Dr. Justin Hill was an officer in the U.S. Army prior to earning his doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts in 2008. He completed his clinical pre-doctoral Internship and post-doctoral Fellowship training at the VA Boston hospital where he was a Fellow at Harvard Medical... more
Early on in intimate relationships, it is common for partners to overlook each other’s “flaws” or “shortcomings.” We may do it because we are partially blinded by our new love for the other. We may also do it because it makes us feel good to accept the other as a whole – the pleasant and the challenging. While we are taking this perspective, we are usually doing it as a separate individual that is curious about and attracted to a new individual. We have no investment yet in the other person. As time goes by and the relationship progresses, our perspective may start to change, which may lead to conflicts.
If you watch most sports teams at any level, you’ll notice a lot of support for one another. Teammates recognize that they are in it together for a common goal and coming down hard on a fellow teammate doesn’t help the process. They are often bonded together by the long journey of preseason workouts, hours of grueling practices, and the ups and downs that come with victories and defeats during the season. If they start turning on one another, progress is hampered, and the coach must step in to help resolve the conflicts if they are going to continue to move forward as a team.
Intimate relationships can be viewed in a similar light. We embark with our partner on a journey together and share the ups and downs, victories and defeats, that life inevitably brings us. Unfortunately, we often don’t have a “coach” to help recognize early signs of conflict and, when this occurs, it becomes easy for us to turn on one another. Somewhere along the way, the “flaws” and “shortcomings” that were so easily overlooked and maybe even embraced early in the relationship start to become sources of pain, stress, and frustration. The attraction we initially had to our partner’s ability to be carefree and easy going is now appearing as irresponsible and immature. Our love for their great sense of humor early in the relationship has now turned into one more example of how they don’t take enough things seriously. Instead of being the separate individual taking a perspective on the other, our identities tend to become intertwined to the point where our beliefs, ideas, and actions are looked upon as a reflection of ourselves.
When tensions are high, we can easily lose the ability to give our partner the benefit of the doubt. If a situation can be viewed one of many ways (as is often the case), we start to assume that the partner had the worst intentions in mind, as if they intentionally did something to us. Instead of looking at our partner as a teammate, we start viewing them as the opponent who has a vested interest in defeating us. It’s as if proving the other wrong makes us right, and we would rather be right than happy. Since we know that this stance is very unhealthy for teammates of a sports team to have towards one another, imagine how unhealthy and detrimental this stance is intimate relationships.
A helpful way to begin to step back from this perspective, which could be all-consuming, is to shine the light on ourselves rather than the other. Try asking yourself how you feel about your contribution to the “team” that is your relationship. If you feel that you are the MVP and could do little wrong, then of course, in comparison, your teammate will often be a disappointment. This may create frustration and resentment. If, however, you feel like you are not quite worth your partner’s love and you are not pulling your weight on the team, then your actions may start to coincide with your beliefs, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. On some level, you may be sabotaging the relationship so that your partner will finally realize they can do better, thus allowing the partner to find the person you think they deserve and giving you what you believe you deserve.
There is a great scene from a movie in which a college student is asking his elderly coach how he and his wife get along so well and if they share the same beliefs. The coach replies by saying that he doesn’t have the faintest idea what his wife believes, but he believes in her and that is enough for him. The coach didn’t allow himself to get intertwined with his wife’s ideas, beliefs, or actions to the point where whatever she thinks and does becomes a reflection of him. In a paradoxical manner, by keeping this space he is able to be closer to her.
When things become difficult in intimate relationships, rather than focusing on how the other should change, how the other has let us down, and how the other is wrong, it can be more helpful to look inward and reflect on how we are contributing to the relationship. How do we feel about ourselves independently of our partner, and how do these beliefs effect the dynamic of the relationship? Are we giving our partner the benefit of the doubt like we used to in the beginning and like teammates need to do? Can we accept our partner completely for who they are without having their actions, beliefs, and ideas be so tied to our own that we lose all independence? Finally, can we respect our partner’s beliefs and actions without necessarily agreeing with them or even understanding them simply because we believe in our partner?
Addressing these questions can make us a stronger teammate in the relationship and, just as in sports, strong teammates bring out the best in others around them, making the team as a whole even stronger.