Why don’t we get along anymore?
The couple can experience the deepest and most intimately rich experience of friendship and contentment, but the union may also be one of deep betrayal, pain and disappointment. Couples over time will need to navigate many psychological tasks over the boundary violations,competition between individual and couple needs, demands from extended family, role confusion or conflict, mismatched intimacy, power imbalances, increasing societal demands and the many psychological tasks couples must work through during the lifespan of the relationship.
We may find our greatest moments of self-discovery and growth but we may also endure wounds that take many years to heal. We may often ask ourselves, our partners or our friends… “why don’t we get along anymore”. The feelings that surround the relationship can be uncomfortable and defining exactly what’s wrong can be difficult.
What makes some couples bask in mostly blissful existence while others experience years of discomfort and struggle? There appears to be four consistent themes well-functioning couples share that more troubled couples do not.
- A belief that ‘truth’ is subjective (judgement not fact). Healthy couples still differ in agreement and taste about various things but they understand that there can be two truths and that theirs doesn’t take precedent over the other persons. Each accepts the other person’s point of view with respect and one does not consistently try and change the partner’s point of view, but aims toward listening and understanding.
- Healthy couples understand that their partner is their friend. They believe that their partner can be trusted, has their best interests at heart and is far from the enemy. They feel safe to be able to intimately disclose fears, failures and weaknesses knowing that the other is generally interested in helping and protecting them.
- Healthy couples are able to deal with conflict without running away or becoming defensive. They are confident that they have the skills to either resolve the conflict or to let the issue go. They understand that not all conflict is resolvable but they engage in healthy negotiation and discussion in order to reach a compromise.
- Finally, healthy couples often share a belief in something larger than themselves. They are collective in nature rather than individualistic focused. This may include a shared belief in religious, spiritual, political or family interests – something that the couple works toward and participates in together.
If you’re thinking about your relationship, “why don’t we get along anymore?”: and you’re finding working through the issues difficult, individual or couple counselling is likely to be able to help you find a way forward. Depending on what’s driving the problem, therapy may start with addressing communication styles that could be problematic and adding fuel to the fire.
Couples often engage in specific communication types that represent damaging exchanges and are highly destructive to the couple unit. Some of these include:
Coercive communication: when one party uses negative exchanges (negative reinforcement) to get the other person to give in (positive reinforcement). The first person ensures they get what they want but is considered punishing and maladaptive behaviour. For example: one party may criticise the other until the other gives in.
Withdrawal: occurs when the communication is seen as so aversive that one or both parties withdraws altogether. Withdrawal may be seen as a coping mechanism and may be linked to past history and an inability to cope with heightened exchanges. Often called stonewalling, individuals believe and covey the message to the other that the conflict is unresolvable. For example: one or both shut down, refuse to speak to the other or leave the premises.
Retaliation: is a common way couples enter into combat with the other. One gives a negative comment to the other and the other rapidly and automatically retaliates back with a similar negative comment. Neither is prepared to stop the cycle from occurring. Both parties over time become so conditioned to this style of communication, and in punishing the other that the habit can be difficult to break. The retaliatory communication style brings with it deep insults toward the other and a significant lack of trust; each person accepts that the other is out to hurt them. For example: name calling.
Cross-complaining: is when both partners exchange complaints about the other or events in their lives, with blame attached. The other person’s complaints are not validated as each individual attempts to continue to state his/her complaint and blame the other for the way they are feeling. For example: I feel like I pay for everything and I’m sick of it. Well, I paid for just about everything last week.
Maladaptive communication styles rarely improve without education and intervention. They create deep hurt and have a significant impaction on the relationship and on the individuals involved. However, with the help of a third party, impartial person, styles can usually be modified and trust regained over time.
Don’t sit in the discomfort. The answer to the question “why don’t we get along anymore” usually won’t manifest on its own and things rarely get better if left alone. There are things you can do to improve things. The first step is to decide that you would like to discover some answers and make positive change.
Written by Terri O’Reilly
Relationship Counsellor & Sex Therapist