When relationships fail to satisfy us, often it’s not because of any inherent flaw in them, but because of the unrealistic expectations we place on them. We count on them to make up for our privations and disappointments from earlier life. We put our partners in the role of idealized parents whom we require to magically and consistently intuit our needs and to continually fulfill them. Since our partners often share the same fantasy of perfect attunement, it often becomes a competition as to who will satisfy whom and in what order. Typically, one or both partners end up disappointed and resentful. Until these expectations are recognized and the ensuing entitlements relinquished, relationships will continue to be contentious and frustrating, rather than being the source of nourishment and enjoyment they potentially can be.
The most erroneous belief about relationships is that you need your partner’s love, appreciation and approval to be lovable and complete within yourself. In fact, your partner’s love, at best, is only a reflection of your own inherent beauty and loveliness. Sadly, we often mistake the mirror for what is reflected in it. If you don’t acknowledge and embody your own lovability, no amount of external attention or affirmation will ever satisfy you. Without that inner knowledge, you will not be able to accept that love fully, or it becomes addictive, gratifying only for the moment until its effect wears off and another dose is needed. To feel your own inherent sense of value and vibrancy is the most essential pre-requisite for healthy and satisfying relationships. This is not simply adopting a positive self-image. Though beneficial, one’s self-image remains conditional.
Rather than a positive self-image, they key to successful relationship is finding an unshakeable source of self-love. This is your inherent and innate, essential unconditional being: who you are at a level deeper than any of your attributes, achievements, appearance, worldly measures of success. This is a form of self-love that does not require any external validation. It is who you truly are, from moment to moment.
Lacking this experience of unconditional self-love and inner fulfillment, we expect our partners to compensate for its absence, requiring that they faithfully and, even worse, magically fulfill our emotional needs. We insist that they change their behaviors or attitudes to please us. We demand apologies or restitution when we feel offended by them. We believe ourselves to be entitled to be treated in those ways that we have determined as singularly expressive of love and caring. If these requirements are not met, we react with hurt and resentment, ranging from sulking or withdrawal to complaining and hostility. These expectations actually keep us in the role of children, looking for some powerful other to fulfill our lives and make us whole. This erroneous orientation only serves to prolong our dependency and to reinforce our inadequacy.
After much disappointment (and often with the help of counsel), we can begin to examine the underlying reasons for our negative reactions. In time, we will hopefully begin to recognize the futility of demanding external fulfillment. Our focus then shifts from blaming others for our discomfort to reclaiming the power to nurture and complete ourselves.
In this process, it’s crucial to distinguish between “triggers” and “causes.” The event— what happens or fails to happen, inciting our disappointment— is only the “trigger” for our upset, never the cause of it. The cause is always some internalized mental-emotional reaction to what has transpired, usually based in our past experience. This can occur as the re-evocation of a past memory that has painful present associations, or can be a reactivation of our own earlier damaging beliefs about ourselves. These unresolved issues from our past conditioning cause our upsets, not the behaviors or actions of our partners. For instance, rejection only devastates if it stirs up earlier feelings of abandonment and loneliness, reaffirming the belief in our deficiency. Criticism only stings if it reflects our own belief that we deserve it.Often, in the heat of an argument, each partner triggers the other’s developmental pain complex in this way. Mutual defensiveness and hostility ensue, resulting in confusion and hopelessness. Unfortunately, these states of mind typify so many relationships.
With the understanding that the current distress is only caused by reverberations of previous circumstances, it becomes possible to manage our upsets more effectively. No longer demanding unwavering support and outright gratification from our partners, we focus on our own underlying feelings of fear and insecurity: an effort to nurture and heal ourselves.
This occurs initially by accepting the legitimacy of our pain. We don’t judge the pain, or ourselves for experiencing it. Instead, we recognize that our pain is an inevitable consequence of our conditioning from the past, over which we had no control. With this in mind, we open to the pure physical sensations of our discomfort. We allow ourselves to experience it in our bodies as fully as possible. We oppose the natural tendency to distract ourselves from our discomfort. We note our commentary about the pain (“This is too much. “ I don’t deserve this.” “How could he or she….”) and we gently return our awareness to the physical sensations. The decision to open and stay with the pain is an act of courage that transforms into a feeling of strength. The less we resist the pain, the sooner it will dissipate; it is our own resistance that intensifies and solidifies it. If we can open to the feelings so completely that our awareness merges with it, then there is no opposition for the discomfort to build upon. The intensity totally subsides and what is left in its wake is either a sense of peace or a positive emotional counterpoint to the distressing emotions: anger turns into resolve, confusion into clarity, loneliness into fulfillment, etc. – all the qualities of being that we had looked to our partners to impart to us. While this is a gradual process, it will eventually resolve into a vibrant sense of well-being and sufficiency.
From this place of wholeness we can now, as needed or desired, make requests of our partners. Since our demands have now become preferences, our consequent lightness or ease of demeanor can even maximize the chances of having them satisfied. In any event, the denial of our wishes being granted will never again evoke the same agonizing reaction of disappointment.
In turn, we are better able to handle our partners’ grievances with us. Now when criticized, instead of retaliating of collapsing, we allow ourselves to experience our reaction and then inquire into its causes. Is the criticism true? If so, what do I believe it means about myself? How do I feel or relate to that part of myself? Usually, we feel guilty or shameful when confronted with aspects of ourselves that we believe are unflattering or shameful; it is this self-condemnation that causes our suffering. We realize that all of these negative parts of ourselves are only reactions to having never felt sufficiently loved for who are. Recognizing this, we adopt a compassionate view of our defects and flaws, and experience a softening of the severity of our self-judgments. Gradually, we forgive ourselves for our daily trespasses and increasingly experience our innate goodness and lovability. This, in turn, allows us to hear our partners openly, not taking their criticisms personally.
If we find ourselves being consistently critical, one helpful exercise is to see our partner as a mirror for ourselves and discover the corresponding trait or quality in ourselves that we found so objectionable in them. Then, we extend the same compassion and understanding to ourselves for the trait that we found so objectionable in our partner.
From the perspective of personal accountability, whereby we recognize that it is our histories and not our partners that cause our relationships disharmony, our discontent can now be viewed as an opportunity for growth and well-being. By inquiring into and experiencing the pain of our discomfort and disappointment, we finally arrive at a state of wholeness and fulfillment.
Two people choosing to embark on this path of discovery and awakening forge a deep and abiding connection based on respect and appreciation capable of withstanding even the most trying circumstances. Additionally, since neither relies on the other for their own validity and happiness, there is a quality of ease and joyfulness that allows both partners to enjoy all aspects of partnership in a free and spontaneous manner.