We have started to write the Tree of Love book about relationships. This blog post is simply a first pass of transcribing some of my notes and lectures. Consider these to be bullet points that will get expanded and refined later for the book.
What Breaks A Relationship
A person in survival mode will slowly destroy their relationship. Relationships take energy and time to keep healthy. When a person is in survival mode, they have no time and no extra energy to put into the relationship.
The more you push a person to fix a relationship while they are fighting to survive, the more they will fight you in response.
- Survival mode is a fight to survive, meaning that everything will be seen as a fight. A person jammed trying to survive will have reduced mental acuity to process facts. Overall, survival mode intensifies judgment all around in the relationship. Judgment births conflict!
- A person in survival mode doesn’t have the energy to listen or the time to fix a relationship. This means over time the relationship deteriorates reinforcing survival mode.
- A partner who loves you will lash out in frustration when in survival mode because you are the safest person for them to unleash their pent up frustration. This is very damaging and over time destroys a relationship.
- A couple in survival mode has fewer resources to use in getting help to fix their relationship.
- Doing nothing is often the worse thing you can do in helping keep a relationship healthy. When a person is in survival mode, the only option usually available is to do nothing.
Recognize when you are in survival mode and change up your lifestyle choices. If you are aware and spot when you are going into survival mode, it becomes possible to break out of bad habits that can destroy your relationship later.
Be aware it’s possible to be in survival mode even when you are rich. I have known many affluent trapped by the fear of failure forcing them into survival mode. Also, it isn’t uncommon for illness or a lack of sleep to bump a person into survival mode. It’s also possible to be living within a “fear of ______” mentality which can push a person into survival mode even when they’re within an amazingly good situation.
If you find your partner or yourself in survival mode, the first step of relationship improvement is to shift your situation out of survival mode. Also if your partner is pushing you into survival mode, that can be a sign of abuse or problems which require you to leave a relationship.
While survival mode can destroy a relationship, hard times can make a relationship seemingly better.
Hard times are different than survival mode. In hard times, you are still pushing and growing. Love is growth. When two people work together to overcome the hard times, that can make everything come together. Ironically good times can break up some couples. In a relationship having lesser chemistry, hard times can function as a form of pseudo-chemistry to bring two people together, so in being together, they can accomplish more than being alone.
If you find yourself loving your partner in hard times but fighting and not wanting their presence in good times, that is a sign of this problem.
Likewise, some relationships are based upon challenges. The trick of these relationships is learning how to balance the challenges in a manner that doesn’t push a person into survival mode.
I will define hard times as events you don’t control undercutting your life. Challenges are goals and events you choose to face. A relationship based on challenges is healthier than a relationship based upon hard times.
Relationships that evolve or started around hard times tend to break apart once you get past the problem causing your hard times. Relationships rooted in challenges are maintainable provided you keep the challenges active in life. The problem with hard times is that eventually, hard times will push people into survival mode. At least with challenges, you can pick, choose and moderate your challenge. The trouble with a challenge based relationship is that people change, and eventually the challenges each partner needs won’t sync up anymore.
Sexual Relationship Dynamics
Relationship dynamics can be strange and often counter-intuitive. For example, despite deep relationship problems, make-up sex and break-up sex tends to be intense and for many people very good.
This makes sense once considering that as sexual beings our instincts push sex not only for creating children but also to connect people. Instincts exist to keep the species going for the distance; instincts aren’t wired for your happiness or for happily ever after. This means instincts will push a person to do things that go against their stories and personal needs in life. Consider the not uncommon result of make-up sex or break up sex leading to a new child. It’s common enough that I give standard advice to use protection and to be extra careful during break-up sex.
One truth is that sex is a terrible indicator of a good relationship. While bad sex does indicate a terrible relationship ahead. Good sex doesn’t mean anything about it being a good relationship ahead. Many people in a poor relationship are fooled by having good sex to stay in a poor relationship. In this truth make-up-sex often brings two people back together when in fact they should be leaving each other.
The Trap of All or Nothing
A common trap in a relationship is to try to make the relationship be everything in your life. To push a relationship to be everything is to break your relationship later in life.
One interesting aspect of this truth is that relationship dynamics are established at the beginning of the relationship. The trap is this: people hold their partner to the original relationship baseline. As two people change over time, partners will often rub each other wrong as they hold their expectations of their partner’s role to the original relationship baseline. Then as things get worse, the partner resisting change will try to force their partner to be their old self. Pushing a partner to their old baseline will push a person away to be themselves in life.
A relationship must embrace change to be healthy. Be inspired to grow over time and give space for your partner to change.
A Relationship is Bigger than Two People
In a relationship, you have three entities at once: You, Your Partner and the Relationship. Yes the relationship itself is a story and alive. You and your partner will have your own stories and needs in life. The relationship creates an additional set of needs and stories for both people to embrace.
The relationship baseline story forms at the beginning of a partnership. So when you get married, the relationship dynamics sets like concrete right away and then resists change over time. This means later in life as each person changes, more and more strain gets placed upon the marriage itself. Because people don’t view the marriage as a story nor an independent construct, they don’t try to change the marriage when problems happen.
One of the most effective ways to solve a relationship problem is helping the relationship evolve, rather than forcing the people within the relationship to change. Julie and I created the process relationship balancing: based upon this truth of relationship dynamics.
Human nature is interesting because we alternate between change and resisting change. We’re hardwired to change our story every seven to nine years. This is the famous seven-year itch. It’s very real and powerful process that makes humans very adaptable. At the beginning and end of these 7 to 9-year cycles, a person is all about change. However, during the middle 2 to 5-year portion of these life cycles, our stories and needs are like concrete, a person resists change to embrace their current story more deeply.
As a result, when a relationship is having problems if someone tries to change their partner to improve the relationship, this attempt will fail especially when a person is resisting change. As a result, you either have to buy time until a person is ready to change, or focus upon changing the marriage.
More interestingly, if we change our personal story every seven years, why not change the definition of a marriage every seven years? One reason Julie and I have had a long healthy relationship is due to our constantly evolving relationship. In our 16 years of marriage, we have had four very different styles of relationship with each other. So the rate of change for a relationship can be different than the personal rate of change. In changing we have stayed friends by evolving our relationship. This isn’t always easy, but it works!
While our stories may change every seven years, our habits, problems or patterns can stay the same. So over time, old bad habits can be persistent while our stories change. One sad truth is that it can be easier to release or push away a partner than a bad habit. In trying to release or reject bad habits a person can push away a partner because the partner acts as a mirror to see oneself within. If a partner’s presence is a reflection of bad habits, that mirror pushes a person to reject the mirror revealing a person’s problems.
When confronting self-abusive bad habits, it may be required to release your partner for them to heal and get past their abusive habits. Timing is everything in this more extreme situation. Ideally, you want to help your partner release bad habits when they are at a waking point or changing point of their life. Midlife transformation is a good time to help a partner change. At these moments you may have to give your partner space to change rather than direct support.
Sometimes chemistry can be based upon supporting bad habits. Some relationships use negative stories and problems rather than positive growth or love. In this type of relationship, personal improvements shift the mind based chemistry between two people. Ironically self-improvement will break up relationships based on bad habits. Partners of people in negative relationships will sabotage each other to keep the relationship going. Negative relationships like this are abusive, and the most graceful solution is to release the abusive or negative partner.