This article was first published on Mind Body Green:
Last week, a reader emailed me:
“I just went through my 4th divorce. Each woman has done the same thing after we take our vows—develop a mental illness, neglect themselves physically, and abuse me emotionally. After all these divorces and broken hearts and ‘you’re too good for me’s,’ I have given up. I’m tired of experiencing the same results, and have shut down emotionally….although I don’t want to be. I feel like I have failed too much and failed those I was supposed to be ‘eternal partners’ with.”
This email broke my heart. Who hasn’t felt like throwing in the towel after searing failure?
After my own divorce, I was ambivalent about entering into another relationship. A wise friend nicknamed me “Trigger Finger,” due to my penchant to flee potential relationships at the faintest whiff of trouble. My ambivalence, like many others, was grounded in fear of failure.
In a series of ten articles, Aimee Hartstein, LCSW (a relationship therapist) and I are examining the different elements of heartbreak. We both believe that while failure is inherent (and an integral part of growth), it does not have to signal defeat. Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, failure is often the catalyst where individuals shed the old to forge a new, improved life where healthy and productive relationships begin.
Einstein defined “insanity” as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” To avoid this repetition failure, we suggest the following:
1. Engage in vigorous self-examination.
“Anger is a very normal and healthy part of the breakup process. It’s ok to list your partner’s faults, especially if you’ve been wronged. However, to have a successful relationship, you must look at your own behavior and shortcomings,” said Aimee the relationship therapist.
For example, a man with a history of a cheating girlfriends may be triggered when his current girlfriend becomes friendly with a male co-worker. His behavior—snooping through her phone, following her secretly, accusing her of wrongdoing without provocation—may create the very estrangement that he feared. Unknowingly, he chips away at the foundation of his relationship due to past, unhealed hurts.
Take a long, hard look at your behavior and how it affected your partner. Be courageous--admit your mistakes and work diligently to improve upon them. Only then do you have a real chance at success.
2. Replace assumptions with communication.
No one is born with an inherent understanding of how to communicate in an intimate relationship. Effective communication is a discipline—much like exercise and meditation--that must be practiced (and improved upon) daily.
“Over and over, I see couples who make assumptions instead of talking to their partner. For example, a wife will want to talk to her husband about a problem. When he asks for a ‘minute,’ she may incorrectly assume that he is ignoring her or doesn’t care about her problem. In reality, he may be processing his own thoughts from the day. This misunderstanding—essentially a small problem—blows up into a big fight,” said Aimee.
Take big risks in favor of stronger communication. Speak even if silence feels easier. Tell others when you’ve been hurt. Ask for what you need. Listen to and show empathy for your partner.
3. Understand how your history influences your behavior.
“In childhood, we learn how to relate. We develop good and bad habits. If we are not conscious of the dynamics and roles we play within our family, we may unwittingly repeat destructive patterns because they feel familiar,” said Aimee.
Take, for example, a woman who was raised by a very domineering mother and a weak and passive father. In adulthood, she may be annoyed by a string of underperforming boyfriends who are “unable to get it together.” She may belittle them, irritated by their failure to “act like men.” On an unconscious level, she is likely picking men who remind her of her father.
To take it a step further, these men also may not be as weak as she imagines, but instead her aggression backs them into a corner. Unbeknownst to her, she is recreating a familiar family dynamic—even though she eschews the result.
Take a detached, unsentimental look at your family. Carry the blessings forward. Leave destructive, unproductive ways of relating behind. This exercise is integral to creating healthier partnerships in the future.
4. Assess the correlation between fear and intimacy.
Far too many people end up in “lukewarm” relationships. The conversation (if any) isn’t too engaging. The sex is either uninspired or non-existent. Neither person is too thrilled with the other’s looks, personality or intellect.
Most “safe” choices are based on fear. Those who avoid risk inevitably shortchange themselves out of chemistry, intimacy and connection.
“For the possibility of a happy ending, you have to take big risks,” said Aimee the relationship therapist. “You have to pick someone who you feel ‘lucky’ to call yours. This may require stepping outside your comfort zone, risking rejection, and confronting familial or societal expectations in favor of the person who inspires the best in you.”
Last, we’d like to acknowledge the courage and determination it takes to forge a new path. Most of us will cling to old, painful and destructive habits until they become completely intolerable. For example, a woman who continually dates emotionally unavailable men will not take a hard look at herself until she becomes fully sick of the rejected and hurt place where she finds herself again. Be aware that utter disgust and an exaggerated version of the “same old situation” will usually precede monumental growth and health going forward.