How many times do you bite your tongue in your relationship?
You know you want to say something, whether it’s about his socks on the floor or him droning on about his day without even asking how things are going for you.
You think to yourself, “That lousy, no-good-so-and-so. He never listens anymore! He’s used to show interest in me when we were dating, but these days something’s changed. He doesn’t give a crap…”
But do you speak up? Nope.
When we hold in our emotions, our frustrations, our anger, hurt and sadness, eventually we start holding in our joy as well. We keep to ourselves. We sacrifice our emotional connection.
Perhaps you find yourself doing little acts of rebellion…like throwing his socks in the garbage can or pretending you don’t hear him when he talks to you. Eventually you might feel like you’re living with your spouse, but you’re total strangers.
Is it him? Is it the socks? Is it me? Is it us?
You aren’t engaging. You aren’t connecting.
You know what happens to fire when you don’t give it air? It dies. If the fire’s dwindling in your relationship, it’s likely you’re sucking the oxygen out.
I’ve seen this scenario time and time again. It’s not about placing blame on yourself, on your spouse or even on the socks (remember, no one gets to take more than 50% of the blame). It’s about identifying that there’s a problem, so BOTH of you need to take 100% responsibility for working toward a solution.
When Judith and I were working on our book, The Hearth of the Fight, we worked with many couples whose relationships were starved out and dying. There were still sparks left, but much of the emotional connection was ashen and lacking fuel.
One such couple was Deneen & Doug:
Doug and Deneen were on the brink of divorce. Like many couples, they thought they had fallen out of love after years together, a common mis-analysis. What had started out as a promising partnership full of hope had degenerated into a peaceful but pernicious coexistence.
Now Deneen would be on her own for the first time in her life. All she needed to do was pay the security deposit on the apartment she had found. For the first time in her life since college, she would be living without Doug. She was afraid, but she felt ready for the challenge; it was better than his irritatingly passive, non-expressive presence. She’d long ago determined she would never want to have a child with him.
Doug was feeling desperate. Not only was he hurt and alone, but his upset feelings were preoccupying him throughout the day and he was making errors at work that had cost him a potential partnership. He was failing everywhere.
Similar to many couples who once were deeply in love, they decided to make one last ditch effort before ending the relationship. They began working with us and learning how to engage anew. Deneen realized how she had been trying to keep their marriage “nice,” but that meant that she had actually been withholding herself, her judgments and even her wishes and desires from Doug. By not expressing herself or her needs, she had been growing more and more dissatisfied and unhappy until she thought she had to move out. Doug realized that he didn’t fight for what he wanted or ask for the support or encouragement he deserved. He had not challenged himself or Deneen to engage in the relationship.
They realized they were enmeshed in two types of fights, the first of which was a subtle form of “You’ve Changed/You Won’t Change.” [The other was what we call the Hidden Middle Finger.]
Deneen complained that Doug no longer adored her. She wondered if he had been faking it originally. She silently stewed in her hurt and wondered why he couldn’t just be like he used to be. She would ask him questions about his satisfaction, hoping he would show some concern for the relationship but he always said he was “fine with it.” Though her anger was roiling inside and every so often would erupt, she tried to avoid the battles that reminded her of the “scary” arguments her parents used to have.
Doug and Deneen’s situation probably sounds familiar to many of us. How many relationships are suffering because we don’t express our emotions? Because we don’t really work on building an emotional connection? How many of us suffer in silence because we’re afraid to engage and get our feelings out on the table?
Your emotions are the fuel that FEEDS the fire of your relationship. If you don’t express your feelings (yes, even fight) and engage YOU’RE KILLING YOUR RELATIONSHIP.
People tell me all the time they don’t know what’s wrong with their relationship. “We’re distant and going through the motions. We just don’t feel that emotional connection. I’m not sure what’s wrong though—we never ever fight.”
The answer is right there—you never ever fight! That’s a huge problem! Our emotions need to get out! We need to express anger, frustration, irritation, hurt. We can’t bottle it up and hope it goes away. We can’t turn off our emotions!
Many of us, women and men, grew up in households where either we saw our parents fight and learned fighting was frightening or bad, or we NEVER saw our parents fight and thought that was normal. Maybe your parents taught you not to be “too much,” “to upset,” or “too emotional.”
We learn our parents’ message and apply it in our adult relationships. It results is us expressing our frustration passive aggressively (what I call the hidden middle finger). We do all these little actions just to piss off our partner while we think, “That’ll show them!” and the relationship erodes further.
Alternatively, we might also become attached to the idea of “you’ve changed/you won’t change,” imagining the relationship is no longer what it once was. This is one of the most common fights and leads to feelings of resentment and betrayal. What this argument essentially says is, “Why don’t you love me enough to change/why don’t you love me the way I am?”
In reality, emotions and yes, change are necessary for a relationship to thrive. Change is constant and the best way to address both these common fights is through direct confrontation and open discussion.
With Doug and Deneen, repairing their relationship meant learning how to fight. Fighting doesn’t mean the relationship is broken. In fact, it often means quite the opposite.
When we find ourselves dwelling in a place of resentment with feelings of betrayal and passive aggressive actions, we can’t thrive within our relationships. Rather than acting as a place of growth, nurture and transformation, our relationships become stifling and gnaw away at us.
If you’re ready to strengthen your relationship and build an honest and solid emotional connection, embrace the conflict! The next time you pick up socks, don’t stay silent about it. Better yet—don’t pick them up at all!
(Incidentally, I had a client who did exactly this…and this small change shifted the entire paradigm of her marriage and relationship with her husband. They went from miserable to deeply re-committed and in love. So, ladies, stop angrily cleaning up his socks!)
In our relationships, we’re each responsible for our own happiness and our role within the emotional connection. If we’re fighting for our own happiness and growth, our transformational work will only serve to strengthen our relationships. When conflicts arise, ask yourself what you’re really fighting about. What is the underlying frustration and the emotional message behind your conflict?
Our emotions are a gift. Emotions, passion and feelings are the very fuel that fires our relationship and keeps that emotional connection going. If we’re not churning up emotions and passion then we might seem our bond slowly fading and weakening. Put the fire back in your connection. If you care about the relationship, care enough to fight FOR it!
When we’re fighting for our relationship we’re well on our way toward battling toward bliss. Rather than holding in emotions and frustrations that damage our emotional connection, we’re jumping in and getting our hands dirty! After all, relationships are messy! That’s part of the fun, right?
For more on ways to strengthen your relationship, please visit The Wright Foundation. Join us for a relationship workshop or coaching session to help you learn how to nurture your emotions and bring out your best!
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The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.
Featured photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash.