Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Understanding Couples Relationships

by guest writer: Dr. Jeff George (Dr. George is in private practice in Safety Harbor, FL

A couple came into my office the other day saying they were having  "communication problems." The woman complained that she and her partner were having the same argument over and over again, and she was frustrated because her partner "just doesn’t get it." She had tried again and again to make contact with her husband only to be rejected and misunderstood, which served to deepen her frustration. She said that she had given up trying to connect and the couple had drifted into loneliness, resentment and despair.

The husband agreed that they had communication problems, but said that he would be happy to listen to his wife "if she just wasn’t attacking me." He complained that she was critical from the onset of their exchanges, which prompted him to "just shut down." I saw two really smart, capable, and caring people stuck in a very common pattern.

Some people are surprised to learn that most couples wait an average of 6.5 years from the time they start having problems until they decide to seek therapy. That’s a lot of time to spend in loneliness, resentment and despair! But, there are a lot of reasons that couples wait so long to seek help. One of the main reasons couples wait to seek treatment is they have hope that their partner will have an epiphany, an "ah ha" moment, which will magically fix things. Unfortunately, that day is very slow to come, if it comes at all; and it rarely "fixes" anything for very long. Real recovery in relationship comes from transforming the foundation of our friendship from conflict to connecting. It requires attention, practice and willingness to struggle.

Why do we struggle so much with our love relationships? When we first fall in love, it is so easy to connect with our partner; they are so exciting and sexy and understanding; how could we ever see them as anything other than our perfect match? There are reasons that we use terms like "head over heels" and "swept off our feet" to describe romantic love.
Falling in love is one of the most euphoric and wonderful experiences a human being can have. Brain studies of people in the infatuation stage of  a relationship are fascinating. Natural mood enhancers like Oxytocin, Vasopressin and Dopamine are all present in elevated levels, which accounts for the euphoria and bliss we feel.

During romantic love, information is processed differently so that potentially damaging details are minimized or overlooked altogether, which validates the euphemism that "love is blind." Yet we know from years of research that somewhere between 3 months and two years after falling in love, the infatuation begins to fade, and all of the natural mood enhancers begin to fall back to "normal" levels. Now we begin to see ourselves and our partner differently and we encounter a struggle.

It is normal to struggle in a relationship. In fact, witnessing a loving couple who have truly mastered the art of conflict in a disagreement is a remarkably beautiful event. Loving couples rarely criticize each other, instead they complain without blaming. They respect and honor each other, even when they flatly disagree with their partner’s point of view. They find ways to soothe and comfort each other with humor, validation, empathy and caring, even in the midst of conflict, which serves to strengthen their friendship and deepen their passion. Master couples light the way for what is possible in a committed love relationship. They teach us that healthy conflict is a struggle for growth, which may be the very thing we need as individuals.

So, when couples come into my office saying they are having "communication problems," I hear their loneliness, frustration and despair, but I am very hopeful about what they can accomplish together. What they are saying is that they want to be understood and they want to be more connected to one other. I see that as a hopeful sign. Who wouldn’t want to recapture some of the passion and closeness of romantic love? But, I sometimes wish they hadn’t waited so long!