FOUR KEYS TO CONQUER RELATIONSHIP STRESS
INNER REALM, 2001
By: Michael S. Isaacs 

We all yearn for good health, abundant supply, and harmonious relationships. If you had to choose the most important of these for your happiness which would you choose?

            I would choose good relationships.

            What good is health, success, and money if your ability to love and be loved is significantly curtailed? If we analyze why most people talk to psychotherapists, we see that it is anxiety about relationships. Something is interfering with the ability to love and be loved.

            Relationship stress is so pervasive that divorce, according to well-established statistics, is the second greatest life stress, the first being the death of a spouse. But even many who stay together suffer the misery and unhappiness of stressed relationships. Why are relationships so stressful?

            Distressed relationships are ultimately about the loss of love or the fear of loss of love. These effects can traumatize the mind and close the spirit. They stir up abandonment fears, feelings of inadequacy, and other intense emotions.        

            Abandonment fears occur to most everyone in every day moments of rejection. These hurts arouse in the conscious and unconscious mind old fears: namely fears that our parents or other key caretakers would leave us. Or even worse, the memory of the times they actually did leave us. I remember vividly a childhood abandonment fear. I was a young child traveling with my mother on a ferry from New Jersey to New York City. I held on to her hand for dear life. The fear of being separated from her hand struck terror in me. It was literally the fear of death. If rejections and hurts occur frequently in a relationship, these childhood fears and memories are often revived in the unconscious and create great anxiety and stress.

            Feelings of inadequacy, being a failure, and of “being not good enough” for the partner are frequent experiences in the life of stressed couples. Criticism or perceived criticism from the one who had previously given unconditional love can be shattering. Recently, a psychotherapy client, threatened with the loss of his wife’s affection, bitterly said: “before we were married I could do no wrong; now I can do no right.”

            Anger, guilt, sadness, disappointment, loneliness, confusion are examples of   difficult emotions that can overwhelm both partners in highly stressed relationships.

            Here are four keys to open the door to avoid the partner stress of rejections by the love object and the fear of such rejections. They are more love of self; more self –knowledge, more reasonable expectations, and better communication. 

            The first key is to love oneself more. How can one love another in a human and spiritual sense without sufficient regard, respect, and worth for the self? One of the verses of a song by Jai Michael Josephs is:

                                                            “I love you just the way you are.

                                                             There’s nothing you need to do.

                                                             When I feel the love inside myself,

                                                             It’s easy to love you.” 

            As a psychotherapist, I have witnessed the pervasiveness of the problem of low self-worth. It seems to be the core of so many symptoms. When we experience emptiness and incompleteness in ourselves, troubles in relationships start. If we are overwhelmed with such emotions as anxiety, fear, anger, shame, guilt, self-hatred, and loneliness, then criticism, blame, and dissatisfaction more readily pours out on to the other and saps love energy.

            In a previous article I wrote for INNER REALM, “Enhancing Your Self-Esteem”, I set forth a six-fold map as to how to combat painful inadequacy feelings: acknowledge them; exercise appropriate self-restraint and self-assertion muscles; embark and stay on a growth path such as psychotherapy and meditation for a sufficient time; establish a support system; and, expand spiritual horizons to realize our identity as a beloved child of the Universe.

            The second key is self-knowledge. We need to understand what prevents us from loving and receiving love. The obstacles usually come from unresolved childhood conflicts. When we were children, in order to adapt and survive, we needed defenses such as denial, rationalization, and intellectualization. But rigid defenses do not serve us well in relationships. Unless we come to understand and overcome these defenses to a degree, we increase the risk that we will unconsciously select a mate with the same negative traits as our primary caregivers. For example, a woman with a father who was physically abusive may select a man who has similar aggressive tendencies, one incapable of satisfying her true needs. An excellent book for insights as to why both parties in a relationship need self-knowledge to heal themselves and the other is GETTING ALL THE LOVE YOU WANT, by Harville Hendrix, PHD.

            The third key to reducing relationship stress is the wisdom of reasonable expectations. Western society idealizes romantic and unconditional love. Our premise is that love is a feeling only. We expect our partner to adulate us forever, just like it was at the beginning romantic stage. When this does not occur, the disappointment in the other may be fatal. Unrealistic demands and the disappointment, hurt, and anger that can follow are outlined in the classic relationship book THE ART OF LOVING by Eric Fromm.

            The fourth key to a less stressed relationship is effective communication. We need to learn how to truly speak and listen. Everyone yearns to be heard, to be understood, to be appreciated. Too often a speaker is prevented from expressing his or her feelings when a flawed listener invalidates or intimidates the speaker, or dimply withdraws. In a very clearly written and excellent book on relationships, FIGHTING TO SAVE YOUR MARRIAGE< Howard Markham, PHD and other researchers teach effective communication, which they call the “speaker-listener” technique.

            In closing, please be assured that there is a science to reduce the formidable stresses of relationships. It can be learned. Do this by increasing self-esteem; building knowledge of self and other, especially unresolved past family conflicts; reducing unreasonable expectations about love; and learning better communication.



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