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SALT LAKE CITY — A relationship is a lot like a car. When it's new, we treat it like the most precious and exciting thing in the world. We would never dream of leaving garbage lying around inside or neglecting it in any way. We wash it frequently and make sure to keep up on the maintenance.
However, over time complacency sets in and the car/relationship does not bring as much excitement as it did in the beginning. We begin caring less about the cleanliness and may slack on the care we once diligently showed the car.
When brand new, a car (and relationship for that matter) is unlikely to show signs of problems. You don't often hear of a new car having the check engine light come on unless the car has more miles on it. How many of us groan when we see that light on? If the car is still running and sounds OK, it is easy to avoid getting it into a mechanic to check it out.
It comes down to this: Sometimes it seems easier to avoid problems if things seem "fine" rather than tackling them and dealing with them right away.
This may seem like the easier option in the beginning; however, what happens when we avoid that check engine light? If there is a serious problem and we keep driving the car, we can make it worse. The same goes for relationships. The longer we avoid issues, the more likely it is that the damage is going to be worse over time — sometimes to the point that things are irreparable.
Often by the time a couple gets into therapy, their relationship is already at the point of practically falling apart. For the couple that has avoided their problems for years, by the time they get to the couch in my office, one or both has already given up on the relationship. The relationship is ready to crumble and is hanging by a thread. It takes a great deal of effort from each party in order to repair the damage. Sometimes the damage is too much, and in spite of their best efforts, relationships fall apart.
Please know I am not trying to suggest that there is zero chance for a couple who has experienced avoidance over a long period of time to save their marriage. Yes, it is possible and I've seen it happen, but only through very hard work from both parties, as well as a willingness for each person to take a good, hard look at him or herself. But wouldn't it be nice to be aware of the pitfalls of avoidance so you can prevent the damage in the first place?
Acknowledge the check engine light
To tackle this issue of avoidance, we must first understand denial. Denial is tricky. It can be a friend or a foe. Denial is the brain's way of defending itself. This is helpful and adaptive for situations in which we need to titrate information because taking it all at once would overwhelm the system. For example, a person who experiences a significant loss may need to be in denial for a while until the brain is ready to process what has happened. When denial is adaptive, the brain eventually processes all the pieces of an overwhelming incident (in fragments) and is able, at some point, to acknowledge what has happened.
However, sometimes we get a little too comfortable with denial, particularly in relationships. This presents in various ways. Sometimes they present in subtle ways and some are more difficult and emotionally charged. Some common issues people avoid bringing up include:
- Finding yourself bored in your relationship.
- Losing touch with your partner emotionally, sexually and mentally.
- Changing over time and feeling that you and your partner are no longer on the same wavelength.
- Not wanting to cause conflict.
- No longer finding your partner attractive.
- Thinking "the grass may be greener" somewhere else.
- No longer having as much energy for the relationship.
Be prepared for feedback and practice listening
If you want your relationship to be happy and healthy, it's going to take work. Yes, relationships can be fun and exciting, particularly in the beginning "honeymoon phase." But even the most compatible people are going to find that they have to work to help their relationship grow over time and to survive the long haul.
Too often, there is an ideal that we are supposed to meet someone, fall in love, and all pieces are supposed to fall together like some sort of fairytale. This is definitely not reality. Your partner is going to bother you from time to time and you are going to bother them. You may find that you get bored at times with the monotony of day-to-day life. Each of you may be tired and just trying to make it through the daily grind. These are all normal issues and all can be worked through.
But be prepared to listen to each other, and own your part in each issue. Work on not being defensive by tracking yourself closely. Pay attention to your urges and try to keep your breathing even and consistent before you respond. It's OK to take breaks during this process. Not everything is going to be solved in one sitting.
Doing this once and then falling back into the same old habits is just not going to cut it. If you want a relationship that is strong and can stand the test of time, both parties must commit to consistently taking inventory of the relationship, their part in all issues, and working through them. The good news: The more you do this, the less uncomfortable it gets.
Just like a car, the better you care for your relationship, the better it will be to you and the happier you will both be in the long run.
Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC, is clinical director at Life Stone Counseling Centers. She is certified in EMDR through EMDRIA. Learn more about her by visiting www.lifestonecenter.com or email email@example.com.