Why do I feel lost in relationships?
Why relationships get unhappy
DEFAULT: You describe a great many unhappy relationships in your book. What are the main causes of couples breaking up?
Sissel Gran: People break up when they feel lonely, invisible, and unimportant in the relationship for a long time. At least it's the couple relationships that I focus on in my book. There are of course other reasons for separation such as repeated physical violence, substance abuse, constant cheating or forms of emotional terror, but that's not my core issue. I concentrate on describing couples in whom violence or abuse was not an issue, but who felt the relationship was still very painful and the separation was perceived as a threat - as a threat to one's own self-image.
DEFAULT: Are there actually classic patterns in couple relationships?
Gran: There is a typical division of roles: Most of the time, one part of the partnership is interested in pursuing the relationship, while the other part withdraws. This pattern then applies to every conflict or disagreement, no matter how small. This pattern becomes a trap in the long term, because all arguments follow the same pattern over and over again. This is painful for the couple themselves, but also for the children who grow up in such an atmosphere. It's like a war zone in which everyone moves on tiptoe so as not to start a fight. This situation often leads to a deadly silence.
DEFAULT: Is there actually a typical male and female behavior in this area?
Gran: I think so. When women feel desperate that their relationship is breaking up, they tend to become so-called persecutors because they see it as an attempt to keep in touch. This can manifest itself, for example, in a very sarcastic tone or in constant nagging, in many outbursts of wine or in constant and uninterrupted talking. All of this happens in order to win the partner over to the relationship after all.
DEFAULT: But it's probably totally counterproductive, isn't it?
Gran: Exactly, with this behavior you usually push your partner even more on the defensive or the refusal. Often this ends in the fact that the person literally walled himself in.
DEFAULT: How is that expressed?
Gran: It can be a complete passivity, a lack of commitment. Many also describe it as coldness or indifference. The truth is that a lot of men just don't know what to say or do, and so freeze up. This openly displayed indifference only increases the partner's despair. The more desperate she tries, the calmer the partner becomes, trying to calm the situation down by keeping quiet.
DEFAULT: So a vicious circle?
Gran: Exactly. The more a man tries to calm his partner through silence and non-reaction, the more women try to penetrate this wall of silence. So it's like a trap, a rather Kafkaesque situation, and in the end neither partner really understands how and why it could get this far.
DEFAULT: You write in your book that a relationship argument is evidence of a very close relationship. What do you mean?
Gran: When couples argue, they are often fighting for the love of the other but are not even aware of it. They're struggling to get back together, you might say. Quarreling is always a sign of an emotional connection. Alone: The two parties to the dispute do not look behind the emotional scenes of the other. So if the arguing stops, that is superficially good, but it can also be a warning sign that the relationship is really in danger. That both have withdrawn, so to speak.
DEFAULT: Is it all a matter of interpretation?
Gran: People are different, and so are relationships. In unhappy relationships, however, there almost always comes this point where both give up and withdraw. So it's kind of burnout for those who, up until then, have tried to actively pursue a relationship. However, this withdrawal is often misinterpreted by the partners.
DEFAULT: As what?
Gran: Often it is interpreted to mean that everything is okay again. The end of an argument is not seen as resignation, but it is often exactly that. That is why many men experience it as a great surprise when their partners leave them.
DEFAULT: Can couples therapy even help in such wedged situations?
Gran: I do think it's a good idea to get professional help. Because then there is the chance to recognize destructive patterns in relationships. For example, many people in unhappy relationships find it very difficult to forgive. These are then always the same experiences in the past that are referred to in the dispute. This could be a past affair or some other situation in which part of the couple felt betrayed. If you don't heal such wounds, it's like a couple keeps twisting in the same dance of hurt feelings.
DEFAULT: What would be another way of looking at hurt feelings?
Gran: What outwardly expresses itself as anger or defensive behavior is actually sadness, shame, a longing or a fear. Feelings like love and hate can be simultaneous and contradicting. This is very difficult for most to understand and even more difficult to put into words. Therapists can play an important role as mediator and help couples avoid falling into the same traps over and over again.
DEFAULT: What role do children play in such messy situations?
Gran: Many people believe that having a child can save a partnership. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. If a couple has problems, so will if they are parents. Children by no means make life easier, they just make life more meaningful. Having children in order to become happy is definitely not a good idea.
DEFAULT: But often couples stay together precisely because of the children.
Gran: That's true. Couples fight harder for relationships when there are children. There is simply a lot more at stake, there is a lot more to lose.
DEFAULT: Is a breakup always terrible for children?
Gran: If there is a permanent kind of fighting zone at home, a separation for children can also be a relief, especially if violence, abuse or drug use are involved. On the other hand, civilized separations are just as difficult, because children then often simply do not understand why their parents separate. In any case, divorce is never easy for children to cope with - they want mother and father to stay together.
DEFAULT: What does a separation mean in the long term?
Gran: Children usually do not want to burden their parents and would actually always say when asked that everything is fine. Children just don't like to hurt their parents' feelings. Most of them feel quite homeless after their parents split up and don't know where they belong. Then there is always the question of whether father and mother bind each other again - and what it is like for the other parent. It may be that children have to cope with inequalities. The alternating living with father and mother is also exhausting.
DEFAULT: So you suffer damage from it?
Gran: It's too drastic. I only hear very often from children of divorce that their parents' separation has affected them so much that they actually couldn't discover their own feelings. You don't feel, so you don't know yourself very well either. I think that parents who split up also have to accept that their children are sad, that they are angry, or that they are protesting. It is important to take these feelings seriously and to keep listening to your children and talking to them.
DEFAULT: Why are divorces still seen as big failures in the 21st century?
Gran: The ability for couples to break up is an achievement. I think everyone is aware of that. But for certain people it is still tainted with shame. And in reality, divorce is always a very tough situation for whoever is leaving and who is being abandoned.
DEFAULT: In what way?
Gran: If you are the one who is leaving, you have to deal with the fact that others see you as selfish or cruel. Most of the time, the abandoned person gets a lot more sympathy from others. And although that would actually be consoling, you feel ashamed because you have de facto been abandoned, that is, you are no longer wanted. Something is breaking. Many of my clients who have been abandoned feel broken, defenseless, and worn out - some even years later.
DEFAULT: Whoever cheats is bad, whoever is betrayed is good. Is it a cliché or is it true?
Gran: It's true that someone who goes out of a relationship is seen as a bad person. Being unfaithful or leaving your partner because you fell in love with someone is still considered a sin. On the other hand, there are really many ways to cheat on your partner without cheating.
DEFAULT: You write in your book that there are two rules in a good partnership. Which are they?
Gran: Rule number one: "Hold me, be there for me when I need you." So it's about the relationship to one another. Rule number two has more to do with mutual recognition and understanding: "Know me, be aware of me and be a witness on my path in life." When these two rules are broken, the partner feels alone, isolated, and sometimes invisible.
DEFAULT: So two lonely rocks in the surf will never be a couple?
Gran: Most couples do not split up because they have found another partner, they split up because they have found someone who perceives them more than who they think they are. You leave a relationship to find your true self again. And to feel alive again.
DEFAULT: So when should a couple definitely break up?
Gran: When you have the feeling that you are disappearing, when you experience yourself as a stranger or when you lose all your trust in yourself. A woman once said to me: "My husband never wanted to talk about my subjects, my feelings and thoughts never counted for him." When she left him she felt guilty, but she also felt a great relief.
DEFAULT: Are there happy breakups?
Gran: Yes, it just often takes a while. Most of the time, couples meet again in a friendly way after a certain amount of time. And it is often the case that the partner who did not want to break up is much happier in a new partnership. It is rather rare to remain unhappy in the long term. More than 90 percent of all separated couples get along well after a certain period of time.
DEFAULT: How can you take care of your relationship?
Gran: I think every partnership has three levels of relationship: the me, the you and being a couple. So the couple is the we, the emotional bond. Each we are unique, it is the mental and emotional expression of commonality. When people separate, this foundation is shaken for the first time because the we is gone.
DEFAULT: Your advice?
Gran: People in partnerships should ask themselves more often what would be good for their common us. You should take care of us. Sometimes that can mean putting the self a little in the background. A lot of people are just very self-centered. If you focus more on the we, divorce rates would certainly go down.
DEFAULT: What helps in a crisis?
Gran: The hardest thing for most people is admitting that they just behaved very badly and asking for forgiveness. Instead, many seek justification for their behavior, portray themselves as victims, scream or withdraw completely.
DEFAULT: What instead?
Gran: Admit weaknesses, show vulnerability. Instead of yelling in anger, it is surely better to say that you are ashamed, that you feel rejected. Or that you feel ugly or mean. Or stingy or unwanted. These are usually the root causes of anger in partnerships. When couples reveal themselves to one another, when they talk about their fears and worries, they usually get through tough times better. Because they just know each other well.
DEFAULT: What hard times?
Gran: It can be a lot. Children are a great challenge for a partnership, but also illnesses or situations in which you lose your job or have a stupid affair. If you know each other well, it is easier to get over such crises. If you are aware of each other's weaknesses, you can build lasting relationships. (Karin Pollack, June 23, 2019)
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