No couple is immune. Author and experienced psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters, Ph.D., outlines common relationship traps people fall into at some point, and by explaining some of these snares, we can shed light on ingrained narratives around intimacy.
Relationship Trap 1: I Will Not Confront You Because I Do Not Want To Hurt You
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to upset you”, may sound good on the surface, perhaps even noble, but are usually little more than ‘denial in caring’s clothing’, whether consciously or unconsciously animated. The comments are not really intended to spare our partner pain, but rather to keep us as far away as possible from our own pain or discomfort, including that of directly confronting what we are actually doing. How ironic it is that our supposed effort – however apparently considerate – not to hurt our partner actually hurts them, sooner or later, more than direct disclosure. In our stated intention not to confront them because we don’t want to hurt them, we sound, or at least want to sound, as if we are there for them and are being considerate. In reality we are probably not. Instead of being transparent in front of our partner, or ‘upfront’, we are elsewhere, desperately trying not to rock the boat, facing not our partner, but something less challenging (like being resolutely nice).
If we are afraid to confront our intimate other (assuming that it is not dangerous to do so), then it is important to make good use of that fear, through our own efforts, together with our partner, or through professional help. Relationships devoid of confronting are relationships that are flat or stale, relationships that are more about surviving than thriving, caught up in a numbing by niceness, a deadening that rejects the depths and invests far too much in the shallows. Just as avoiding death deadens us, so too does avoiding confrontation. Confrontation does not have to be hell. It can be a life-enhancing challenge, compassionate combat, and intimacy-deepening fieriness, as vulnerable as it is intense. Confrontation can be love. Bypassing it only deepens as well as reinforces our sense of suffering.
Relationship Trap 2: I Cannot Live Without You
This is not the voice of love, however romantically framed. Desperation is not love, any more than addiction is. “I can’t live without you” is the cry of a victim, a cry that, however unwittingly, is infused with manipulation. As such, it is but ‘emotional blackmail in need’s clothing’. “I can’t live without you” is not a proclamation of love, but of a lazy incompleteness, and I say “lazy” because the one stating “I can’t live without you” wants and perhaps expects you to complete them, to make them feel better or more whole, instead of actually doing the work of accessing happiness or wholeness for themselves. We can only enter into truly intimate relationships when we already are fully functioning without having, or needing to have, such a relationship. Yes, we’d love to have it, but we’ll still keep on living, and living well, without it. No desperation, no neurotic dependency on another, no looking outside ourselves for wholeness; these are some of the ingredients for real intimacy in a relationship.
When you encounter another saying “I can’t live without you,” ‘fierce compassion’, emanating not only for care for that person, but also a firm no to that behavior, is the primary remedy. Anything less will drain you. The neediness at the core of “I can’t live without you” asks not for indulgence, repression or shaming, but compassionate exposure as well as healthy redirection for most couples. It is important to enter into relationships not to be made complete or whole, but rather to share, expand and deepen our already established and ever evolving sense of completeness or wholeness. Then we don’t burden our relationship with the obligation to make us feel better or more whole or more secure, but instead allow it to be an expression and furthering of our already-present connection with each other.
Relationship Trap 3: Making Nice Makes Things Better
“Making nice” simply keeps what is not working in a relationship from any telling intervention. Instead of trying to keep things nice, be authentic. Being authentic can mean being soft and gentle, and it can also mean being firm and fiery. Making nice doesn’t make waves, leaving a relationship afloat atop a stagnant sea. Making nice at best keeps things as they are, but mostly only makes things worse, by not allowing them their needed illumination and deepening.
Relationship Trap 4: I Am Doing The Best I Can
This is perhaps the most popular excuse of all, making a mockery of accountability. Most who believe it also usually believe it of everyone. The notion that we are doing the best we can lets everyone off the hook, including us, for then we don’t have to ruffle any feathers, raise any hackles, kick up a storm, make a fuss, or otherwise confront anybody. Such a belief robs us of autonomy and accountability, implying as it does that we don’t really have a choice as to what we do. If we view others just as products of their conditioning, then how can we hold them responsible for what they did? After all, they couldn’t help it, or could they? There’s also a fear of actually recognising that they did make a choice when, for example, they hurt us, for if we do see this, then what are we going to do? Can we then remain muted children in adult bodies? To move beyond such ‘adult-erated’ stances, we have to stop hiding behind facile phrases like “I’m doing the best I can” or “Everyone makes mistakes” or “I’m just human.” Such alibis set the bar very low.
When you are being unkind to your partner, and know that you are doing so, are you really doing your best? And what about when “doing our best” is simply not good enough? For example, if doing my best means that I’m remaining a drug addict and am refusing to get any treatment, then what? “I’m doing the best I can” places us in the domain of blind compassion (neurotically tolerant, confrontation-phobic, undiscriminating ‘caring’), framing us as victims and enabling us to stay that way. Such ‘compassion’ diminishes and disempowers us, whereas real compassion empowers us to take the necessary action, however painful that might be.
Relationship Trap 5: I Did Not Mean To Hurt You
‘But you did!’ ‘Yes, but I didn’t mean to!’ This claim may be accompanied by supportive assertions like ‘I don’t know what got into me’ or ‘I wasn’t myself’ or even, ‘You know I’d never hurt you’. Explanation and excuse mix indiscriminately, muddying what little clarity is present. If I didn’t mean to hurt you, what exactly did I mean? And when I did hurt you, was I really doing the best I could? So much of this hurt is entangled with unacknowledged shame regarding our failure to treat our partner well. To untangle the claim that ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’ and get to its roots, we not only need to expose our shame over the hurt we caused, but must also separate and see the threads of self which are implicated in our hurtful behavior. That side in me that hurt you and that in me which is incapable of hurting you are both inclined to refer to themselves as ‘I’– while what ‘I’ truly am is limited to neither, and in fact includes both.
I am more than the ‘I’ that hurt you, and more than the ‘I’ that insists on not having meant to hurt you, but I am nevertheless responsible for what I allow those aspects of myself to do. When they assume the role of self – that is, when I identify with them – who else can be responsible for that, besides myself? Even if I don’t notice I’ve identified with a certain aspect of myself, I am responsible for my lack of awareness, just as a drunk driver is responsible for the person he hits and kills, however unaware he was of that person crossing his path. So when I hurt you and say I didn’t mean to, I’m just passing the buck, disowning the ‘me’ who did the hurting. My assignment here is to blow the whistle on myself for my irresponsibility and denial, and to non-defensively receive your refusal to buy my denial – which of course unblocks my shame over what I’ve done, so that healing can occur.
To untangle the claim that ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you’ and get to its roots, we not only need to expose our shame over the hurt we caused, but must also separate and see the threads of self which are implicated in our hurtful behaviour.
Relationship Trap 6: Sex Is Supposed To Make Me Feel Better
If we believe this – as all too many do–we easily can get quite driven about having it regularly. But why should sex have to make us feel better? What if we came to sex already happy, already relaxed, already open and loving and energized, instead of expecting sex to produce all this for us? We need to stop assigning our sexuality to slave labor in the sweatshops of our neuroses and unaddressed needs. If we, for example, are tense or anxious or insecure, why should sex have to be an outlet for our tension or anxiety or insecurity? Only when we release sex – and everything else – from the obligation to make us feel better, will we start to feel truly better.
If we, for example, are tense or anxious or insecure, why should sex have to be an outlet for our tension or anxiety or insecurity? Only when we release sex – and everything else – from the obligation to make us feel better, will we start to feel truly better.
Relationship Trap 7: I Will Try
Try to pick up the mouse or pen or any small object near you. If you actually picked it up, put it back down, for I didn’t say to pick it up but only to try to pick it up. Trying carries within itself a counter-effort (usually in the form of inertia, self-braking, or self-sabotage) that ordinarily goes mostly unnoticed or unacknowledged. That is, trying is far from a wholehearted undertaking–it is inherently partial, emanating from only part of us, rather than from our innate wholeness of being.
Trying could be said to be a kind of lying. It means well, and may even believe its own hype and promises, but almost always falls short of its intended actions. Why? Because too much of us is simply not aligned with our trying’s stated intention. Trying is big on talk and small on action – and how could it be otherwise, given how divided and half-hearted it is? When you find yourself saying, ‘I’ll try,’ probe deeper until your resistance to doing what you say you’ll try to do surfaces. The energy locked into this resistance is the energy required to do what really needs to be done. And how to unlock it? Cultivate intimacy with it.
Relationship Trap 8: An Emotional Affair Is Not Really Cheating
Yes it is. If you ‘need’ to get your deepest emotional needs met by going behind your partner’s back, you are cheating on him or her, even if you don’t exchange any sexual energy with your substitute partner. If you are having trouble with your partner, and you get into an emotional affair (which easily can shift into a full-blown sexual affair), you are betraying your partner, if only through eroding whatever trust has been established between you. Instead, why not try to directly address (rather than distracting yourself from) the trouble – emotional, sexual, or whatever – that you’re having with your partner, and really get into some quality couples therapy? This might not be as exciting and charged up (erotically or otherwise) as having an emotional affair, but it is far more effective and growth-inducing, drawing you into loyalty rather than away from it.
When you are with someone other than your partner, ask yourself if you’d be fine with your partner seeing exactly what you are doing at such times; if the answer is no, you are likely engaging in behavior that is as low in integrity as it is high in pleasurable exchange. The energy you might invest in an affair, emotional or otherwise, is the very energy you need to put into directly and openly addressing what isn’t working in your relationship.
Robert Augustus Masters, Ph.D., is the author of 11 books (including Transformation Through Intimacy and Spiritual Bypassing), a highly experienced psychotherapist (and trainer of psychotherapists) with a doctorate in Psychology, and a teacher of spiritual deepening. His uniquely integral, intuitive work (developed over the past 32 years) dynamically blends the psychological and physical with the spiritual, emphasizing full-blooded embodiment, authenticity, emotional openness and literacy, deep shadow work, and the development of relational maturity.