fall in love with is somehow supposed to make you “whole” or “complete” you.  While this sentiment seems perfectly healthy to many people, it often leads to disillusionment, growing isolation and eventual emotional separation.   Remember that the source of your identity and sense of intrinsic value resides within yourself, not with your partner.  When you both genuinely operate from this perspective it’s not necessary to either seek or demonstrate constant validation, understanding or acceptance.  True intimacy has more to do with you being truly who you are than with your partner accepting you.  

Remember that regardless of the topic that seems to be the source of conflict between you and another person, the real issues that emerge in your relationship struggle are likely to continue confronting you as long as you avoid facing them.  Your obligation to yourself is to act only on what are the most valuable opportunities embedded in your current challenge (an old blog post of mine relates this skill to eating a sunflower seed!)  Whatever you are facing in any relationship challenge is custom-tailored for your own growth.  

The treasure lies in challenging yourself, not your partner.  This is the most meaningful gift you can ever hope to offer or receive in a relationship. This path is not for the faint of heart, for it will take you into virtually uncharted waters where you would never otherwise venture.  It takes courage and faith to face parts of yourself that would rather remain hidden, but the inevitable discomfort you will initially experience through this approach is the pathway to a healthier, more fulfilling and more joyous life .  


Bill Herring LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta psychotherapist, counselor and consultant who helps people reclaim broken trust and enjoy true intimacy, self-esteem and freedom by stopping problematic sexual behavior and  healing damaged relationships.  To schedule an appointment you can call or use this form.