This article presents an overview of the typical problems that cause relationships to become conflicted.
To begin, healthy adult romantic relationships are dependent upon four qualities that each partner gives to the other. These qualities are honesty, equality, respect, and responsibility, also know by the initials—HERR. When one of these qualities is missing, the relationship may continue, but it is not healthy, and it may be in fact dysfunctional.
When honesty is missing in a relationship it brings doubt, suspicion, and mistrust. A lack of trust poisons a relationship. It ruins intimacy and becomes a hurtful wedge that keeps you and your partner emotionally separated. The solution is to regain trust and that takes work as honest living over time develops into evidence of trustworthiness.
In a relationship both people need to feel equal to the other. Regardless of their differences, each needs to communicate an attitude that although we are different, we are equal. We are both people deserving of dignity and respect. One may have more education than the other. One may have more money and resources. One may have a special talent. One may have more muscle. But regardless of what each has they consistently communicate to the other that, “I’m no better than you, you and I are equal.” If there is no equality the relationship is imbalanced. It’s true that some individuals prefer to take a submissive role in a relationship and may want to feel less equal, but that position is driven by emotional insecurities. In such a situation the relationship cannot be its best.
There are two types of respect—basic respect and earned respect. Respect is an interesting word. It has two parts—“re” meaning “again,” as in redo, and “spect” meaning “look,” as in inspect. Earned respect means there is good reason to “look again” at someone or something. When someone’s behavior is consistently noteworthy we respect that person. Sometimes we respect only a part of a person. For example, you may not like someone’s harsh and critical attitude, but you respect that person’s drive for achievement. Basic respect on the other hand is a gift that we choose to give. It is the attitude of treating others with kindness and in the same way that we want to be treated.
Healthy relationships are dependent on each side giving basic respect to the other. When disappointments and frustrations occur in a relationship there is a tendency to stop being respectful. A relationship becomes toxic when respect turns into disrespect. Problems in a relationship generate both a need for emotional protection and a want for getting even. Note I said a “want,” and not a need. If in the face of conflicts and disappointments each side can maintain offering basic respect, then progress towards resolution and healthy attachment is more likely.
Adult romantic relationships provide people with the emotional protection and security that they need. When both partners are responsible to each other and to their agreements, they enjoy emotional security. Responsibility means keeping promises and taking care of the everyday business of living. It means being there when you say you will and when the other needs you there. When one partner neglects responsibility the other one suffers. Neglect responsibility and life becomes difficult and your relationship suffers.
People enter into marriage with preconceived ideas and expectations. Most often there is the hope that this new person in my life will rescue me from my old life. He or she will solve my problems and life will be so much the better. As the two begin to live together they realize that the other is not meeting up to what was expected and life somehow seems like the way it was before. There is a lot of disappoint and aggravation. This aggravation leads to bitterness, resentment, and fits of anger.
Some people grew up in families where they developed a tendency to be enmeshed. Enmeshment means that I don’t navigate myself through life as an individual. I identify so closely with others, and especially now in marriage with my spouse, that I want the two of us to be one identity. My partner should like what I like, think like I think, know me like I know myself, and I should be connected so closely to my partner that I know this person the same way I know myself. Enmeshment generally is an attempt to ward off unconscious fears of abandonment. It is a relational style in which identities become confused and fused. It lacks healthy boundaries and discourages differences or disagreement, seeing them not as healthy and natural but as disloyal and threatening. When one partner has this relational style conflict will occur as the other strives to disengage.
Disengagement also brings problems into a relationship. The one disengaging experiences the other’s enmeshment style as a continual relationship discomfort. This creates mistrust that causes the disengaging partner to withdraw into his or her own emotional world, which further isolates the partner and breeds more mistrust in the relationship.
Healthy relationships are balanced. A balanced relationship is neither a withdrawal from another person nor a fusion with that person. It allows each partner a reasonable sense of their own identity in the presence of a loving relationship. Each is capable of respecting the individual interests of the other, while at the same time maintaining a healthy emotional attachment.
When partners confront each other because of their conflicts, the communication style used to work out conflicts can either promote resolution or exacerbate conflicts. It seems at times that a rational understanding of each other’s point of view (and needs) gets fogged out in a cloud of resentment and anger. Communication that is driven by anger causes the listener to become defensive. Very often defensive behaviors are aggressive and so the communication cycle is attack and counter attack, again and again.
Anger is a misunderstood emotion. It is a secondary emotion, meaning that it is always preceded by some other emotion. Emotions that occur first are called primary emotions, and are uncomfortable and unwanted feelings, such as loneliness, sadness, embarrassment, guilt, feelings of inadequacy, rejection, worthlessness, and anxiety (fear).
Anger is a protective emotion. It is used to protect us from many things, including the pain of the primary emotions that preceded the anger. When couples begin to solve their differences without giving expression to their anger, and instead focus on communicating their primary emotions, several things happen: Defensiveness and aggressive feedback stop occurring, which allows for hearing and understanding each other’s point of view. It also encourages an empathic response, and the likelihood for cooperation and change increases. The fog of bitterness and resentment subsides and feelings of emotional attachment strengthen.
A healthy loving relationship is built on the foundation of four great pillars—honesty, equality, respect, and responsibility. A balanced relational style that respects each partner’s individuality and maintains feelings of attachment keeps these pillars from teetering. And finally, the lines of attachment are clear and unconfused when communication over differences is focused on the underlying primary emotions.