Relationship Trouble: Why It’s Almost Always About You and Not the Other Person

Personal Development
Relationship Trouble: Why It’s Almost Always About You and Not the Other Person post image

This is a guest post written by Barrie Davenport, a life and career coach and founder of Live Bold and Bloom, a blog about fearless living.

“Problems in relationships occur because each person is concentrating on what is missing in the other person. “ ~Wayne Dyer

Our love relationships can bring out the child in us. Not just childish behaviors, although they bring out plenty of those too. I’m talking about the real child we once were umpteen years ago when we lived at home with parents and siblings and two cats in the yard. Or whatever your experience happened to be.

If you had a pretty good childhood without too many traumas or disruptions, then you probably got most of your emotional and physical needs met. If it was a more tumultuous upbringing, then you may still carry some of the scars and unmet needs created during your younger years.

Regardless of the quality of our childhood circumstances, we all transpose the imprinting and experiences we encountered with our parents into our primary love relationships.

Take a look at your spouse or partner. How does this person reflect qualities, either good or bad, in one or both of your parents? How are conflicts or hurts from your childhood played out in the interactions with your beloved? Some people choose a partner who mimics their own parent’s characteristics, while others look for someone distinctly different from their parents. Neither choice is an accident.

Why do we do this? Because it is through our primary love relationships that we strive to finish the business of childhood — getting our needs met and evolving into our authentic selves.

If our love relationship is trusting, healthy and supportive, then we can continue to evolve and heal hurts or trauma from the past. If our relationship is shaky and unhealthy, then the cycle of unmet needs continues and conflict is inevitable.

Every individual carries their unique experiences and perspective into a romantic relationship. It is impossible for even the closest of partners to get inside the others heart and mind to perceive the world through their lover’s eyes.

Add to that the inherent differences in men and women, as well as the possible cultural, social, or economic disparities between people, and it’s a wonder that two individuals can live and love together at all. Thank goodness for biology and chemistry. Without them, we might die out as a race all together!

The reality is that we are all individuals struggling to get our needs met, and we often look to our spouse or partner to take care of that for us.

Oh my, what a distorted vision that is. We see the world through the murky lens of our hurts and desires. When conflict arises, as it always will, we generally see the problem as his or hers — not ours. It becomes a tug of war in which we build defenses to protect our turf and ease our pain.

However, relationship enlightenment dawns when we recognize and accept that the problem is rarely with the other person. It’s within us.

Only by accepting responsibility for our own needs and pain can a mutually satisfying relationship be nurtured. There are exceptions of course. Certainly a partner’s abusive or mentally disturbed behavior doesn’t fit into this paradigm.

But in the average relationship (if there is such a thing), we must always look to ourselves first to begin the end of conflict and create a healthy, loving partnership.

In the heat of the moment, this is quite difficult to do. Buttons are pushed, words are spoken, and feelings spiral out of control.

That’s why most of the work on relationships should be done when things are calm and running smoothly. It’s hard to be rationale and loving when your head is spinning around and you’re frothing at the mouth.The self-work and relationship growth must happen before the first stone is tossed.

So how do we look deeply at ourselves when we are so very sure that our partner is the one who is really messed up?

You may believe with all of your heart that you are right and they are wrong. But guess what? You partner probably believes the same. So often we simply don’t view the situation the same way at all.

The only person you can truly understand is yourself. And the only person capable of changing your reactions and feelings is you. Start with that premise, and you will immediately shift the tone and tenor of the relationship.

Here are some ideas for working on yourself and strengthening your relationship before the next conflict occurs:

  1. Reflect on your childhood. Write down the behaviors and characteristics of your parents that you admire. Then write down those that were hurtful, shaming, embarrassing or unhealthy. What needs in childhood were met for you and what needs were not? Did you feel love and cherished? Were you physically and financially secure? Were you valued and respected? Did you have the freedom to explore and learn? Write down ways that your needs were not met.

  2. Ask your spouse or partner to do the same. Both of you must do this exercise to have a better understanding of each other and how you can support one another. Ask your spouse to write about his/her childhood and answer the same questions listed above.

  3. Study your partner. See how they mirror characteristics of your parents or how their behavior or personality might be highlighting unmet needs from childhood. For example, if you had a parent who was emotionally detached, maybe you’ve picked a spouse who is as well because that felt familiar. Write down the areas where your spouse reflects an area of growth for you. Ask your partner to do the same. Simply having insight into why you chose your partner helps remove anger and blame.

  4. Think about what makes you feel loved. Is it through words? Affection? Quality time together? Gifts? Write down everything that makes you feel cherished and supported in a relationship. You might consider reading the book The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. I’ve linked to his web site which provides a quiz on discovering your own love language. This is a great exercise to do with your spouse or partner so that you can learn more ways to support each other.

  5. What do you need from your partner? You’ve examined your childhood to see what has served you well and where you have unmet needs. Now think about how your partner can support you in getting these needs met. Write down specific requests for actions or behavior changes that you can communicate to your partner. Ask him/her do the same.

  6. What other ways can you get your needs met? No matter how loving and supportive your spouse may be, he or she cannot be responsible for your ultimate happiness or meet all of your needs. Find other ways of filling your tank and finding fulfillment and satisfaction in life. This can be through your career, other friendships, your spiritual life, hobbies, exercise, or simply enjoying your own company. Take full and complete responsibility for your own happiness.

  7. Communicate often with each other. You cannot read your spouse’s mind nor can they read yours. You must be willing to talk about your needs and what you can give. Regular communication before conflict erupts can save both of you from anger and hurt feelings. Our lives are busy, so you may need to schedule this regular communication time. Make it a priority above work, children, or anything else in your life.

  8. During conflict, accept responsibility. When you are in the heat of battle, it is so hard not to lash out. Before you fling another arrow over the wall, take a deep breath and excuse yourself from the conflict if necessary. When you are calmer, ask yourself how you contributed to the problem and what deeper feelings your spouse’s behavior triggered. Examine your feelings rather than the other person’s behavior. What is really behind those feelings? Can you put it into words?

  9. Communicate feelings rather than blaming. Instead of criticizing your partner, talk about your own feelings related to the conflict. This may make you feel vulnerable, but it opens you up to real and loving communication. Try saying “I felt lonely and left out when you went out to dinner without me,” rather than saying, “You were so selfish and thoughtless when you left me at home”. The former focuses our your feelings and doesn’t criticize or point fingers. This language of feeling rather than blaming diffuses defensiveness.

  10. Take ownership of the relationship. Treat your love relationship like a prized garden that you are tending. Water it daily. Pull out the weeds. Admire the growth and beauty of it. If you don’t, the relationship will wither. Don’t let work, children, hobbies, television or other distractions pull you away from this most important daily work.

  11. Go to counseling when things get rough. This seems obvious, but so many couples avoid this like the plague. Yes, it can be unpleasant and painful. But a good counselor can help you navigate the rough waters and guide you toward healing. If you are the only one willing to go, then go by yourself but continue asking your partner to join you. Perhaps if they see you doing the work, at some point they will be willing to participate.

If you would like to read more about transforming yourself and your relationship, I highly recommend the books of Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and his work with Imago therapy.

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21 comments… add one
  • I agree! As I read through, I had a feeling you must have read something by Harville Hendrix and, sure enough, you have. I’m familiar with the 5 Love Languages as well though not as much.

    It’s all so true. Having been married and divorced as well as having had several serious relationships before that, I was able to see a pattern. In fact, through my relationships I got more insight into my childhood. You’d never EVER guess–from outer appearances–that the men I’ve been involved with are very similar, but they are.That’s a reflection of me and what I was used to from my parents, in one way or another (even if none of those men even remotely seemed like my parents; they were similar in certain areas that were most critical for me–and that didn’t work. We go for the familiar, of course. Why wouldn’t we?).

    I’m glad you pointed out the exceptions of abusive or mentally disturbed behavior. Even so, we nevertheless choose –at the very least–who we get involved with, even if that’s because we don’t know what’s healthy for us at the time. Nobody chooses abuse or disturbed behavior that’s impossible to deal with, at least not consciously, and we usually can’t see it at first. But we do choose, nevertheless, and in retrospect, if we look carefully, we can see the hints that were there early on. Red flags. And if that’s what we grew up with, how can we know any different?

    That’s how I look at it, anyway. Also, I don’t so much think “Wow, I chose my ex-husband because he’s unhealthy in ways that are similar to my parents, and that’s why I couldn’t see it because I was used to it.” Rather, I think, “Crap, I just didn’t realize what I needed in the way of healthy attitudes or behavior, etc. enough to say, early on, this isn’t going to work.” More of a positive way of thinking, seems to me.

    Leah

    .-= ´s last blog ..Tip # 6 Blog comments =-.

  • Hey Coach Barrie,

    this is a very comprehensive post on how we can have better relationships. I could not articulate it that clear as you did. It is not about the other indeed. It is about what WE are missing in relationship with the other.

    I love how question 6 reframes how we can fulfill our needs and I believe it is important to talk about our feelings in relationship with the experiences we have together.

    I wish you luck with your writting,

    Ioan

  • Leah,
    Thank you so much for your very thoughtful and personal comments. It is amazing how we get into that pattern of choosing our relationships. I have found that if you see your partner’s behaviors in light of their childhood experiences, it is much easier to be understanding and forgiving. Harville Hendrix’s book was really enlightening for me. I guess you are right, too, about people choosing abusive relationships. It never excuses the abuse, but it sheds light on the choice.
    Best,
    Barrie

  • Hi Ioan,
    Yes, I agree, communication about feelings is the key. Couples must regularly talk about them and acknowledge the other persons feelings. Ioan, it appears from your photo that you have a big heart, so I bet you are good at communicating your feelings!! Thank you for your kind comments.
    Barrie

  • I’ve found that most people have problems in the relationship when they stop accepting each other for who they are. When I start trying to change her or she starts trying to change me, that’s when conflict arises.

    The ultimate goal isn’t to find someone who is perfect for you, it’s to find someone who is good for you and be perfect for them. If everyone did this, we’d all be happier.

    .-= ´s last blog ..5 Ways To Be A Hero =-.

    • Patrick

      Ibrahim, I agree but don’t try to be perfect for her – go for being the best for her that you can be. Perfectionism nearly always leads to failure. Go for excellence, so you might challenge yourself to become better, but perfectionism could be a real killer in all aspects of life and especially in relationships.

  • Patrick I love this blog’s minimal but real distinctive design and especially the high class images you use in posts including a cracker by Barrie on this relationship one.

    Barrie another accomplished post by you as ever. If you are not you certainly have the counselling capability in you as your advice is sensible and based on clear understanding of relationship problems. You identify the issues and suggest simple instructions for moving towards clarity. A triumph and one I hope more people get to see so they make up and don’t break up.

  • I read a book called QBQ, The Question Behind The Question, and though it deals with business, it cuts to the heart of what you are saying. If I have an argument with my wife, the first thing I ask is, “How can I make this better?” Or, “What can I do better in this situation?”

    I always try to look in the mirror before I look out the window.

    • Patrick

      I like that title – The Question Behind The Question. Indeed we should often reflect on what we really want from a situation or a question and often questions are only means to and “end” question – which will lead us to the real answer that we’re after.

  • Angel

    Hi there, I would appreciate some assistance with a situation that I have not yet been able to resolve. My Father died a number of years ago, my mother is unaffectionate towards me and I don’t seem to be able to get through to her. I am beginning to gain success in my career, however rather than support me or share in my happiness, it is as if I am not allowed to be happy, nor have my success, and I feel emotionally blackmailed by my mother, like she is only happy when I am doing something to make her happy. There have been many times I have tried to physically leave her, but each time I have been pulled back. When I was in Sydney I was constantly being told how bad her work was………..then when she developed cancer twice I was so afraid she would die. It was hard enough losing my Dad, to lose my Mum just felt too much, too scary……..instead of my sisters and I becoming closer we seem to have separated further apart……….I think it is my fear of leaving her that is holding me back and I am not sure how to cut this tie…………I would be grateful for your suggestions, and perhaps you can offer me a new perspective on this. Thank you.

    • Patrick

      Angel, first you must understand that you are not responsible for the experience of someone else. Your mother acting unaffectionate towards you might or might not have anything to do with you. She might just been disturbed by the loss of her husband that she might not be able to see or communicate with you in another way than she can right now. You only responsibility is how you process her (and your sisters) behavior for yourself.

      And in every family situation there is a huge lesson to learn – for you this might be to realize that there is no one else responsible for your experience either. Your mother and your sister can’t blackmail you – they can only speak words or do thinks that you decide to interpret in that way.
      You decide on feeling blackmailed or not loved anymore.
      Indeed there is a big fear behind that of loss and a feeling of not being enough for yourself.
      You want to be acknowledged for your career success by your family – but that would only be a compensation for what you really want – a total expression of deep love. And since you are craving for that love, this might be a hint that you yourself have not enough love for yourself (as most of us lack of, don’t feel bad for this lack either).

      Get clear (best by writing a journal) how many things are there that are to love about you. Define for the next 30 days all the aspects of yourself that make you a person that is worthy of unconditional love. And once you found this for yourself, you might not need it from your mother and sisters any more. Then you are free to express your love for them unconditional of them paying you back. And this is mostly the time, when they are able to drop their own walls and send it back to you. Again the keyword here is unconditional. If (and only if) you can love and accept yourself unconditionally then you are free to give that to others (and the universe can send it to you).

      Start with the journal and add every day something new that makes you a love-able person.

  • Donna Willingham

    Wow, what an incredibly useful exercise – it’s certainly made me look at my relationships and what I’ve been looking for along is probably not, ultimately, what will give me the most happiness in life. Can I also share with you an amazing course I did that helped to reassess where I’m going in life. I’d been lacking in confidence and dealing with negativity around areas of my life, but the strategies that Sarah Merron of Fire Dragon Coaching teaches really helped me focus on getting the best out of myself and others around me. She runs courses in Cairo and the Maldives, so it’s a fantastic way to see the world at the same time. Here’s the link if you should ever head that way, I found it had a very powerful effect on my life: http://www.nlp.firedragoncoaching.com/destination-egypt.html

  • I think most martial problems stem form a lack of communication. It is said, the one who cares the least has the most control. Brutally honest and sad, but true. If you want control for your relationship, just care less. Sorry if this sound in sensitives.

    • Patrick

      That might be true in some relationships – but only for the short term. I think not caring about the relationship is the fastest way to end a relationship. Yes you might control the other person by that behavior, but the relation-ship (people relating with each other) has then already died. They are just playing fucking mind games with themselves. Well, some like that. They got to learn some and then some more.

  • Thanks Barrie….and may I add some of my thoughts to your great article….

    You and I are responsible for where we are. You and I are responsible for where we are to go.

    And you and I must take responsibility for all our actions if we are ever to grow and go where we need to go, in order to fulfill our destiny and reach our potential.

    For when you blame you empower those or what you blame. And that weakens you. You are suddenly the victim and not the victor.

    Problems are for solving and responsibility leads to opportunity. Empathy demands responsibility and rather than being detached you can now suddenly become engaged. Rather than life happening to you, you will happen to life.

    When I am responsible I am empowered, I am charged and I am positioned for great success.

  • Dear Coach Barrie,

    My girlfriend, Shaheera, really agrees with your point of “mirror characteristics”. She points out positive similarities of her father’s and mine…:) fuhhhh…what a relief! Happy!

    I consider this as a very deep article but very inspiring and motivating. To be honest, it’s kind of hard for me to digest the information by only reading it once that I need to reread it twice. However, the result is awesome. I feel so excited to do the exercises suggested in here with my girlfriend and feel so relieved when got the chance to learn & know the root cause to problems in relationships.

    The keywords here is to have courage and honesty to utter and discuss further of the things you & your partner need and want in your relationship.

    We plan to do the exercises and share the outcomes with you soon, here. Thank you for sharing information and better relationship methods with us. Keep up good job! Cheers!

    Tariq n Shaheera

  • I believe we tend to lean too much on our partners to meet most, if not all of our personal needs.

    The best relationships are the ones that cause us to expand instead of contracting. We form these relationship models in childhood and bring them with us to every new relationship that we experience.

  • Taking all the blame is a common problem experienced by the martyrs’. We tend to blame ourselves because of what is happening. This is not actually will not work to solve the problem. In fact, it will just make things so complicated. Your partner will actually think that it is you, who should suffer of what is happening. It is very important to have a good communication so that both sides will be given the chance to express what they really feel. It is a most to be honest to what you feel. As a partner try not to argue while the other is talking. Listen and hear him/her out. In this case, breaking up will be prevented.

    • Patrick

      I totally agree. But the problem is in including blame in the first place. I don’t think Barrie was referring to blaming the other person or yourself.

      Stuff just happens in relationships and staying in good communication is the only way to sort things out.

      Yet still most stuff that bothers us in our partner has more to do with ourselves, with our own unresolved issues than with the other person. But we shouldn’t blame ourselves for this. Should take responsibility.

      I think there is a big difference between blaming ourselves for the things that happens and taking responsibility for our own interpretations of thinks that bother us.

      So I think communication is THE essential tool – communication with our partner but also with our self.

  • Before we can have a successful relationship with anyone, we first need a perfect personal relationship.

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