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  • Writer's pictureIngeborg Weser

Setbacks in love relationships hurt – Do something about it!

An article by Ingeborg Weser from: Robert Benninga et al., Is het een tegenslag of juist een kans, Kosmos 2014, The Netherlands

Your best friend avoids you, everyone in the team is against your proposals, your boss makes far too many critical comments about you, your romantic partner seems to be becoming more and more of a stranger. Setbacks in personal relationships hurt. We feel left out, alone, rejected, criticized, belittled, or cheated. Setbacks in relationships with others can be a source of stress, worry and fear to us. That is very normal and not surprising.


People need people. We are born social; we need people to feel safe and connected. Anyone who deals with children knows that this applies to children. Children develop well when they feel wanted and accepted by their parents or caregivers. If they are cared for by an understanding parent and receive guidance when it comes to their emotional and intellectual development. But adults also need human contact. Belonging, being important to others, feeling accepted and respected are basic needs that are deeply engrained in our brains. It is not without reason that we build a circle of friends, maintain contacts with family, are members of associations, fraternize when the national football team plays.


It is not without reason that a well-functioning team at work is a source of motivation and job satisfaction, that we (want to) identify with the company to which we are affiliated and last but not least that we look for life partners and start families. The need to bond with people is part of our psychological makeup from the beginning of our lives.

Setbacks in a love relationship are scary

This is especially true for our life partners. In a society that values mobility and individualization, the stability of the bond between partners is rightly perceived by many people as particularly important.


Richard and Mariah have been married for fifteen years. They have had children, built a career, bought a house. For many years they experienced the relationship as extremely happy. The bond between them was strong, together they could take a beating. They felt emotionally safe with each other. It was clear: 'If I need you, you are there for me.' There was trust, both were interested in the other's needs and life vision, they could be vulnerable and cry and laugh together. Based on a feeling of ‘The two of us’, everyone could go their own way, live their own life, and develop his or her potential. How nice it was to trust that the home front was emotionally rock solid.


Scientific research shows that people in a love relationship that is perceived as stable and safe are more relaxed, satisfied, successful and healthier. They even live longer! If we need other people, as described above, this of course especially applies to the partner. After all, he or she is the most important person in our lives.


Five years ago, Richard and Mariah suffered a setback. Jan had built up his own company, but things were going less and less well. Richard worked even longer hours than before, slept poorly, reacted irritably to Mariah and the children and spent evenings behind the computer. Mariah initially understood what Richard was doing, she let him do his thing, took over many tasks and also started to show stress symptoms. The bond between them became increasingly tenuous. As if they were two islands without a connecting bridge. There were arguments, sometimes over the most trivial things, and a feeling of coldness and distance. Mariah no longer felt like having sex and Richard withdrew more and more.


If the bond between partners becomes too thin over too long a period, we are deeply affected. The feeling of emotional safety and connection suddenly seems thin ice. Scientific research shows that people in this situation produce stress hormones in response to a basic feeling of 'There is danger! Watch out! Something must be done!' If we are in danger of losing the bond with the most important person in our lives, it makes us afraid and restless.


Fear is a feeling that most of us would rather not feel. Our psyche 'protects' us from it and immediately takes action, i.e. 'behavior'. We are doing something to deal with this situation.

When things go wrong

Mariah is angry. Richard has forgotten for the umpteenth time to pick up their daughter from ballet. She gets angry: “It's bad enough that you no longer like me, and I have to keep the whole family running all by myself, but the fact that you just forget about your daughter is really going too far.” Richard sees the fire in her eyes and straightens up: “There you go again; I really can't hear that whining anymore. I'm working my butt off, but yes, that apparently goes without saying.” He turns around, slams the door behind him and leaves to pick up the daughter. That evening he doesn't show himself downstairs again. He's busy on the computer.


What do we do when we feel emotionally distant from our partner too much and too often? What, if we have a deep fear of losing the other? Canadian couple therapist Sue Johnson has investigated this. She describes typical reaction patterns that lead to 'devil dialogues'. Devil dialogues are negative interaction patterns that do not lead to more contact and understanding for each other, but to more distance. They tend to repeat themselves and stopping them is a chore. Both partners suffer. The best-known 'devil dialogue' is the 'protest polka': a partner, often the woman, reacts with anger: Mariah criticizes, blames, tells Richard how he should improve, shows her disapproval, keeps on insisting ‘to talk’, makes jabs and threats. She does this because she desperately seeks contact. She doesn’t want to act like that, but it seems like she has no control over it. She has put up with it all these months, now her anger is a last attempt to get through to the man who was her lover. She's banging on a closed door; she's shouting to get a response - any response is better than no response.


Richard participates in this devil dialogue: sometimes he also gets angry, he defends his position, sometimes he tries to ‘calmly’ and rationally explain to Mariah that she is wrong. Richard withdraws, inwardly and outwardly. He freezes inside, stops listening and sooner or later he prefers to be somewhere else than at home. Computer and work are true refuges for him in this situation. Richard does all this because he wants to protect himself and the relationship. He is afraid that the dolls will start dancing if he gets angry too. He doesn't want it to get any worse. From the outside it seems as if he remains calm or doesn't care much, but on the inside the stress hormones are running through his body.


It is quite a challenge to stop these devil dialogues. Some couples manage to repair the relationship: these couples have the resilience not to lose each other emotionally even when they must endure stressors. Others are less successful, too much has happened for them to be able to trust each other. Then it is important to seek support. Sometimes conversations with friends help, sometimes it is easier to engage a neutral professional. A series of couple consultations can be eye-openers that help the couple overcome the hurdle.

On the way to a safe connection with your partner

Richard and Mariah notice that they can no longer reach an agreement together. They seek professional help. They want tools to stop the devil dialogues and restore the safe connection.

1. Understanding love and safe connection

The first step to getting closer again is for the partners to realize that they have entered a terrible negative spiral, which must be stopped before it is too late. Once the step is taken, most couples find it very relieving when they realize that their way of reacting in such a stressful situation is completely understandable, that devil dialogues occur in the best relationships and that there are ways to stop them.


Richard is completely surprised when he understands that his way of reacting is not self-evident, but that he has a choice. He is relieved that Mariah is apparently not angry with him because he behaves so wrongly, but because this is her way to contact him. Mariah realizes that Richard’s withdrawal behavior does not mean that he no longer likes her, but that he suffers from the distance between the two and wants to protect the relationship from further escalation.

2. Getting to know the devil dialogues

Devil dialogues are so persistent because the partners tend to point the finger at the other and mainly blame the other. It is much easier to see and notice the other person's mistakes than to take a close look at one's own behavior. In step 2 this is where you focus on: 'What do I do in situations of argument or separation? How do I contribute to the dynamic between the two of us?' So, it is not about the content or reason for the argument, but how both generally deal with it.


Mariah notes: “If I lose connection with you, I do complain, criticize, etc. The more I come across to you as threatening or dangerous because of my anger, the more you withdraw, you exclude me, you clam up.” Richard says: “If you get angry with me, I defend myself, I tell you that you are way too emotional and then I withdraw, seek refuge in my work or my hobby and not let you in anymore.” If Richard distances himself from Mariah in this way, she experiences him as even less accessible and becomes even angrier. The result is that Richard disappears even more into his cochlea. At a certain point Mariah also withdraws. Two lonely islands without a bridge to connect.

3. Finding the raw spots

After Richard and Mariah have mapped out their behavioral patterns, they go one step further. They investigate what feelings and thoughts go through their minds during the devil dialogues.


Mariah says to Richard: “When you forgot our daughter, I became angry with you because I have felt very alone for a long time. Actually, I feel lonely, I miss you so much. I then think: Apparently, I am no longer important to him.” Richard says: “If you are angry with me, it really scares me. I then think to myself: I'm not doing it right; I can't make her happy anymore. She just thinks I'm a horrible husband. It's not nice to notice that, but deep down I feel desperate and completely wrong. I'm just not doing it right."


We all have raw spots. They are like a bruise that we barely notice, only when hit it hurts. These raw spots activate alarm bells in our psychological system. ‘Watch out! This is painful! Do something!' Anger or withdrawal behavior in this context has the function of protecting us from pain: this is how devil dialogues are born!


Raw spots are universal. Everyone knows them. They lurk within each of us and emerge more easily when we feel vulnerable, under stress and when someone is important to us. No wonder that our partner, the most important person in our lives, unintentionally manages to hit our raw spots! Well-known ones are: feeling abandoned, not wanted, rejected, not satisfying, not being important, being seen as wrong and failing, and so on. It often includes feelings such as shame, guilt, fear, and sadness.


It is not easy to become aware of these raw spots and even less so to share them with your partner. If you do, the connection will immediately feel a lot safer. If we dare to be open to our partner, it is a special gift for him or her, a proof of growing trust.

4. The two of us against the devil dialogues

In step 4, the partners begin to recognize the devil dialogues, they realize how they both contribute to them and the desire to stop them grows. They no longer feel helplessly at the mercy of the same unpleasant situations. They can really do something!


Richard and Mariah have agreed to go out for dinner tonight. Mariah has dressed up, the children are staying with friends, only Richard is not there at the agreed time. When he comes rushing in, Mariah says: “Well, that's off to a good start, have you forgotten our appointment?” Richard hears the reproachful tone in her voice and feels the old feeling of anger rising in him. He takes a deep breath and says, “I think this is a situation that could end in a devil dialogue. Let's try to figure it out together.” Mariah hesitates for a moment but then agrees. “I was so looking forward to our dinner, if you are late, I immediately think that I am apparently not important to you after all.” Richard says: “I find it very annoying that I am late. I was stuck in traffic and my cell phone was dead. I also like that we go out together. Now I'm going to get changed and then we'll go, okay?"

5. Showing your vulnerability

The emotional bond between partners becomes more secure and safe if they have the courage to be open to the other, show their vulnerabilities and experience that the other can respond to them with understanding and warmth. In these conversations, the partners can "take the elevator down one more floor" and arrive at their deepest fears and needs: the needs that underlie the emotional energy that drives the devil dialogues.

Richard says: “If you are angry with me, I first defend myself and then I cut myself off from you. Deep down I'm afraid I'll disappoint you. I then feel like I'm falling short and failing in your eyes. That's my raw spot. My deepest fear is that you think I'm not good enough and that you will therefore leave me at some point. The fact that the business is doing poorly also feels like a failure in some way. If you also doubt me, it feels devastating, I can't handle that. When I feel this fear, I need you to reassure me. That you say for example: I love you and I will stay with you, even though sometimes you do something wrong or sometimes things don't work out. We will figure it out together.” Mariah gets tears in her eyes and says that she is proud of how he is doing his best and that he does not have to do it alone. “I am with you and together we will definitely figure it out.”


Now it's Mariah’s turn: “If you are emotionally unavailable, I quickly become angry and reproachful, but I feel lonely and alone. I then think that I am apparently unimportant to you. My deepest fear is that you really think that: that you find my need for contact and closeness childish and ridiculous and that you reject me. That I will lose you forever and I will be left as this small, stupid, insignificant woman. When I feel this fear, I feel very small and needy indeed. It feels then very vulnerable and dangerous for me to talk about this. What I need is for you to hold me for a moment. Literally hold me tight. Then I can feel that you accept me as I am and that we are together again.” Richard tenderly takes Mariah in his arms: “I didn't know you felt so vulnerable, I only saw your anger. All is well, my darling, you were always my sweetheart, and you always will be.”

6. Rediscovering intimacy and sex

If a couple gets into devil dialogues, this is bound to manifest itself in sexuality. Couples whose bond is not safe do not have pleasant intimacy either. They experience each other mainly as enemies. And you don't expose yourself to enemies! It becomes even more complicated because men generally tend to want to reconnect with their partner through sex, while women generally want intimacy when they feel emotionally safe.


Before Richard and Mariah started working on their relationship, sexuality was a hot topic. Richard made advances, but Marieke didn't understand it: “What do you mean, you want to have sex with me when we are miles apart? Am I only good enough for your orgasm?” For Richard, the sex was proof that things were still good enough between them, for Mariah that he no longer respected her at all.


After both have tackled the devil dialogues and were able to be vulnerable and open again, there is also space for sex and intimacy again. In fact, the sex is better than ever, closer, more playful, with lust and love.'



Setbacks in your love relationship? Do something about them! Take them seriously! In this case, time does not heal all wounds. On the contrary: not getting started on time causes the wound to fester. You destroy more than you would like.


Three Do’s

• Take regular time for a good conversation between you and your partner: talk about yourself and what is going on inside you. Discussion topics such as children, finances and other household or business topics are not included! So, it's really about you and your partner.

• Cherish the small rituals that keep a relationship alive: for example, a kiss when leaving or returning, a quick phone call during the workday, eating together, an occasional tender touch and the interested question: 'How are you? What's on your mind?'

• Devil dialogues? Tackle them together! Together you will get out!


Three Don'ts:

• Don't let shame ('I don't want anyone to see us like this') or pride ('I'm not a wimp') define you. Put your ego on hold and seek help if you can't figure it out.

 • Don't keep thinking: 'It's not that bad', or 'It will be fine'. Wounds that fester are difficult to heal. A divorce is very painful and costs a lot of money.

• Don't give up hope, trust your resilience!


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