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When relationships go wrong - why it's so painful

We generally think of relationships as being with our husband/wife/partner/lover, but in actual fact every encounter we have with another human can be considered to be a relationship. Some we care deeply about such as friendships and partners, and some we don’t such as the postman or the waiter at our favourite restaurant. But the thing that all relationships have in common is that they can go wrong.

Seek resolution

When relationships breakdown it can cause all sorts of issues for us. We may think we want to shift blame, beg forgiveness, bury our head in the sand, seek revenge or just kick and scream in frustration, but what do we really want? Resolution. When we don’t resolve a breakdown of trust it will often fester. Resolution on the other hand allows the matter to end, to stop following us around and infecting our daily lives with lingering feelings of distress. But what does resolution truly look like?

We often hear statements such as ‘just get over it’ ‘he’s not worth it’ and ‘move on’ but more often than not these things are easier said than done. If your heart has been broken, your trust has been breached, or your safety shattered this will affect you on a much deeper level than you might expect. As a social species we rely on other people. Even the most introverted individuals need some human contact or else we can get lost in a world of our own creation with no sense check to bring us back to reality. But living in a world of people means trusting in others not to hurt you. 

The problem of misinterpretation

We’ve all felt the fear of wanting to tell a special someone that we love them for the first time – the excitement that comes with that emotion is tangled up in the fear that you’ve misread them, that they won’t respond in kind. And yet we repeat this situation over and over again throughout our lives. So something must make the threat of heartache worthwhile. We make friends with those who seem to understand and accept us, yet the ever present fear exists that they’re only there for the good times, and will disappear if ever you’re truly in need. But the thing that often hurts the most is miscommunication. When people we love are hurt not by some malicious act, but by a seemingly innocuous comment or action which in the eyes of the other becomes misinterpreted and hurtful.

It is one thing to knowingly do wrong and to be found out. But quite another to realise that offence has been taken from an innocent act. This incongruence between ours and another’s perception of the same event can make us question the very core of our being – if I was wrong about this, what else have I been wrong about? It can raise questions of self that have no easy answer. How do we begin to repair that?

The healing power of therapy

Therapy is a very useful tool in getting to know yourself. Solutions to many of life’s difficulties can be found in understanding both yourself and the ways in which others think and feel. This is especially true when it comes to ruptured relationships. In the therapeutic space not only can you talk through the he said / she said of any given difficulty, but you might also find yourself replaying the same patterns that pervade your life in the room with your therapist.

Changing thinking patterns around relationships

We spend our childhood observing the world and gradually integrating ourselves into it. We learn the ‘rules’ (as we see them) of action and consequence, and subsequently make a map of the world around us from which to navigate our lives. Unfortunately nothing in human perception is entirely objective, and so this map is tainted by our early experiences in ways we will not consciously be aware of. This can lead us to acting in ways which although made sense at first, no longer hold true in our current circumstances. 

For example, a child of divorced parents might learn not to talk about mum in front of dad (and vice versa) in order to avoid upsetting him. In adulthood this pattern might be repeated in hiding information from his partner to keep the peace. But when the truth comes out the partner is angry at the deception. That same partner might have witnessed in childhood a lot of secrecy in their older siblings who eventually got found out and the family may have been broken by the revelations. Their natural inclination would be to avoid causing the same upset themselves by putting trust to the forefront of their lives. Its easy to see how both partners wanted to protect the other, but their childhood experiences made them go about it very differently.

These patterns that we learn as children play out throughout our adult lives in every encounter we have. But one place where this can be useful is in the therapy room. A good therapeutic relationship will be one where you feel safe and confident to speak up when things don’t feel right. This is particularly helpful in the case of a disagreeable relationship pattern playing out in the room between you, because it gives you a safe place in which to really look into what’s going on both for you and the other party involved. By voicing exactly what you’re experiencing you’re not only taking any guesswork out of the situation, but also paving the way for an alternative pattern to take precedence in future, and offering solace for the hurt gone before.

Change who you are in relationships

Relationships can be incredibly uplifting, but when they’re not, the fallout can be devastating. If you’ve found yourself repeating mistakes or losing people without knowing why, then therapy could support you in understanding and breaking your unhelpful patterns, and towards developing ones which allow you to live a life that suits you now, rather than one that’s outdated.

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