Friday, March 6, 2009

Round and Round: Virtuous and Vicious Circles in Relationships

Image from Flicker use POSITiv, used under a Creative Commons license.

Earlier today, figleaf got me thinking about what it takes to keep a long-term relationship happy and not just bumbling along on life support. He wrote:
Relationship Tip #1: Caring *deeply* isn't the same as caring *perfectly.*

Much relationship [stress?] derives from confusing the two. One can wind up feeling more love, and feeling loved, when one understands the difference.

This can be a huge source of either conflict or generosity in a relationship. (And not just romantic ones.)

(The rest of his post is here.)
This made me reflect on the dynamics that kick in when people stop feeling the love. While I may sound like I'm being an old curmudgeon, taking a basically upbeat piece of advice and twisting it into its unhappy negative, what I really want to think about is how a moribund relationship can be turned around again. I’ll apologize in advance for being awfully abstract; it’s because I’m thinking about other people’s relationships, not just my own, and also because even when it comes to my own concrete experiences, they aren’t mine alone. Either way, I don't want to suggest I'm referring to anyone in particular, living or dead, human or feline, since this post isn’t about airing dirty laundry. (Though I’m sure it would be more juicy that way: I could create a bunch of fake people and give them pseudonyms, pretending that I'm writing for Cosmo instead of Kittywampus, and then we could proceed to discuss erotic uses for hair scrunchies).

I completely agree that in a basically happy, sound relationship, partners give each other the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think many grownups expect perfection. When one person goofs up – as will inevitably happen from time to time – the other partner cuts them some slack. Patience and good will beget more of the same in a kind of virtuous circle. I’d go so far as to say that this virtuous circle is a hallmark of a good relationship.

But this spirit of generous forbearance sometimes goes missing even though both people care deeply about each other. When that happens – in my experience, anyway – a lot of the gap between the depth (or even the fact) of one person’s caring, and what the other person actually perceives, comes down to communication. When a person repeatedly sends mixed signals over a sustained period of time, or just assumes that their partner knows they’re loved, it tends to obscure the caring, no matter how real or deep. Mixed messages can communicate indifference, coldness, lack of appreciation, or put-downs – even though affection isn’t dead. Sometimes both parties are equally involved in the communication breakdown; sometimes it's mainly one partner who checks out, leaving the other to wonder what happened. Either way, over the long run a recipient of mixed messages will likely stop defaulting to the assumption that their partner really does care.

At that point, the benefit of the doubt is hard to maintain, and if one partner feels that the other has withdrawn, they may reflexively do the same to protect themselves from further hurt. And this sets in motion the vicious cousin of the virtuous circle. In place of generosity come hurt, anger, alienation, and quarreling about seeming trivialities, often simmering at a low level and only occasionally boiling over. Can’t we all think of couples who’ve been frozen into this zombie-like state for years upon years – people who are actually pretty well matched and could be happy again if only they could find ways to recapture that basic sense of good will?

I’m not suggesting that generosity must be earned, or that it’s a tentative gift that can and should be withdrawn capriciously. I’m saying it can erode over time when communication is cavalier or downright hurtful, or when partners feel taken for granted.

Turning a vicious circle back to a virtuous one does usually require confrontation in order to get back to that place of generosity. And that may involve outright conflict, especially when one partner sees a problem and the other is satisfied with the status quo (or dissatisfied but unable to imagine anything better). I’ve seen that it can be turned around, but it’s hard and it only works if both people, eventually, are willing to talk about what went awry in the first place and work toward avoiding the problem in the future.

Without a willingness to confront those mixed signals – not with conflict as an end in itself, but as the first step toward reclaiming a spirit of generosity – I wonder if my own marriage might have ended up in the ranks of the undead. Instead, it’s in a mostly happy place. Given my druthers, I’d live a life free of conflict, because nothing stresses me more; nothing makes me unhappier, in the short run. Maybe that’s why it took me 40 years to figure out that avoiding conflict would make me even unhappier in the long run. But having finally begun to understand that picking one’s battles doesn’t mean avoiding them entirely, I’m now skeptical of the idea that there’s a disconnect or dichotomy between “conflict” and “generosity.”

But if confrontation stops at the conflict stage, that too is a vicious circle. I think that sometimes, the simple act of both partners clarifying their intentions, stating their intentions out loud instead of assuming that they’re evident to the other – simply saying “yes, I still love you and can’t imagine life without you” – can be the next step in the process. Somehow, one has to move through conflict and toward a real rapprochement. Substituting careful for casual communication is a pretty good start. Maybe that’s screamingly obvious, but if so, it’s much easier to say it than to live it.

And then eventually, there has to be the sort of forgiveness and mutual understanding that lets history become history. That, too, is hard, but it's not impossible, and if you can actually get there, it's so, so worth it. The thing is, forgiveness can't be rushed or short-circuited. Dwelling on the past isn't especially helpful. However - and maybe it's just my bias as a historian - I think that learning from past mistakes in hopes of not repeating them is the only way to keep the virtuous circle spiraling happily skyward.


Annie L. Bodnar said...

Excellent post. Thank You very much for vocalizing this relationship pitfall. I actually watched my sister's marriage disintegrate in the very way you describe. A hurtful stance was taken by one partner. One could not get past the other's defenses to encourage discussion. Hurt ensued because of being rebuffed and from there the cycle began and was perpetuated. Both were hurt and both were too prideful to put the relationship ahead of the disagreement. They divorced a couple years later.

Recently, the man that I love and I were engaged in just such a standoff. Our disagreement hurt terribly but we couldn't seem to get through to each other. We weren't sure why. Harsh words were thankfully only briefly exchanged but we both felt the other was simply refusing to understand, either on purpose or out of stubbornness. We both felt we were talking around each other. In circles. Finally, I think even at about the same time, we each had to acknowledge that the whole relationship was worth far more than "winning" some kind of argumentative point. The love we have for each other won out. We care about each other deeply not perfectly. I hope we can always keep this goal in sight in the future.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Forgiveness? Hm.

Sent you an email, hope that was the right address.

Sungold said...

Hi Annie, and thanks so much for stopping by with a comment! I'm glad you added some specific stories, because I felt like my post was really too abstract, but I didn't want to hash out stories that aren't just mine to tell. It's funny - I'd feel more free to do that in other settings, but here I'm not wholly anonymous.

In this post I was more thinking about the many relationships that hover somewhere between happiness and divorce court, but you're quite right. This dynamic can very well end a relationship. I don't think it's easy to turn around once it's established - just not impossible.

I'm so glad you and your sweetie got past your standoff.

Daisy - Yes, I got your email. And yes, forgiveness! Sometimes it's really not warranted. But as a last step - *not* as the first one - it's essential. It's also something I really struggle with. I'm not big at holding grudges but that doesn't mean I'm able to wholeheartedly forgive, either. It's hard - so hard that I almost deliberately left it out of the post, because talk about of forgiveness so quickly turns facile.