Anyone can love when it’s easy. But what about when it’s hard. When the other person is critical, blaming, or accusatory? In an initial session with a couple, I will frequently hear someone state, “I just don’t know if I love him or her anymore.” My response is often, “You’re about to find out.” When the romantic feelings have subsided or the relationship is on the brink, can I show up and be loving then?
Every day I see good people struggle and attempt to exercise love towards each other only to fall short. Our wounds run deep and create insurmountable obstacles at times. It’s a tragedy of everyday living. When you can see what I see on a deeper level that a couple cannot, I am filled with a deep sense of sadness, compassion, and empathy. It doesn’t even seem fair. How can we fight an enemy we cannot even see?
There are emotional memories and attachment patterns imprinted in our implicit memory system that are unconscious and faster than any conscious thought. Let me provide an example of how our unresolved emotions, memories, and traumas regularly sabotage our ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships and secure connections.
I was working with a couple years ago in which the husband would become angry and frustrated trying to get the wife to understand what he was attempting to convey to her. At a certain point, the wife would shut down and withdraw from the conflict they would regularly become stuck in. When exploring a recent incident in session, the husband was becoming somewhat frustrated and agitated as he recalled the interaction. I instructed him to identify where he was most feeling his anger in his body. He stated the entirety of his upper body and that he also recognized a feeling of helplessness when his wife could not understand what he was trying to explain to her. As he continued to focus on his body sensations, I told him to let his mind go and just track whatever came into his awareness. After a minute, he disclosed recalling a memory of being a young child in which he was held under a plastic hamper while his father sprayed him with scalding water. One of the reasons these interactions were so difficult to resolve was because the husband was having a PTSD flashback during many of them.
If one was not an experienced therapist, how in the world could they ever identify and know what to do during these types of incidents? This is a more severe example. However, I can tell you from experience every time a couple gets caught in a recurrent conflict cycle I find there is unresolved past memories and disrupted attachment patterns. This is the underlying cause of all our relationship difficulties. The insidious part is it’s almost always outside of conscious awareness.
A couple will debate facts and circumstances to the bitter end not realizing it has almost nothing to do with why they are becoming so conflicted. This is the most challenging part of my work with couples: to get them off of discussing details and to focus on the dynamic that is happening between them. When you gain a deeper knowledge of what really causes a relationship to be successful or dysfunctional, it is surprising anyone can navigate these waters.
In the case of trauma, it seems almost impossible at times. Nonetheless, there are amazing couples that overcome these skirmishes with the past. I am in awe of these couples. There is something about the love and bond they have between them that enables these couples to succeed. The other side of trauma is the resiliency and strength that it can develop within an individual and at times a couple.
To become one of the couples that can sustain a long-term relationship requires strength, courage, humility and a Herculean level of love. In my opinion, one cannot attain these characteristics without a strong and healthy spirituality, as well as a commitment to continue to grow and heal emotionally. This is the key and the answer to the dilemma of how to attain and maintain the type of relationship we all want. They do not come easy and will not just happen. They take a tremendous amount of work and commitment. But the payoff is well worth the effort: to be loved for who you are faults and awe; to be emotionally safe; to be supported and encourage and to have a real partner to share your life journey.
My final words of encouragement would be to generate a vision of what you want for your relationship so much so that it carries you through the hard work and challenges that are sure to come. But to the victors come emotional security, a level of connection most will never experience, and being in the flow of love that has a quality of the Divine.
–John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.