Complicated Relationships

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Relationships are complicated. Relationships are often behind our most content and turbulent moments. We are biologically programmed to connect, enhancing the quality of survival, creating security, and multiplying resources. We feel secure when given acceptance, affection, and attention. When loved, we experience more than being a simple cog in the wheel of a complex society. We feel important. When a relationship fulfills these personal and important needs, we experience satisfaction and enjoy security. Bonding is no simple process. Complicated relationships burden our abilities. and tax our personal resources.

We often refer to complicated relationships as those situations where we end up loving someone that, perhaps, we shouldn’t. Not only do these relationships carry the burden of bonding but also and navigating the complexities of a third person, and the sorrows and anger of an ended, or unfaithful partnership. Throw in children to the mix and the complication multiplies tenfold. It’s usually best to avoid these all together and deal with the normal complicated relationships of trying to bond with another person with all their individual traits, desires, and flaws.

A successful relationship is more complicated than simply satisfying basic needs. Simplicity is not the nature of living—especially between complex and emotional beings. The feelings that a relationship generates proceed from a complex structure of expectations, needs, and past experiences from two different people.

A partner may be caring and loving but incapable of filling their partner’s emotional black holes, draining life from intimate bonds. But good partners—two people that work towards a common goal—catapult each other forward instead of destructively dragging each other down. The nature of a relationship either creates an environment of growth or decay.

See Entangled Relationships for more on this topic

Relationships Are Dynamic

A partnership’s pattern of interaction encourages openness or suppression; trust or distrust; intimacy or guardedness. The history of communications sends messages of safety or danger. The vulnerability of openness is not always treasured and occasionally abused, using intimate knowledge for hurtful manipulations. Words, gestures and facial expressions create safety or danger, encouraging continued openness or cautious protectiveness.

Because relationships are essential to well-being, our bodies carefully measure signals and react, magnifying emotions—joys sorrows, anxieties and anger. Interdependence, relying on each other, creates new vulnerability. We must trust a partner with our well-being—at least some of it. The loss of an intimate partner is painful. Our emotional well-being is closely tied to that relationship for fulfillment.

Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds wrote “closeness between people is like standing near each other. For complicated reasons, the best language we have to describe human relationships is a language of spatial metaphors. We therefore begin with a simple metaphorical observation: in any personal relationship, at any point in time, two people are either moving closer together or further apart. There is no other real-world alternative. When two bodies separated in space are human bodies, the distance between them is always changing. Sometimes we believe that we have reached a motionless state, a love or friendship that is fixed and constant, but that impression is an illusion shaped by our fears and our desires” (2002, p. 1).

Our constantly moving complicated relationships require constant attention, rallying to prevent excessive drifting our suffocating closeness.

When Relationships Fail

The failure of a relationship is confusing; we must weave through the complexity of human relations to garner some articulable explanations. The dissatisfaction isn’t easily dissected into simple causes. Some relationships work; and some don’t. Maturity and experience help but not always. Some people struggle with intimacy their entire lives. Others luckily stumble into nearly perfect compatibility. Although we are biologically driven to find companions, the skill to bond must be learned. We must tame, direct and utilize biological drives in a manner that achieves our goals for connection and intimacy. This is a complicated endeavor.

See Lessons from Failed Relationships for more on this topic

Healthy relationships also have challenges. They too are complicated. Anytime we pool resources and draw support from another person, we should also be sensitive and accommodating to their needs. We must sacrifice impulses that are harmful to the relationship. Finding balance that satisfies the needs of both partners while still allowing individuality is complex making all relationships complicated.

See Contemplating Compromise for more on this topic

Some attempt to cheat the system, draw from another person’s resources but refuse to contribute. They extract what they need, and then manipulate through coercion, fear or unsubstantiated promises to continue in this unequal and abusive relationship. Manipulation offers short-term benefits. Healthy commitment grows into trust, security, and intimacy.

Relationship Building Behaviors Focus on Mutual Benefits

​Relationship skills work towards mutual benefits, maintaining respect for each partner’s autonomy, honoring individual boundaries. Healthy skills nurture the enjoyments of affection, acceptance, and love.

​The fortunate learn relationship skills from careful observance of mature caregivers. But many childhoods were laden with fear, rejection and punishment. Love deprived children miss critical lessons during the key moments of their development, creating life-long obstacles that complicate future bonding.

Childhood frustrations with connection, confused by chaotic feedback from parents, remain prominent in their adult implicit and explicit memories. New events ignite powerful emotions. These strong emotions disrupt and deregulate the entire system, leading to faulty assessment and problematic reactionary behaviors that thwart intimacy.

​See Fear of Abandonment for more on this topic

The Impact of Traumatic Pasts on Relationships

Relationships struggle when one or both partner’s turbulent past burdens the present. The complicated relationship becomes more complicated tasked with integrating challenging emotions into healthy reactions. Painful memories burned into the soul shape skittish emotions when faced with connection; when pasts were hurtful and confusing, the lover is naturally sensitive to possible hurt. Instead of feeling kindness and security, the abused constantly face fear–fear of abandonment, fear of rejection, fear of loneliness. No magic pill cures deep wounds.

The emotional reactions to threats are not chosen nor simply discarded. Knowledge of the causes may help but not cure. The past injury remains (even though we know the originating force), motivating legitimate fear to the slightest possibility of approaching pain. New partners can disrupt these protective attitudes. We may have discovered balance the past and our professional life but when a new partner arrives, violent emotions return, and our private lives explode in the dishevel of protecting drives—pushes to run and hold.

We build relationships around primary beliefs formed in childhood about how relationships should be. In psychology, we call this internal working models. Lisa Firestone PhD. wrote, “throughout our lives, without even knowing it, we may act based on these old ideas, and many of our reactions in our current relationships may be echoes of the past” (2016).

No matter how healthy or traumatizing our childhoods, we carry the burden of our past with certain ideas of how a relationship should be. These ideas collide and conflict with a partners ideas of relationships. Any close relationship is a complicated relationship as we mesh and combine these different primal ideas.

See The Past Destroying the Present for more on this topic

Be Careful Who You Let into Your Life

​Everyone is charged with scrutinizing people they let into their lives before exposing tenderness and offering vulnerability. The complex emotional reactions complicate accurate assessments. Some simply can’t differentiate a perspective compassionate partner from a dangerous one. Their exposures to intimacy are limited; and thus, their judgments are limited. Childhood observations of maladaptive interaction has been integrated and often expresses the learning by attraction to familiarity. It’s not that these victims seek violent relationships, but the benign characteristics that often accompany violence strike chords of familiarity.

Complications of Healing from Trauma

People don’t purposely allow the past to destroy present joys. Avoiding intimacy or seeking destructive partners because they want more chaos. They seek joy but are misguided in the attainment, driven by fear they protect, limiting the deep bonds of love. There’s no magic solution to erase difficult pasts; history will forever be a part of our present. The right partner can assist with healing but not eliminate the fears deeply engrained in the psyche.

“If your heart is a volcano, how shall you expect flowers to bloom?”
~Khalil Gibran

Friends, family and professionals provide precious and necessary resources for recovery. Personal knowledge of biases and fears opens insights, helping to avoid some of the inevitable triggers. A patient partner that compassionately understands, providing some of the attention, affection and acceptance needed to heal. 

As we add new skills, we initiate small changes, inviting small moments of intimacy that we surprisingly enjoy without debilitating fear. Each glimpse of possibility provides a dose of healing, gently attending to the wounds—hurts soften, and fears subside. Each disrupting emotion that we successfully navigate contributes to our growing self-confidence.

​We may not immediately notice improvement but in time, as we look back at the valleys and the gorges traversed, we see the glorious heights we have obtained, and love we have embraced. Love is complicated; difficult to measure and muddied by the past. But we still can partake in this amazing gift of life—to love and be loved.

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Firestone, Lisa (2016). Can We Change in Our Relationships? PsychAlive. Published 6-13-2016. Accessed 5-19-2023.

Schwartz, R. S., & Olds, J. (2002). Marriage in Motion: The Natural Ebb and Flow of Lasting Relationships (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub. Retrieved May 24, 2009.

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