It is sometimes hard to imagine how some couples stay together and what keeps them that way. For many people, especially codependents, the need to be in a relationship is always there but just how much should you take from your partner in terms of the way they conduct themselves (which might affect you) and just how much should you be giving to a lost cause? This is a question with not too many answers for many people. Many people stay far too long in relationships that have run their course, complaining about how things are not to their liking, not having their needs met, exhibiting and accepting poor relationship behaviour along the way, but doing nothing to change it. Yet still they stay. Many of these people are very often very decisive in other aspects of their lives but ask them to make a decision about moving on from a relationship, they suddenly lose that ability.
No relationship is perfect. It takes work and compromise on both sides to help it maintain itself but there are some things that you can take for granted will be there in a functional relationship. People can expect to have their needs (once found and expressed) mostly met while doing the same for the other. The need to express feelings and emotions is something that many avoid because of some of the reasons that follow. If this is done in a healthy way, it is the foundation for emotional intimacy and trust. This should never be met with aggression and gaslighting (red flags for any relationship). One can fully expect not to be controlled overtly or covertly with emotional blackmail or guilting, financially or physically. In short, a team attitude might exist where two equal partners decide on the way forward. However, we all know and have been in situations where this is a pipe dream for many and the usual relationship bad habits prevail.
In my daily work as a therapist, I deal with such couples who are struggling to keep their relationship together. There are many reasons for this and some are more successfull than others at working on the issues that divide them. I have found that it really does not matter what the issue is, if the couple are prepared to work together to overcome their problems, then they have a good chance of bringing things onto a good level where the relationship can thrive. The choice is theirs and if they make that choice, individually and mutually (an essential element of therapy), they will move forward together. However, things are never usually that simple and often resistance from one or the other or both can hold the process up and may even stop it all together. Often, while working on the source of that resistance, one can find one common element that is generally responsible.
Relationship expert John Gottman identified four indicators of likely divorce, he described as the Four Horseman. Namely, they are contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. I would fully agree with this view and this is borne out and usually present whenever I see a couple for the first time in couples therapy. While these toxic behaviours are individually bad enough, when they are all present one can imagine that any relationship cursed with such a situation is on its last legs. In my experience, all of them however breed the Big R… Resentment, the killer of intimacy, productive conflict and the killer of any relationship. It seeps into a relationship like a cold mist on a grey winters day and once there can become habitual, residual and affect all aspects of the relationship.
So how does this happen? Let’s look at some of the main reasons. This list is by no means exhaustive and readers might be able to identify other factors:
Not Letting Go: Many couples go through more than one crisis over the course of a relationship. This could be caused by such factors as infidelity or not working enough on the relationship. For some; it is not easy to let go of the feelings that can emerge after such events. For one or the other or both, resentment might be present and might reappear especially in times of conflict. All this proves is that the original issue was not properly processed or worked through for whatever reason. Especially with infidelity, this can often happen when a choice is made to continue in the relationship. We commonly ask: can an affair make a break a relationship? … but there is often a grey area where the couple stay together and guilt and resentment drive the relationship. In therapy, it is essential that these feelings come to the surface and are worked through so that the foundation of the relationship is not eaten away. This requires open and honest communication without the fear of recrimination or punishment.
People Pleasing: Many individuals have trouble asking for their needs to be met. Especially in terms of codependency, it can get to the point that one (and sometimes both) just “suck it up” so not to “rock the boat”. This generally leads to internalisation and avoidance which can lead to resentment. Often, such people find it hard to set healthy boundaries and ask for what they need. They hold it in for fear of a negative reaction from their partner and what this might mean in the long term. Sometimes, they have tried to put their view across and have been met with defensiveness, stonewalling or anger. This teaches them that the expression of needs and the setting of boundaries is a “dangerous” concept. If a partner consistently abuses these healthy concepts, one must ask whether it is a relationship that could or should survive.
Inability to Manage Conflict: The four factors mentioned above can all be present at once if conflict is not managed efficiently. Effective conflict resolution is a key element of successful relationships. When this is not done and done consistently, resentment can eat away at the relationship. Many couples struggle with conflict and forget that conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship and if handled correctly, can lead to healthier behaviour patterns and the consolidation of the relationship. These skills can be taught and are in my opinion essential skills if the relationship is to survive: Framework for Conflict.
Control: We cannot rule out that some people who involve themselves with others like to have control over them. Bullying, dominating, put downs are tools of the master manipulator. They use emotional withdrawal and distancing as a means to get what they want. This might be to do with a lack of self-esteem, insecurity or narcissist tendencies. For this person, it is “my way or the highway” and this is backed up by overt attempts at control. For the person exposed to this behaviour and maybe unable to detach themselves, it is an issue that generally leads to resentment not only of the partner but themselves. This is especially present in the dance that happens between narcissists and codependents.
Lack of Ability to Change or Move On: We all know couples who are in constant crisis and fail to take the steps needed either to change the issues in their relationship or move on to healthier pastures. In this case, the grass is usually greener on the other side but they just cannot see it. They live in fear of something new and sometimes feel that their relationship is the best they can get. “Better the devil you know” is their attitude. However, all this does is bring frustration and resentment for themselves and the relationship. Some stay like this for years and it identifies them as a couple.
If you are in this situation, you might ask yourself the following questions:
Am I avoiding leaving the relationship because of some fear I hold?
Am I truly having my needs met by this person and have I identified what my needs are?
Am I doing all I can to resolve issues with my partner or are we just in a rut?
Have I assessed or sought help with any codependent issues I or my partner might have?
Have we tried to work on such things as conflict management and communication?
Do I identify with what John Gottman calls the «four horseman» and if I do, what does it say about the relationship?