You have met someone new, got to know each other and moved in together. You are in love, you laugh about the same things, have a good social life, everything is great….. and then suddenly it’s not. You are starting to argue, bicker over the small stuff, and say hurtful things. You don’t seem to understand each other anymore. How has this happened? What’s going on?
When you take a new job, you have a contract, a job description, a good idea of what is expected of you in the role. When a couple move in together, they often hope to be committed to each other, to stay together, eventually to start a family. But it won’t surprise you to hear that I have yet to meet a couple who asked each other in advance what they expected of their partner. We assume that we want the same things and that we think the same way, that we are making a new unit, completely separate, and different, but nothing could be further from the truth.
It would be so easy if we were like a fresh piece of white paper when we start a relationship, a clean sheet on which we can write our story together. But even in our first ‘serious’ relationship, our page has already been written on, in invisible ink, by our parents. The way they brought us up; their values and beliefs about life, how they dealt with conflict, how they cared for us, or failed to do so, are deeply imprinted in us, and will rise to the surface and influence how we feel and react as soon as there is tension in our adult relationship.
Even if both of you had good, sensible, listening parents, I would take bets that your growing-up was entirely different. Maybe your family shout and cry a lot whereas his are self-contained, and avoid talking about the tough stuff. Her family endlessly need to be together, while yours gives you space or even too much distance at times. We bring with us the habits and expectations of our birth family; we think we know what is ‘normal’ in a relationship. And so does our partner and their idea of normality is never quite the same as ours…..
Maybe it starts with ‘snapping’ because the towels are folded wrongly or the socks are left under the bed. It moves on to him not ringing to say he will be late, or you failing to say you are spending Saturday with your sister. It then escalates into being personal and unpleasant with each other, talking in a way you never would to a good friend. The research shows that once couples start to treat each other without respect, love dies and relationships collapse remarkably quickly. It takes four positive comments to heal the hurt of one negative one!
So if you are beginning to misunderstand each other and say things you really aren’t proud of, it’s time to sit down together, away from distractions, and talk about what you expect from your relationship, why you value each other, how it was in your own family and how you want it to be different. You need to agree on what it is okay, and not okay, to say to each other, and how to have ‘time out’ if you do start arguing, before you destroy the respect you have for each other. It’s the beginnings of a relationship contract, of a real understanding of what you both need and can offer. It won’t happen all in one go, it’s a conversation that you will return to, but the merging of two family stories into your new relationship, is bound to take time.
And if you can no longer talk, or listen to each other without a damaging argument, then it’s time to look for professional support. A trained couple-counsellor will know how to help you do just that.