Relationships have drama for all sorts of reasons—even healthy ones. But some dramatic patterns make the relationship hard and exhausting. Let’s visit one of those here.
If you, or someone you care about, are drawn to the emotional intensity of conflict and making-up, read on.
Many people simply believe that long-term relationships are supposed to be hard work. They’re not born with this belief, trust me. It’s learned.
She’s wincing from a swig of kombucha.
Jenny and Rob love each other. In my office, she playfully mocks Rob for wearing fedoras in session. He takes it well, citing how the fedora “highlights the angularity of his chiseled chin.”
Soon enough, the mood shifts and they return to working on breaking a nasty relationship habit.
Simply, Jenny needed her relationship with Rob to be hard at times, because she thrived on the emotional intensity of difficulty and conflict.
Granted, the feelings were not pleasant ones, but they communicated to her something vitally important:
That she was loved and seen.
The logic? If I’m worth the fuss…then I’m worthy.
Why the Fuss Matters
The world of the baby and child (and even adolescent) is highly emotional. But it’s not just filled with emotions; it’s rich in intense emotions.
They look to caregivers to reflect and reciprocate strong emotions. When done well and lovingly, this helps the child create what some in the psychology business call healthy ‘attachment structures’ with caregivers and then, quite likely, later in life with their own partners.
The attachment literature is vast. It’s easy to find so dig into it if that knocks your socks off.
If you’re wondering if attachment explains EVERYTHING in adult relationships, it doesn’t. For instance, there are economic, cultural and gender identity factors, too.
Here’s where it gets tricky.
Sometimes the intense emotion is not one of love and acceptance, but of something not very loving,
The charge of the emotions still remains intense, and that charge is much of what captures and captivates the child’s attention, if even subconsciously.
It signals to the child, “Hey, I must be important somehow to merit so much energy from this adult. I’m worth the fuss.”
Think of emotional exchange as electricity. A strong surge energizes the young person, making them feel, well, charged. Like they matter, that they are seen and important—even loved—and even if a parent expresses disappointment.
They may not feel pleasant, but as long as they feel seen then they know they matter. And if you are a child who is not sure if you are loved, you sure as hell want to know that you matter to someone. Otherwise, enter despair.
Adults who do not construct new ways of mattering can carry the same intense emotion trap cycle into adult relationships.
Of course this is not a simple cause-effect equation and there are many exceptions. Generally, young people who do not receive enough clear messages of love will grasp on to the next best thing to the feeling of love, or to what they associate with love, such as intensity of emotion and expression. Understandably, they often will react with high voltage energy in their adult relationships when they are not feeling seen or loved.
For Jenny, she realized she needed the relationship with Rob to be hard (at times) because she found self-worth and value in navigating into and through the difficulty. She had watched her mother struggle to keep her father engaged and caring, provoking him with arguments, trying to get him to snap back at her because his anger, to her, meant he still cared.
The anxiety and sadness Jenny felt in her marriage with Rob were unpleasant, but they signaled to her that Rob cared, that he saw her and loved her. His distress signaled the same thing to her.
Jenny’s greatest fear?
To ward off the possibility of Rob’s indifference to her, she made certain to throw the relationship off balance, so they could make up through the intensity of pain, and then the intensity of pleasure when they made up.
People struggling with addiction know this cycle quite well.
There are all sorts of ways some couples sustain difficulty in their relationships. From the outside looking in, it might still seem irrational that someone might do this. After all, aren’t there other methods of getting seen and loved that don’t require so much stress?
Of course there are.
It’s About More Than Pleasure.
Understand what getting seen and feeling loved ultimately accomplish for someone in Jenny’s situation. It’s not just about the short-lived pleasure of saving the relationship.
It is the opportunity to make right in adulthood something that went wrong in earlier, formative years. To change the story so it has a better outcome.
The logic? If you keep re-enacting the script, over and over again, maybe—just maybe—you will free yourself from the pattern. Keep running through the labyrinth and one day you’ll find your way out.
I believe we don’t just re-enact because it is familiar. Familiarity can feel pretty freaking painful so, why do it? We do it again and again so, one day, we breakthrough and the outcome changes: we feel loved, we’re finally seen or understood, etc. Then, ALAS!
IT. WAS. ALL. WORTH. IT.
We can move forward peacefully. The spell is broken.
Humans are pretty weird creatures, eh?
We repeat and reenact patterns of behavior more than we think. Do you take the same route to work everyday? Did you play sports when you were young? How did you spend most of the practice time? Running the same plays over and over again. Why? Until you get it right. Until the intricacies of the plays become second nature, so you don’t have to think about them. You rehearse and rehearse so you can get it right.
Watch a football practice. Or a band practice or movie filming. If you didn’t understand what practice is for, you might easily question the reason for the exhaustive repetitions.
I watched a documentary on the filming of a movie. At one point in the filming, the actors practiced a scene over fifty times. Fifty times! I kept waiting for an actor to say to the director, “Um, Mr. Director, maybe we should change the scene?” But no, reason be damned! They just kept doing it over and over again.
Does the spell ever break?
Usually, like Jenny and Rob, you need to understand the spell first, so you are conscious of what the habits are and what purpose they serve for you, then you can start freeing yourself from their hold.
It’s important you know your part of the dance and what your craving for drama is about. That’s the first step to freedom.
Blaming your partner for their missteps rarely helps. Learning how to encourage each other is key for healthy communication and feeling emotionally safe and valued. So is learning how to trust effectively, not manipulatively.
Sometimes, I have to tell couples to get out of their intellect and into their bodies so they can feel and learn to trust the wisdom of feeling.
But not here.
Get into your head. Use that gazillion dollar microprocessor inside your skull to map the pattern—step by step— so you can recognize when it is happening.
Because it will start happening often without your knowing!
Like a craving for candy at the movies. Because that’s what you do at the movies! Duh.
I’m making it sound easy-ish. Sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, it really helps to seek wise counsel to help you discern the pattern so you can catch yourself in it and know that it is possible to let go of doing something you used to do that helped you feel loved,
But now leaves you feeling small and needy…
Until, from lived practice, you realize that,
You can do differently, even by merely bringing attention and giving voice to your great discovery, which,
I am willing to bet,
Will help you and your partner learn how to pole vault out of the labyrinth.
The nearby trampoline on a windy Spring afternoon. With ample space for flips, flops, twists and giggles.
So you can feel the rush of a new kind of thrill and learn that double-bouncing your partner can be playful, not painful.