Living in a forest: why are relationships so difficult?

We’re attracted to someone. We fall in love. Life feels good.

And then something starts to happen.

Maybe this is when we get married, move in together, have a child, or become exclusive. Whatever it is, we seem to stumble into a forest. Here, in this new environment we suddenly and bewilderingly find ourselves in, we struggle to walk together anymore.

The way we got here: why was I attracted to you?

Why is it your partner seemed so perfect at first? Unfortunately, it’s never because they actually are!

The first part of our attraction to a partner is that they remind us of what we believe love and a good lover is. This may be because it feels safe and known. It may be because, since infancy, we have built up from our caregivers and from our society an idea in our heart of what a good lover is. Whatever it is, we meet someone; they seem to tick the boxes of our heart’s list; the ones we don’t know about we tick for them; and our heart starts pounding.

The second part of our attraction is to someone who completes us. In this sense, we seek our ‘other half’ and ‘opposites attract: the thinker to the feeler; the talker to the listener; the aggressive to the passive; the in-your-face to the withdrawer; the organised planner to the spontaneous discoverer; the introvert to the extrovert; the go-getter to the risk averse; the dreamer to the realist; the factual to the intuitive.

So, we meet a person who seems a perfect blend of what is similar and different, of love and completion. We find ‘the one’, who every fairy tale and rom-com tells us will lead us to perpetual bliss. But, instead, we enter a forest of our own making.

Stumbling over roots: You’re not who I thought you were!

We quickly (or perhaps, surprisingly slowly) discover that they don’t tick all the boxes after all. They aren’t so calm, collected, vivacious, risky, spontaneous, doting, supportive, protective etc., as they first appeared. They don’t behave - privately, publicly, or both - as we believe they ought to. They let us down in who they are and in their love.

And, we start telling them so. Perhaps not explicitly, but the messages are fired away

‘You’re not good enough!’

‘This is how you ought to be!’

‘This is who you promised me you would be!’

And of course, they’re telling us the same things. Stumble, trip! Stumble, trip! Stumble, trip!

Brambles: you’re just like them!

When such disappointment and resentment emerges, we start to act from an anxious state, instead of the safety of our first union. In this state, your partner may start to remind you of how your parents acted and related when anxious.

They may shout. They may storm off. They may emotionally withdraw, give you the hard shoulder, or walk away. They may tell you what (they think) you should do, think, and feel. And suddenly, in your interactions, you find yourself back with your parents, back with the same old shame, hurt, anger, confusion and guilt. They scrape at the same old wounds that were only partly healed over.

And, of course, you are doing the same with them.

Bears: you scare me!

Why is our ‘other half’ missing? Why do we need completing?

Our ‘other half’ is often all of the stuff within ourselves that wasn’t acceptable when we were growing up. Maybe it brought disapproval, made our parents anxious, or brought social embarrassment. Thus, we learned to hide it, stuff it, reject it, and find it scary and threatening to our place in the world. It became like a wild bear inside us until we eventually become unaware it’s even there.

Perhaps we learned we couldn’t be creative, spontaneous or expressive; emotional, vulnerable, tearful or angry; be go-getting, powerful or awkward. Perhaps we learned that we couldn’t ask for our needs to be met. These things brought us shame and rejection in our formative years. Nevertheless, we were attracted to someone with a particular blend of them, a particular reflection of our bear. And this reflection can become irritating, wearisome and threatening for someone who learned very early to suppress, deny and avoid it.

Now, this was all great when we were in the ‘honeymoon’ phase of a relationship, where we implicitly trust this missing part and come to feel completed by it. However, in the forest - the anxiously separate state of expectations, disappointment, and resentment - this missing half no longer seems to complete us. Rather, it threatens us with the same intensity it always has done: the same intensity that meant we never developed or acknowledged it within ourselves in the first place.

So, we trigger each other. The withdrawer withdraws further as the confronter gets more in their face. The thinker gets ever more rational, while the feeler gets ever more emotional. The passive sits more quietly, as the aggressive gets more fierce. The expressive get more elaborate and the controlled get ever more rigid.

They increasingly seem to show their ‘real’ self, while all along we are driving them into this anxious response with our own learned defensive way of being. We force each other into being each others’ bears.

Wildflowers: you are the one, after all!

It is very tempting to think, “Well, they’re just not the one for me, then”. We buy into the myth again of ‘the one’: it’s just not you. In this darkness, loss, and hurt, we are tempted to just get out of the forest, run home, and hide under the covers.

What if we can learn to live in the forest and accept that living in a forest of roots, brambles and bears is living in a relationship?

When we realise the problem isn’t ‘you’ and isn’t ‘me’, but instead lies in the interactions between us and between our hidden parts, we can learn to interact differently. The blame can be let go of. If we can make it safe enough, we can even use the friction to help us heal and grow. Because you were attracted to your missing half - that you have ran away from and suppressed your whole life - this is the very person who can help you accept, heal and nurture those parts. We might even be able to learn to embrace, feed and trust our bears again.

Thus, your partner can become, after all, yet in a strange, frustrating and messy way, the one who completes us!

We can learn to trip up and scrape each other a little less often. We can learn to make the forest a little less dense. We can learn to embrace and laugh at our bears.

And, we can learn to spot the wildflowers ready to emerge. Wild because they seem so untamed and weren’t in our caregivers’ or society’s gardens. Flowers because they are small gifts of life, beauty, and hope that can grow within us. These are the flowers of being known, heard and loved. The flowers of intimacy, connection and delight. The flowers of possibility, meaning and new ways of being in relationship and in the world.

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