Expert Q&A: Maintaining Relationships
Q: Why do I sabotage my relationships?
A: Love has the power to make us the best we can be. Yet, since love requires high emotional investment, our not-so-pleasant defenses to prevent against the loss of that love are also high. See if these scenarios sound like you.
1. Marcy was forty when she married for the first time. The minute she walked down the aisle, she was overwhelmed with anxiety. "What if I mess this up?" she worried.
2. Daniel's parents divorced when he was two, and he spent his childhood going back and forth between the houses of his mom and dad. His parents remarried several times. Eventually, he became so afraid of getting close to the next step-parent, that he walled himself up. When he met Marcy in the first scenario, he didn't realize the depth of his hurt and fears until he and Marcy had their first fight. She accused him of "turning cold and mean."
3. Lily, who was raised in a foster home, believed she had "lucked out" when she found and fell in love with Ramon. She came from a neglectful family and thought that love was not "in the cards" for her. Shortly after moving in together, Lily was laid off, and according to Ramon, Lily "went ballistic." Her temper drove Ramon away.
What's going on in these scenarios? All these people fear that they are so unlovable that they afraid--consciously or unconsciously--that bad things will happen to them, including their partner leaving them. These fears are so strong and deep that defenses such as anger, criticism, withdrawal, and clinging become so frequent, intense and long that the other person either leaves or gets equally as reactive. Soon, what happens to the couples in these stories is that the very thing they feared--being unloved and abandoned--actually happens.
Like the people in the scenarios, we, too, can harbor doubts about being lovable. Usually, negative childhood experiences plant the seed for believing that we are undeserving of happiness, success, luck and love.
The bad news is that we all have fears that we don't manage very well. The good news is that we can modify our reactions and the negative self-view that fuel our fears. Here is a list of some of the things you can do to lessen the chance that you will sabotage love.
1. Observe. Become your own researcher. Step back in your mind and observe how you react with your partner.
2. Write. Once you have made some observations about yourself, jot them down. You do not have to keep a journal. Just grab a napkin or scrap of paper. The goal is to have something concrete that you can look at later.
3. Connect. Review your observations and writings. Jot down what your partner did or said that triggered it.
4. State. Think and write down words, phrases or sentences about how you feel about yourself. For example, in the stories above, the people carried inside them beliefs that they were unworthy.
5. Link. Do some digging into your past and look for your best explanation about how you developed such a negative self-view. For example, can you recall specific words or acts of your family that might have led you to feel the way you do about yourself. Here is an important trick for breaking the transmission of these negative family messages: Remember, the negative words your parents say are more about them than you!
6. Re-state. Develop positive self-talk. For example, you might say: "I might have had a bad past, but it doesn't have to mean that I am not deserving of good things." Or, "I do not have to be perfect to be loved."
7. Re-do. Once a week act differently and positively with your partner--and in your self-talk. For example, if you tend to get angry or critical, don't! Aim to "catch" yourself, apologize, offer an explanation and do an "instant replay" where you replace your negative response with a more caring one.
8. Forgive. We all misspeak and act in ways that don't make us proud. Forgive yourself and your partner--and don't use the slip up as a total negative self-evaluation.
9. Be brave. Facing yourself is not easy. Expect to be anxious. Almost all change is accompanied with discomfort.
10. Persist. Keep up your effort to be positive and loving to yourself and your partner.
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