THE BLOG
01/26/2015 11:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Your Partner Becomes a Stranger

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Sometimes, seemingly out of left field, your partner becomes someone you don't recognize. An invisible line gets crossed and you find yourself being treated like his or her enemy or someone they are disinterested in rather than as their cherished partner. One minute everything seems fine and the next you don't recognize this person inhabiting your loved one's body. What do you do? Is it a passing, but forgivable, mood? Or is something bigger going on here? Is it time to pack your bags? Time to stand up for yourself? Or is it time to work on your relationship together? The fact of the matter is there are no hard and fast rules here except to pay attention, hold your own counsel, and trust your gut.

Chances are when things get this out of hand it's because neither of you have developed effective enough communication skills to be really heard by each other. When communications are running smoothly -- even when you have very different points of view, and emotions and stakes are high -- both parties are concerned not only for their own preferences, but for the health of the relationship and the well-being of their partner as well.

The bottom line is that a marriage or partnership can only be as healthy as the two people involved. Since there are no perfect people, there are no perfect relationships. Most of us have never learned how to have healthy disagreements and therefore end up either fighting for our own point of view or withdrawing from the conversation. This kind of fight or flight response carries with it two very dangerous consequences. First, it triggers a primitive physiological response where our blood flows to our extremities and quite literally renders us less brainpower with which to work. Secondly, it places us in an adversarial response mode where we view our partner and his or her different point of view as the enemy we are fighting against or fleeing from. When it gets to this point anything your partner says other than "you're right" will be rejected and just add fuel to the fire.

As we move through our lives, our behavior in relationships is a powerful and accurate mirror and feedback mechanism for us to see ourselves in action. Unfortunately, when the going gets tough, too many of us project our own imbalances out onto our partner and end up lashing out by blaming and judging them or withdrawing our caring. The idea of bearing responsibility for our own part of the dysfunction by recognizing our own fears and unmet needs and going to work on them gets lost in the shuffle. If you come into the relationship with dysfunctions (which we all do), sooner or later they are going to be acted out. We are complex, multi-dimensional beings and from birth to death, whether or not we are in primary relationships with other people, we will always be in relationship with ourselves. What this means is we need to take responsibility for our own health and well-being physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. When we do that, we have a far better chance of having healthy relationships with others.

Here's an example. John and Mary have been together for a few years and both seem to really want their relationship to last. There are minor irritations and grievances here and there, but they always seem to work things out. Then Mary becomes increasingly stressed out about some other aspect of her life and her stress starts spilling over onto their relationship. She becomes short-tempered, judgmental, and emotionally unavailable to John. Then one day, she lashes out at John with an overblown reaction fueled by a litany of past, unresolved grievances she has been building resentment over. John is blind-sided. He doesn't recognize himself as this awful person with whom Mary is so furious. Stunned in the moment, he doesn't have a clue what to do. Clearly, there is no talking to Mary when she is worked up like this. So, he retreats and starts running all her accusations through his mind and starts to doubt himself, reasoning that she knows him better than anyone else, so maybe she's right -- maybe he is the terrible, selfish, inconsiderate loaf she is making him out to be. But, another voice in his head is probably saying, "No, I'm not that person and I don't recognize Mary when she acts like this and am wondering what I am doing with someone like this."

So, what are their options. Unless either or both of them move past their myopic self concerns and consider the impact their discord is having on each other and the relationship there is probably little that can be done. They will either wear themselves out or wear their partner down and possibly kiss and make up until it happens again. Maybe one or the other will hit their limit and decide they are better off out of the relationship then in it and leave. Alternatively, they will get professional help to learn how to recognize their own dysfunctions in action and to resolve their differences in a healthy manner.

I do not believe that either the longevity of a relationship or a lack of disagreements is a sound indicator of its health. People stay in relationships for all kinds of good and bad reasons and many stay together far longer than is in either partner's best interest.

Whether a couple is married or not, the choice to be a couple inherently suggests a level of commitment to care about the well-being of your partner and the health of the relationship. Each couple needs to carefully consider the nature of their relationship commitment. For example, in the traditional marriage vow are they pledging to be together until the death of one or the other's body or the death of the relationship itself?

When in doubt, pay attention, hold your own counsel, trust your gut and see where that leads you. If you believe that you and your partner will be able to learn and use healthier communication skills -- go for it. If not, cut your losses, learn your own lessons, and move on.

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