How To Make Your Less-Than-Perfect (But Perfectly Real) Relationship Work

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How To Make Your Less Than Perfect, Perfectly Real Relationship Work

Some of the fuel that makes relationships take off is the newness and excitement that stirs emotions and emotional states that are simply not sustainable. Some people call it "the honeymoon period", and it can't last forever.

This means, of course, that it is up to us to make up the difference if the relationship is going to be a long-term thing.

One thing about the honeymoon phase — it seems to dissolve, for a while, all of your lurking, half-conscious vulnerabilities. The ones that produce all sorts of emotional eruptions and reliving of old pain and trauma that your partner will have no clue about when it erupts for the first time. 

If you are a fan of arguing, it’s no problem! Because you can just point out the very same eruptions coming from the very same partner who was complaining 15 minutes ago. 

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Of course, if you are looking to steer clear of such arguments — which tends to degrade the life of the relationship, the attraction, and the attachment (hell of a triad to lose there) — then you are going to have to find a way to tame these nasty reactions that sure weren't there in the first 3 dates.

So how do you figure out how to make a good relationship work? Here are two places to start. 

1. Attachment Theory

Borrowing from the field of Attachment Theory, the idea is that Dr. Freud thought there really are lasting impacts of early childhood experiences that you cannot remember. Some of this is based on the fact that the brain is just beginning to make connections when you are born and many of its networks are simply not up and running in the first, say 6 months.  

So these early experiences don’t leave conventional memories. What’s more, the processing of sounds into words had not begun at that time so no matter how brilliant you mother thinks you are, if there happens to be some memory trace of negative experiences, you literally have no words to describe it. 

So, how do you know when your old circuitry is co-opting your emotions and deep basic feelings of what is right and wrong while your partner looking at you and thinking basically — whhhhhaaaat?? 

2. Look back on your traumas.

Let’s take up what we might call, the little traumas. We know that the idea of trauma has to be expanded.

That is, horrible or terrifying experiences that "traumatize a person and leave them susceptible to all sorts of intense emotional reactions to fairly pedestrian things" — the veteran throwing themselves on the ground when they hear a car backfire is a classic example. 

But we are now talking about "attachment trauma", where much simpler incidents of parents being unable to form a warm safe presence consistently leave the infant flailing emotionally and unable to settle themselves. And most importantly, they struggle in these early months to develop the responses and brain networks to be able to do that settling. 

So they are vulnerable to stress, very vulnerable to misalignment with others, and not great in relationships. It seems to me, as a therapist, that these kinds of deficits are fairly universal, some are worse than others, but they tend to fly invisibly under the radar.

What form do these take and how might you recognize your own? While there are theoretically four types that have been identified, let’s just take two basic types in general:

  • Those who manage their emotional reactivity by shutting down and detaching from it.
  • Those who struggle to manage their emotions, anxiety, hurts, and all and often wind up depending on or demanding of others to help them. 

And not surprisingly many of the couples who come in to see me for counseling contain one of each. You can imagine they don’t understand each other very well when things get hot.

These 2 types may find they have expectations on the one side like "Love is someone who will be there for me and listen to me when I’m upset until I drive them crazy and always understand me and always know how to make me feel better."

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Now besides this being sort of impossible, let’s think about what happens when the person you are with has a different expectation, namely, "Love is someone who lets me be when I am upset and doesn't make me uncomfortable or annoying by trying to make me talk about my feelings. Love is doing things for people and being left alone when you need it."

So, of course, this leads to the experience of your perfect mate suddenly not being so perfect anymore when the basic ways they love and relate begin to settle in. It also leads to arguments that clearly make no sense to the other side.

Progress comes when you recognize that maybe just maybe what you are feeling in terms of what love actually is and what fulfills you in a relationship might just be relative. And not only that, it might need a little revision. 

One of the great gifts that come from letting go of cherished wishes is that you find they are way more disposable than you thought. And, of course, it also leads to newer, healthier, and hopefully more attainable ones. 

Life becomes a much more interesting place when you shift from holding on tightly to something that really always had to change anyway, to watching life change all around you, bringing change, novelty, and keeping you on your toes. 

Give it a try. You’ll love it.

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Gary Siegel has been in private practice as a therapist for over 30 years.