If Your Relationship Is Scary Right Now, It’s About To Get Really Good
Don’t quit before you get to the best part.
Everything worth doing is hard.
I pretty much knew that already, but my Uber driver reminded me of it the other night, when we were talking about grad school, working three jobs, moving away from home, running marathons, and relationships. (What, you don’t have those kind of conversations with your Uber driver?)
“If something is easy, it won’t mean anything,” he said. “To be meaningful, it has to be difficult. If a thing is worth doing, you have to be willing to work hard at it.” I gave him five stars and a big tip, then went home and wrote in my journal for an hour.
Lots of people might think this “everything worthwhile is hard” wisdom is obvious. But most people aren’t willing to actually live it out – especially when it comes to relationships. We settle for the wrong person because it feels safe; we tell ourselves that romantic love is a fairy-tale perpetuated by the movies. We bail out on relationships when they get hard; we tell everyone that we tried, but it just wasn’t working. We let our fear keep us from having great relationships. Here’s why – and why you might want to behave differently, next time a relationship gets scary…
I love you, I hate you
The most magical thing about falling in love is the feeling that finally, someone “gets” you. Where has this person been all your life? All this time, you’ve been speaking a foreign language, and you didn’t even know it until you found someone else who speaks it too.
It’s a very particular and potent type of bliss, this infatuation we experience at the beginning of a relationship. There’s even a name for it: limerence. Psychologist Dorothy Tennov coined this term, which refers to the rush of chemicals that floods our brains when we fall in love. Seratonin boosts our confidence, norepinephrine peps us up, and dopamine makes us glow with happiness. It’s similar to taking drugs – and just like drugs, limerence can be addictive. “Love addicts” are junkies for this stage of a relationship, and will break things off as soon as it wears off, generally sometimes between 18 months and three years in.
The thing is, it always wears off. And rather than fading away comfortably, leaving you with a stable and happy partnership, infatuation often morphs into something like hate. The person who once seemed so exciting and full of fun now seems like a bratty little kid with Attention Deficit Disorder; the partner who was so in touch with her emotions and electrifyingly alive becomes a hysterical rageaholic; the steady, calm presence you once found reassuring now feels cold and distant. If you sometimes wonder how you could have grown to hate the person you once loved so intensely, remember: hate isn’t the opposite of love – indifference is.
The power struggle
If you’ve passed the infatuation stage and feel like the relationship of your dreams has turned into a nightmare, congratulations: you’ve entered what relationship expert and couples therapist Harville Hendrix dubs “the power struggle.” This happens when you come up against your unconscious expectation that your partner will meet all your needs and heal every wound from your childhood – and it often kicks in just as you’ve gotten comfortable and really committed to a relationship.
In some sense, says Hendrix, we’re all looking for someone who will activate the painful memories from our pasts, so that we can fix them. For example, if your father was controlling and angry, you might look for someone with those same characteristics, so you can finally get from them what you never got from your father. When we look for a romantic partner, says Hendrix, we’re really seeking out someone with whom we can recreate our childhood dramas and give them a happier ending this time. But when our partners don’t meet those deep, unconscious needs, we’re devastated – and angry.
When we’re locked in the power struggle, we overreact to small things our partner does that trigger deeper issues within us. He walks into the other room, and you feel abandoned. You lose your temper, and he feels attacked. He gets defensive, and you feel betrayed. You tell him how you feel, and he’s overwhelmed. Now neither of you is getting your needs met, you’re both angry and hurt, and what once felt so good now feels scary AF.
Embracing the fear
Some people – many people – think the power struggle phase of a relationship is a sign that their love is not meant to be. It’s just not working; you don’t know what went wrong, but no one is happy and you don’t know how to fix it. The two of you are a bad match; there’s too much conflict and it feels too hard. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, says Hendrix, the conflict is sign that you’re with the right person – the very person who holds the key to healing your deepest childhood wounds.
No one likes conflict; it’s scary and isolating. But conflict in relationships is inevitable, and it’s not always a bad thing. “Conflict is not a fundamental threat to your relationship; the threat is your inability to repair the rupture and get back to intimate connection,” says Hendrix. In order to move past the power struggle, you’ve both got to be willing to feel the fear, sit with it, and work through it.
The reason so many relationships with great potential fail is that one or both partners peaced out when they got to the power struggle, rather than embracing the opportunity to heal each other’s wounds. It’s scary, and it’s hard work – two things that lots of people don’t want to deal with. Instead, they either keep falling in love and breaking it off when it gets hard (love addicts do this) or they find someone who doesn’t trigger their childhood wounds and settle for a tepid, unsatisfying relationship with a person who feels “safe” but is ultimately wrong for them (these often turn into sexless marriages).
Falling in love all over again
If you’re able to move past the power struggle, either by going to couples therapy, or doing the work on your own – reading relationship self-help books together can be a great help – the reward is a relationship that is fulfilling beyond what you ever hoped for. This is the real thing – real love that’s not just infatuation or limerence.
To get there, you’ve got to be willing to put down your armor and be vulnerable with your partner. Real love can’t exist without vulnerability. But being vulnerable can be terrifying. You’ve got to be willing to show your partner your weakest, ugliest self – the wounded inner child, the most freaked out, needy, angry version of yourself; the person you fear is not only ultimately unlovable, but unworthy of love. Paradoxically, the more vulnerable you make yourself, the safer you will be in your relationship – but only if your partner is equally willing to be vulnerable, and to meet you in the same place, where both your defenses are down.
None of this is easy. That’s why so many relationships fail, and so many people get divorced. Not everyone is willing to see a relationship as an opportunity for healing and growth; they just want it to be easy and fun. But if you’re willing to hang in there when things get scary, the rewards are worth it.
Image via pexels, GIFs via tumblr
Comment: Has your relationship ever felt scary to you?