Family, Human Nature, Life, Living, Oppression, Quality of Life, Self-Knowledge

When Relationships Turn to Stone

SUMMARY:  The peculiar fact that couples can get into ruts that neither partner wants, but which both think the other one does.  Three possible reasons for such ruts are miscommunication, lack of complete self-knowledge, and personal change.

(About a 5 minute read)

A curious thing happened some years ago when a couple I knew broke up.  Since I tried to stay in touch with both of them, I was privy to how each of them took the break up.  After a predictable period of grief, both found other partners almost at the same time.  And that’s when the strangeness began.

Each in turn confided in me that they felt “liberated”.  But not from anything evil — they had not broken up because one or the other of them was a bad person.  They had simply failed to see eye to eye on so many issues their relationship became untenable.  What each assured me he or she felt liberated from was the “rut” they’d been in.

But that wasn’t all of it.  It wasn’t even the surprising part.  What astonished me was when now and then the two of them would — without knowing what the other had said — “agree” that it was the other person who had liked or disliked something — not them themselves.

For instance, both agreed that it had been the other one who disliked movies so much that they hadn’t gone to more than a very few.  Moreover, both thought it was the other one who liked how hard their bed had been when they were together.   Each told me that he or she liked movies much more than the other one, and preferred a softer mattress.

There were perhaps as a half dozen such things — enough to make me suspect I’d find even more if I questioned them close enough (which, of course, I wasn’t about to do).

To top it off, both had seen their relationship as confining and stifling.  “There was so much more I wanted out of it than he did”, the woman told me, “but we only did the same things over and over.  We never did anything new.”

I since then noticed that many people — after a period of grief following a break-up — often enough go through some kind of buoyant period during which they try out all sorts of things they say they were unable to try out during their relationship because their ex didn’t want anything to do with them.  But that’s been the only time I’ve heard both sides of the story more or less equally.

Still, I suspect the two people who each thought the other was the reason they had fallen in a rut aren’t the only two people like that in the world.  For one thing, human nature is prone to falling into ruts.  We can do quite well getting into them alone, but couples get into them too.  Very much so.  And when couples get into them, it can be even more difficult than it is for individuals to get out of them.  After all, it now takes two people — and not just one — to wish to get out of the rut.

There appear to be multiple reasons couples are prone to ruts — including some very deeply rooted psychological reasons — but in this post I would like to focus on a few much less profound, but much more preventable reasons.  The first of those is miscommunication.

I have noticed in my own relationships that something as seemingly insignificant as a single misunderstood phrase or sentence can lead to my partner mistakenly thinking I like something I don’t like, or dislike something I do like.  Sometimes these things get sorted out, and sometimes they are not all that important.

However, I learned only after I was married to my first wife that she thought travel was as important to me as it was to her — and that we’d be devoting a significant portion of our budget to it!  Apparently for no reason that either one of us could recall.  This was after we’d been together eight years prior to getting married.  Sometimes even very important miscommunications do not get sorted out in time for a happy ending.

Another reason couples can give each other false impressions of what they like or don’t like is because they don’t completely know themselves.  I have long suspected that most of us don’t really know ourselves as well as we think we do.  That’s in some large measure because there is so much to know.  Even the simplest people could write books about themselves and still not cover all there is to know about them.

Add to that the fact we can be wrong about ourselves.  So when couples ask each other about their preferences, it’s only nature that some of what’s said is false or incomplete.  If someone were to ask me whether I like contemporary popular music, I’d be inclined to tell them no.  But what do I really know about it?  Have I ever sat down to listen to a wide enough variety of it intently and often enough to make a genuinely informed decision?  No.

A final reason couples might fall into ruts that fail to meet their likes and dislikes is because we change.  At the beginning of a relationship, you might not like brown stew.  By the time the relationship has gone on for a while, you tastes might have changed.  But unless you’re aware of your tastes changing — which is not always the case — you and your partner might not put brown stew on the menu because there was a time when you didn’t like it.

So I think there might be a number of reasons couple fall into these strange ruts in which they either refuse to do something that both (unknown to each other) want to do, or they do something that neither (unknown to each other) wants to do.  Of those reasons, the three I’ve singled out here are miscommunication, lack of complete self-knowledge, and personal change.  But I believe there are more.

Questions?  Comments?

19 thoughts on “When Relationships Turn to Stone”

  1. It’s always someone else’s fault. Self reflection and personal honesty. If all you do is look to please others, you will find it difficult to be happy with yourself. Then again, we all have our own idiosyncrasies from time to time. We aren’t patient with ourselves, how can we expect others to be patient with us?

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  2. We all need open honest communication to make any relationship work … grocer or partner! You are right often our tastes change or we haven’t explored all the options but also we often say things to please each other without thinking it through … good clear communication is vital 🙂

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  3. So very true. My husband and I split up for a couple of years. We had fallen into a rut, and then tried a couple of things to get out of the rut, fell into trouble, couldn’t communicate and broke up. After a couple of years, and therapy, we got back together and now… we communicate. We actually fight, where we never would before. Who would say that was an improvement? For us, it was.

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    1. Fascinating story! I used to think fighting was the sign of a weak relationship, but then I read of studies that showed it wasn’t — that couples that fought could be just as strong as couples as couples that didn’t fight.

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  4. Good analysis Paul. I think such issues need not lead to the end of a relationship (assuming that the other is not “bad”) as long as people see marriage as something which is till “life do us part.” Then automatically there is a desire to communicate better and improve. There is no other way.

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      1. I can’t say about your second wife, but from my personal experience I have realised the key to a good relationship is communication, even if you are fighting. Assumptions and stonewalling are absolute no-nos. We should stop playing the mind reading game and second guessing.

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  5. I guess communication is the key. We often don’t talk and assume the other person would initiate a conversation. There is so much that goes on, ego, pride, the I-am-right and probably assuming the other person won’t listen.

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  6. The intricacies of relationships are plenty, aren’t they? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why relationships fail, but I agree that the elements you’ve talked about (miscommunication, evolution of self, personal change, etc) all play a role in determining the direction in which the relationship goes. Which then ultimately makes me feel that the health of a relationship is determined by the partner’s flexibility of allowing each other to grow and change (individually, and then eventually, jointly) as a couple. That takes patience, understanding, and curiosity; as long as they genuinely trust, respect, and love each other, they will find ways to accomodate the changes in their lives. After all, everything changes, nothing stays static. If your relationship isn’t built with the allowance for evolution, it isn’t healthy. And when it isn’t healthy, it doesn’t last. Just my two cents!

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