How may times have you gone to bed thinking that you hate your partner, fantasizing how you would live on your own? Your thoughts snag on difficulties like how to tell your kids, your family, and the neighbors, and how much it would cost to live in two households.
If you’ve had such thoughts, you are not alone. Transient feelings of anger, dislike, or even hatred toward a partner are not uncommon. “Transient” is the important word: we all have those feelings from time to time, but they don’t become harmful unless we nurse these feelings of discontent, disappointment, and grievance—until they add up to a permanently negative perspective. Therapists call this “distress-maintaining thinking.”
The fantasy that life would be better without your partner feeds the cycle of negativity and keeps you unhappy. This is a huge danger zone, making our relationship vulnerable to secrets, even affairs. Thinking that there is a more perfect person out there who will meet your needs is usually wrong. Blaming your partner for your unhappiness is easier than understanding what role you play in the disharmony.
Fantasies of escape can abet distress-maintaining thinking, but so can fantasies of perfection. We grow up listening to fairy tales, and often form our expectations from them: The princess must love the toad, the knight gives freedom to the hag, and the beauty falls in love with the beast. Real marriage, though, requires confronting what you bring to the relationship—not just looking at your partner’s flaws or imagined imperfections. The fantasy of the perfect partner who always loves and understands you is a child’s fantasy. Children want to be loved unconditionally, but adult relationships take effort on both sides.
For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Equally distress-maintaining is simply giving up on a relationship. I had a client who had grown so detached from his partner that he was paralyzed by his inability to leave the marriage. In his despair, he told me the phrase I was to hear many times from other partner-providers: “It’s cheaper to keep her.” He had resigned himself to a passionless life because paying spousal support would have significantly diminished the retirement accounts and portfolio he’d taken years to build. But despair and casting oneself as the victim also means taking no agency in improving the relationship.
Relationship Enhancing Thoughts
In contrast to distress-maintaining thinking, cultivate relationship-enhancing thoughts. This practice doesn’t deny a relationship’s problems, but allows you to think about them in a way that brings understanding and insight to the challenges you face. Giving time and attention keeps friendship strong, leading to more engagement and more passion.
Don’t wait to redefine yourself by imagining a life with a different partner. Don’t just give up. Look at what you want for yourself now. How can you change the way you think about your marriage? As I was writing this post, a friend called to tell me about something I said to her several years ago that really stuck with her. I had mentioned the importance of making bids for contact and the “turning toward” concept, and how failing to do this will weaken connections, leading to negative perspective. She told me the image that come to her mind was one of a stack of neglected vinyl records stacked on top of each other without their sleeves, collecting dust and warping. Each time she ignored a bid or turned away from her lover, it was like adding another record to the pile, making the music increasingly unplayable.
Expecting perfection and continually ignoring opportunities to appreciate and admire each other compounds our marital problems, setting us up for escape fantasies. When we do the work of love by making a conscious effort to notice how attracted we are to our mates, when we make a point of noticing their positive traits, we feel comforted and loved.