Relationships are Complicated
Intimate relationships are complicated. While some of our most content happy moments are often associated with relationships, they also are often the cause for deep emotional turmoil. Our biological programming drives us to connect. Relationships provide security through acceptance, affection, and attention. When our relationship needs are fulfilled. We feel satisfied. When those needs are unfulfilled, we struggle. It’s a little more complex than simply our partner is providing these needs or not. Simplicity is not the nature of living—especially when it comes to the relationships between complex emotional beings. The feelings generated by relationships are derived from a complex construction of expectations, needs, and past experiences. Relationships can either provide essential elements for our growth or can destructively disrupt our lives. The nature of the relationships either creates an environment for growth or decay.
A couple’s patterns of interaction encourage openness or suppression; trust or distrust; intimacy or guardedness. Because relationships are a major source of fulfillment, they also generate intense fear. The interdependence creates vulnerability. We trust a partner with our well-being. Of course, there are things we can do on our own to create a greater sense of self; but loss of an intimate partner will always be painful. Much of our emotional well-being is closely tied to the fulfillment of promises by our partners.
The complexity of human interaction complicates simple explanations. Relationship dissatisfaction isn’t easily dissected into simple to correct causes. Some relationships work and some don’t. Maturity and experience help but not always. Some people struggle with intimacy their entire lives. While we are biologically driven to relationships as apart of survival, the ability to create healthy secure relationships apparently falls outside of our biological inheritances. These skills must be learned.
The relationships we need for security also create challenges. Skillful approach to the challenges allows for us to enjoy the benefits of a relationship while not being overwhelmed by the challenges the relationship presents. If we were lucky enough, we learned these skills from watching our caregivers. But too many young children are not so fortunate. Their childhood bonds were fraught with fear, rejection and punishment. Love deprived childhoods creates large obstacles for future relationships to overcome. A history of relationship hurts is stored in strong emotional memories. New events ignite emotions when they share similarities with the past. These strong emotions triggered by memories disrupt and deregulate our entire system leading to faulty assessment of the present.
Relationships struggle when one or both partners are overly burdened by the past. They are naturally sensitive to possible hurt. Instead of feeling kindness and security, they are constantly overrun by fear. Fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, fear of loneliness.
No magic pill cures these deeply engrained emotional reactions. The emotional reaction is not a choice. We can’t simply identify the errant emotion and discard it. Knowledge may help but won’t simply cure us from our past. Past pain was real and therefore our current fear is a rational reaction to the possibility of re-experiencing pain. New partners can disrupt our life. We do need to scrutinize people we let into our lives—especially when intimacy requires vulnerability. Emotional reactions are a complex response to the present that are strongly influenced by the past. We don’t purposely allow the past to destroy the present. This isn’t a simple choice. Avoiding intimacy altogether is also very limiting. There’s no magic solution to erase the past; it will forever be a part of our present. The right partner can assist but they will not eliminate relationship fears altogether.
“If your heart is a volcano, how shall you expect flowers to bloom?” ~Khalil Gibran
Friends, family and professionals also provide additional resources. Personal knowledge of biases and fears provides insights to avoid some of the inevitable triggers. A patient partner that understands your past can provide the attention, affection and acceptance needed to heal. As we add new skills to our repertoire of responses, we begin to experience small moments of intimacy without debilitating fear. Each small glimpse of intimacy provides a salve for our past wounds. Hurts soften and fears subside. Each disrupting emotion we successfully navigate contributes to our growing self-confidence. We may not immediately notice the growth but as we look back at the valleys and the gorges traversed, we will gratefully embrace our successes and boldly move forward in love.