Is anxiety over relationship issues making you feel depressed?
Our ideas about love are mostly based on the belief that there’s a soul mate somewhere out there for all of us and that when we see them, we’ll recognise them; we’ll get that special feeling, and it won’t be just a passing thing, it’ll last forever.
These romantic ideas are beautiful and exciting, but they’re also very challenging for our capacity to have good long-term relationships. So, if we want to enjoy loving, nurturing, rewarding relationships, feel less anxious, and not get overwhelmed by depression, we could consider letting go of some of our romantic ideas.
A more realistic view might be that none of us is perfect; in fact, we’re all a little crazy! None of us makes it through early childhood and adolescence without getting distorted in some way. Unfortunately, we generally all have low levels of self-knowledge, as most people don’t describe to us honestly how they experience us. As a result, we think we’re easy to live with and that all we need is the right person, then we’ll be happy and fulfilled. But, are we easy to live with? I’m certainly not, and that sounds like a dangerous false sense of security to get lulled into. How much more helpful would it be to get some insight into our imperfections and to learn to know, accept and love ourselves for who and how we are?
What do we know about love?
The way that we love as adults reflect the way we learnt about love as children. We spend our adulthood unconsciously trying to find the kind of love that we knew as children, but that love wasn’t necessarily problem free and may have been full of difficulties. So, we think we’re looking for someone to love us and make us happy, but in fact, we’re looking for someone who feels familiar. When we don’t find that it can feel “wrong”, as if something’s missing, but it could simply be that the partner we’ve found won’t make us suffer as we subconsciously expect to suffer or feel unhappy in the way that we’ve learnt to expect love will make us unhappy. If we don’t “know” ourselves, we can easily be attracted to others, not because of their positive traits but because they feel familiar, even though ultimately, they may frustrate many of our hopes and dreams.
When we do find what feels familiar, we feel like we can totally be ourselves, be accepted, but that can also lead to problems, and we can learn to hold back the parts of ourselves that feel unacceptable. Unfortunately, that can lead to feelings of resentment and frustration which don’t really fit with our romantic ideas about love. Neither do housework or paying bills, so with the addition of these practical problems it’s hardly any wonder that once the honeymoon period is over our relationships can leave us feeling anxious and depressed.
There are other problems too. We often believe that we should be able to understand one another without having to explain ourselves: our soul mate will intuitively understand us without the need for words (they should know how we feel, we shouldn’t have to tell them!), and this can often lead to sulking and more resentment. In reality, our partners will guess some things, but not everything - they’re not mind readers. We also often believe that when we really love someone, we must love everything about them, including their vulnerabilities and fragilities... until something about them really annoys us! Then this feels uncomfortable: if we love someone, we shouldn’t criticise them, should we? And then there’s sex, the ultimate expression of love. When it comes to sex, we want excitement, but we also want safety and loyalty. That’s really challenging as these things are not very compatible - in fact, they’re almost opposite!
It might be more helpful to think of love simply as admiration for the positive virtues, qualities and accomplishments of another. We can be generous towards and forgiving of, their “flaws”, but that’s not why we love them. Then love can be a process of mutual education. We can let them know about their “flaws” in a straightforward and loving way and they can do the same for us; everyone can benefit!
What?! I hear you say. That sounds impossible! Well, it’s certainly different from the way most of us communicate in relationships, and unfortunately, if we try to do this, we often end up not doing it very well, with the result that our partner stops listening to us, which results in us trying harder, more loudly, often more rudely, to get our message across. Before we know it, nagging has set in and we’re trying to force them to hear us after they’ve completely switched off, which only leads to more resentment, anxiety and sometimes depression.
What skills do we need to develop to communicate in more effective ways?
If we can learn to see our partner as a small child and come up with gentle explanations as to why their behaviour seems bad, we’ll be more likely to remember that we don’t believe that they’re bad. Instead, we’ll realise that they must in some way be anxious or hurting and that we want to help them: we love them. This will make it much easier not to take their behaviour as a personal attack or a demonstration of how they don’t love us. It can be hard to practice this as our partner doesn’t look like a small child, and since we can’t see psychological wounds it’s hard to make allowances for them. It’s good to remember that most of us are not bad, we’re just frightened. Also, comedy and humour are important: if we can think of our partner as “our loveable idiot”, rather than just “an idiot”, that will help us to feel loving compassion rather than self-righteous judgment.
The truth is, there is no such thing as a perfect person or a perfect partner. We don’t always have to stick with people: some relationships just don’t work. If all the things that are causing us anxiety or making us depressed are due to our partner, then it may be time to go. But if not, or if we’re currently not in a relationship, it may be time for us to look inside ourselves and discover what’s going on with us, and what we need as an individual.
If this is where you are, then counselling could really help you work out how you’re a little crazy and why, and then discover how to feel good about yourself despite that, to really own who you are. You can then go on to learn how to ask for what you need from others in a way that works for everyone, eliminates anxiety and gives you new hope for your future.
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