Some people in relationships might feel as if they’re Alice in Wonderland participating in Mr. Toad's wild ride. And the reverse might be true, with others thinking that they're Mr. Toad partnering with Alice. Metaphorically speaking, relationships can make us feel like we're inside of a washing machine being tumbled and spun around emotionally. And the confusion and frustration associated with our emotions when we’re in such situations can be very draining.
All of us in relationships must realize that we're human and we will experience some measure of conflict with our partners—perhaps a lot, perhaps relatively little. It's my hope in writing this book that I might be able to give some helpful insight about persistently difficult relationships or reasonably good relationships beset with occasional “bumps in the road.”
Perhaps your relationship needs salvation. But what does “relationship salvation” mean? Does it mean relief from a situation in which just one of you finds pleasure? Does it mean getting to a point at which both of you figure out how to resolve conflicts, avoid emotional triggers, and create peace? I define relationship salvation as a situation in which both partners are experiencing some degree of enlightenment and using it to better their relationship.
Enlightenment is a goal that both partners should pursue, and as they do they should work hard on their communication skills. Such skills take time to learn. It's not as simple as reading a book or two or beginning therapy to achieve communication skill improvement. We have to learn to communicate well with our partners and also learn to understand ourselves better. We have to be patient with ourselves, remembering that we are human animals that can have reactionary and defensive natures. And even people who are characteristically even-tempered in their relationships will experience heavy flare-ups from time to time.
One thing that's necessary to ensure healthy relationships is coming to terms with issues that occurred early in our lives, usually in childhood. Past difficulties and emotional deficiencies negatively affect our dealings with others in the present. The bad news is that it is usually painful to overcome the negative emotions linked to our negative past experiences. The good news is that once we deal with those emotions and unpleasant memories, our lives in the present will be much happier and more rewarding. Going through the pain will pay off exponentially, and chief among the many ways that our lives will improve will be improvement in our relationships.
I hope that the following metaphor will help illustrate this. Imagine a little child lost in a forest, panicking, as would most children in that situation. He or she would probably crawl up into a ball and sob and cry. That would seem to be a logical reaction for any creature who felt absolutely helpless. But if you encountered such a child, you would find it difficult to teach him or her that the only way to safety was to go through the forest and come out on the other side.
What you told the child would be the truth. But the child would be too scared to accept it. The child would only consider that the forest is filled with scary things and be convinced that maybe just freezing and not moving would be the best solution. Many of us as grown-ups have the same mindset as that child. We’re just frozen. We go about our lives, but we carry a lot of extra psychological and emotional weight. We carry emotional baggage that we haven't processed. And because we haven't, we’ll engage in acting out behavior to keep our emotions from overwhelming us.
What is “acting out behavior”? It's any behavior that has a negative effect on one's life. The term is usually used in connection with addictions and inappropriate persistent day-to-day actions. Many people don’t have substance abuse issues but have psychological problems in the form of addictive behavior patterns. They may be prone to anger and have frequent flare-ups. They may be addicted to fantasies, movies, obsessive cleaning, out of control spending, or one or more of a great many other things. And although such addictions may not have immediate negative side effects, they will take a very costly toll on the addicts’ lives.
Relationships bring a lot of our emotional pain to the surface. They may bring out behaviors in us that we didn't have when we were single. We may be in a totally different mood when we're in a relationship, and because that’s the case we’ll feel triggered on occasion (and perhaps frequently). And at times we'll regress and react to such triggers as if we were a scared child lost in the woods. Our acting out behavior might show itself mirroring how we inappropriately reacted to things in the past in our families of origin. Or it might mirror how we learned inappropriate reactions dealing with people in society over the years.
There's no question that how we grew up directly affects how we relate to others as adults. If we're having difficulties in relationships, then those difficulties are likely related to earlier problems in our lives. And that's why it's necessary to dig into our subconscious minds and deal with the effects that events of the past had on us.
How long does such a process take?
It takes as long as it takes.
What are the steps involved in such a process?
There are a great many, but one great step for anyone to begin with is to write. People should observe themselves in relationships, write about the events that are triggering them, and encourage their partners to do the same. And when such writing is reviewed it will provide clues to the issues from childhood or youth that are driving a person’s inappropriate behaviors.
I personally find it very puzzling and frustrating that people doubt such logic. And I know that people who do blow such logic off do so at their own expense. But I have to admit that it took close to 30 years of my own life to realize some problem patterns that I had in relationships and face up to my shortcomings.
The frame of reference that I had for relationships with women was based on experiences with my mother, my sister, my grandparents, my aunts, fantasies regarding women in movies, stories prevalent in society, and romantic relationships I had had with women beginning at age 12. I know that my relationships with women are linked to the relationship I had with my mother. And I see that my mother, my father, and others in effect talked to me through my relationship partners.
The writing process has helped me realize many things about how incidents from my past have impacted me. I've been able to understand how about five major extremely influential moments and about two dozen influential moments that were not as extreme have guided my adult behaviors.
I've determined that certain positive experiences were lacking in my childhood. I remember wanting to connect with my father but not being able to. I remember a lot of conflict from my sister (who is two years older than me). I didn't feel the sense of safety and love and appropriate family connection that I should have. And I remember that as family members we were very competitive with each other.
My familial household experience was such that it was sorely lacking in consistent love. My mother was anxious and depressed. My father was mired in many different types of addictions, including food, smoking, and workaholism. Thankfully, he got sober in 1985.
It's interesting to me how I quickly became addicted to various substances when I first became exposed to them. I was addicted to cigarettes at age 13. Then I found marijuana. I got involved with other illicit drugs and with alcohol. I was prone to becoming addicted to virtually whatever was within my reach. I had an “addictive personality,” as many people do. And some don't understand that when they’re given to various excesses outside of (or in addition to) alcohol and substance abuse that they're actually participating in acting out behavior. I didn't understand that myself for many years.
I got clean and sober at age 15 ½, but I went about many things in very unwise and unskillful ways. At a certain point after becoming sober I stopped going to 12-step meetings. After about 15 years of sobriety, though, I slowly pulled myself back into recovery groups and began dabbling in therapy.
Over time I came to realize some of the acting out behaviors that were consuming me. One of my primary problems was my need to constantly be doing something. I've been very physically active for all my life, and I would virtually never take breaks and slow down. I was actually addicted to activity and distraction, and I was unable to live in the present moment when I engaged in such compulsive behavior. Another addiction I had was to fantasy: I envisioned my becoming a super-rich person with lots of possessions and beautiful women at my side.
Regarding my addiction to fantasy, I acted out by engaging in relationships that were based on appearances and other factors that had little to do with who my partners actually were deep inside. As far as my addiction to activity was concerned, I constantly engaged in pursuits such as skydiving and muay thai boxing that tended to be dangerous and provide overwhelming adrenaline rushes.
I made many mistakes in my early years of recovery. I would compartmentalize different types of suffering and live paradoxically. I dabbled with things such as yoga, meditation, and philosophy, finding them intriguing and soothing in the beginning but then abandoning them not long afterwards. And I'd be incredibly busy working most of the time.
Around age 49 I came to really understand how distracted my mind was and how I was subconsciously crafting the chaos in my life. This understanding was a true breakthrough for me. I realized that although I was engaging in and crafting various positive things, I was simultaneously designing my own troubles. I made unwise choices that weren't well-thought-out and experienced the consequences of those choices.
I finally acknowledged the need for me to use a combination of tools in order to achieve happiness. They included therapy, focus on my physical health, reading books pertaining to self-help and psychology, and a number of other things. And meditation was key. When I engaged in focused meditation practices, I was able to get off of the emotional roller coaster rides that I would constantly go on and instead focus on things such as strategic relaxation, contemplation, and gratitude. Meditation, combined with an intense focus on breathing and in conjunction with physical exercise practices such as yoga, helped me adopt a lifestyle of living in the present unhindered by distractions and addictions that had tremendously complicated my life for many years.
What has all this to do with relationships? A great deal. I’m now in a tremendous relationship with the love of my life—my beautiful wife—and it brings me unbridled joy. And I realize that had I not gone through many years of hard work facing up to my own addictions and shortcomings that I would not have been able to sustain it. So it's very important to me to communicate to others how tremendously important it is to overcome one’s own behavioral challenges and unskillful lifestyle patterns. Only when they do so can they make the relationship with their partner become the very best that it can be.