If you’ve ever been through a breakup, then this pattern should sound familiar:
You and your partner are drifting apart. At first, you try to make it work. You promise to work harder, to compromise. Then your compromises (or failure to live up to them) engender resentment. The resentment builds stress. Then the stress boils over and you find yourself becoming annoyed and angry at meaningless, incidental things. You argue and fight with your partner, but you never feel like you’ve broached the true problem—why you’re drifting apart in the first place. And so the false resolution at the end of each argument puts you back at the beginning of this process. The cycle of stress, argument, and false resolution continues until, eventually, the accumulated stress breaks the relationship.
Why is it so difficult to compromise effectively? And why does resentment seem to creep into a loving relationship? If you can answer those questions before the resentment is felt, then you can reduce the pain of a bad breakup, or eliminate the need to break up altogether. I’ll give some advice below.
Resentment and Compromise
First, we must define our terms:
Resentment: within a relationship, resentment is a feeling of unfairness, of having too much asked of you and of being given too little in return (or vice versa), of unwelcome or imposed sacrifice, of not getting what and how you want or not being able to give the same
Compromise: within a relationship, compromise is a stitch used to pull partners together where they don’t already align, a readjustment of behavior to satisfy your partner when that behavior does not come naturally to you, a “meeting in the middle” where you sacrifice in one aspect in order to be satisfied in another
The common theme here is “unalignment”. If we want to solve the problems of resentment and compromise, then we have to first look at how unalignment manifests itself.
This is the dreaded “drifting apart” that occurs within a relationship. Our Flight or Fight response to unalignment often tells us to “run” or “fix it”, but what if that’s the wrong approach? What if unalignment is unfairly maligned?
In a healthy relationship, there is always some element of unalignment. You are not the same person as your partner; you have different beliefs, behaviors, values. And while alignment of values, for example, is terribly important to a relationship, your beliefs and behaviors—your personality—is necessarily largely complementary. The real problem arises when complement becomes contradiction.
A contradiction is when you want or expect something that your partner does not provide, or vice versa. Here are two ways how this can happen:
1. You fall in love with your partner as they are. Then they, or you, or the situation changes. Your New Relationship Energy wears off. You grow. Your career or your dreams interfere. Suddenly your expectations have shifted such that your partner no longer satisfies them, or your partner has shifted to the same effect. You feel this as a lacking or a wanting which is never satisfied.
2. There was always an unalignment, but you chose to ignore it. Or maybe you even appreciated it. But over time, those small unalignments become more salient and grating, causing friction. Nothing has changed, but your perception of that experience changes as the novelty wears off, and as constant repetition wears down your initial acceptance. This has an aggravating effect—the more upset you become at small things in aggregate, the worse your response to each individual event becomes, like an inflamed sore or joint that becomes easier to re-injure the worse it gets.
In real-world scenarios, a combination of the two of these effects usually leads to an escalation of disagreement until the end result is unrecognizable from the initial unalignment that spawned it. This leads to unproductive arguments in which the original problem remains unsolved.
What is that original problem? It isn’t, in fact, the unalignment. Again, it’s the perception of that unalignment.
Difference, Change; Equanimity, Acceptance
To understand perception, we must first understand the nature of difference and change. Primarily: it’s unavoidable. There will always be small annoyances and disagreements—rarely do we fall in love with someone who is a perfect match for us.
Few of us will ever fall in love with someone who is identical to us. The saying, “familiarity breeds contempt”, is true in a unique way when it comes to dating. We are already familiar with our own tendencies and deficiencies, and these are only exaggerated when we date someone who is too similar to ourselves. Think about where you fall on each of masculinity/femininity, active/passive, rational/logical. Do you want your partner to fall on exactly the same notes, or would you rather find a harmony?
Once you start dating someone, you become familiar with their patterns of behavior. In your mind, you’ve typecast them as a particular identity. But it’s important to recognize that our identities shift over time and we need the space to allow them to shift. How often do you hear about a breakup that happened because one partner felt “stifled” or unable to express themselves in a personality that did not match the one they expressed while in a relationship? We tend to conform our partners into the identities we expect of them, and often they willingly (or unconsciously) bend to fit that expectation. But that doesn’t mean it’s what they want, and it doesn’t mean it’s what they’ll always want.
So, knowing that there will always be a difference between two people and that those people will continue to change over time, how do we cope? Through equanimity and acceptance.
The key is not to hold on to a person as they are; not to expect them to be solid and unchangeable. Rather, we should expect change and be surprised if we don’t see it. Change in ourselves, change in our partners, change in our relationship—when channeled appropriately, change is growth. Thus, we have the option to change with our partners—not necessarily in the same direction, but complementing each other, by:
- Accepting that our partners will change, and giving them the space for change
- Accepting that we will change, and giving ourselves the space for change
- Accepting that both of our changes will have elements that are independent of each other and in response to each other
- Accepting that our relationship necessarily will change in response to our individual changes, and giving it the space for change
Equanimity is at the heart of this acceptance. It is okay to have some trepidation about the course of those changes; quite possibly you will change in a way that becomes incompatible with each other and that’s cause for some concern. This is preferable, though, to clinging onto a person and constraining their growth, just so you can depend upon them as they are for as long as possible. Equanimity is a limit on how much we worry and how much we allow that worry to interfere with the freedom to grow that we give to our partners. It is not a refusal or a dampening of those natural emotions, but an acceptance of our own emotions.
Communication; Openness and Honesty
As always, the process that allows two partners to identify and deal with change is open and honest communication. As soon as we notice something irritating, it is important to bring it up. We might not have fully processed what that irritation is, but by focusing both partners’ attention on it, we at least align our understanding of the issue and promote dialogue that will help us achieve equanimity and acceptance.
Importantly, communication is not to be used to compel the other person to re-adjust for us. That’s what compromise is. Communication is only to educate. It’s fine to say, “I’ve noticed this change in you or in myself, and this is how it makes me feel.” It is not okay to say, “I’ve noticed this change in you or myself, and I need you to change your behavior to accommodate my negative emotions.”
Why not compromise? Because it’s one of two paths to resentment:
1. Resentment arises when we do not communicate when something has changed, or when we’re feeling a certain way. The unknown or unspoken emotion grows in intensity until it negatively impacts other parts of our lives, or until it explodes.
2. Resentment arises when we communicate that something has changed, and then try to bend and force our partners into an unnatural configuration to satisfy our desires. That’s the fundamental definition of stress—pent up energy because a person is fixed in one place when there is a strong potential pulling them somewhere else. Pinning a person to a particular identity only results in an accumulation of stress as their nature speaks to them to be other than they are; and no person should ever purposely induce stress in their partner in such a way.
Communication solves the first problem. Communication plus equanimity and acceptance solves the second.
The Worst Case
All of this is great if you are capable of accepting your partner’s changes and if you both fundamentally love and want to stay with each other. But what happens if an insurmountable difference arises?
Take a change in values, for example. Your partner suddenly realizes that they do not value children, when you do. Or it turns out that it’s more important to them that you convert to their religion than they initially thought. Or, in the course of their change, they naively trespass against some other value that you hold dearly.
Take a non-positive growth, for example. Your partner doesn’t appear to grow, but appears to become more immature, slipping into old habits. Your partner becomes addicted to drugs and presents behaviors that you didn’t expect. Your partner believes they are growing, but in fact you see their growth as maladaptive, causing difficulty or harm.
Or, take a change that simply goes too far, for example. Your partner becomes more or less sexual than you can cope with, and your needs are starting to become glaringly unfulfilled. Your partner picks up a new behavior that just drives you crazy. Your partner is diagnosed with an STD, and you are unwilling to maintain a risky sexual relationship.
No amount of communication is going to solve these issues; acceptance and equanimity can only be pushed so far before they fail. If these are truly insurmountable issues, then a breakup is inevitable.
Even in a breakup, though, the principles laid out previously still hold true. Avoiding unnecessary compromise, finding equanimity and acceptance with change and difference, and healthy communication remain important even through a breakup. These principles will not magically heal the wounds that lead to a breakup, but they can act as a salve that allow us to come to terms with an unavoidable breakup.
A breakup is the ultimate change in a relationship, after all. If you can direct your emotional experience during a breakup, then you have truly mastered equanimity and acceptance (not that these things get any easier, but our coping mechanisms become more robust).
What About …?
What about externalities such as marriage contracts, relationships within a business environment, financial dependence, and children? Unfortunately, these issues are outside of the scope of this piece. I would recommend finding a relationship counselor who specializes in these kinds of events to help you, your partner, and potentially your children through this scenario.