Why are Relationships SO HARD?!

Posted by Juan Quien | Julio 07, 2018 | Blog

Relationships are not as automatic as we think

Let’s face it, relationships ARE hard. They just are. Look at all the places where you relate; in your partnerships, your professional life, either as a parent or with your parents, with your friends and family and even with yourself. Everywhere you look you are relating. So, the question is, how are you doing with this most basic of human functions? Be honest, not-so-hot. Truth be told, there is strife, conflict or drama somewhere. It’s not as easy as we think.

My grandmother always said “Tell the truth and shame the devil!” The truth is, it’s hard. We are confused because it seems like it should be automatic. It’s NOT. All those happy people on TV, in Social Media and in magazines scream off pretty screens, “It’s easy and fun!” You know different.

The truth hurts

Relating to ourselves, to others at work and in our personal lives, in our marriage, parenting our kids…all of this is HARD. And often, we then turn our experience of this struggle into a personal hell. We beat ourselves up and think, “I’m the one struggling, or “I’m failing them.” We also think, relationships should be easy, automatic and we should know how to do it.

WRONG! You don’t believe me, just look at the numbers. What is the current divorce rate? 60-65%, and for those of us on the other side of that rate not divorcing, we are working damn hard not to.

Parenting numbers are not prettier. Most, as in 65-70% of us, are using negative parenting behaviors in most (again over 60%) of our interactions with our children. We don’t mean to, we just do. And we usually don’t even know we are doing it!  We struggle with how we parent AND we struggle with our parents and parents-in-laws (if you have them). The struggle is real people!

Then there’s the oh-so-ridiculous idea that you leave all of that crap at your front door and somehow miraculously turn into a different human being at the office. NOT! The way you relate to yourself, at home, with your friends, children and parents, is EXACTLY how you will relate at the office. No wonder we deal with high numbers in job dissatisfaction and turn over in the corporate world.

Although we have difficulties relating at work as well, the difference between the way we manage it when compared to our personal lives is that we try extra hard to hide it. After all, we are professionals. That’s why at the end of the day, most of us just explode on the unwitting victims of our fakery. We kick the dog, yell at the kids, fight with our spouses OR we numb (excuse me…I mean reward ourselves) with the TV, internet, more work or my personal favorite, food.

Keep it Real

So where does this leave us? With a dose of reality. Relating is one of the most fundamental things we do every day, for all of our lives, yet it is indeed one of the hardest things to do! We would like to think it should be as easy as breathing, but it’s not. We think that we should “automatically” know how to interact with our loved ones. We don’t. We want to “automatically” know what to do. Keep wishing. And we think they should “automatically” know what to do for us. Yeah right! In the end, the truth is none of this is easy and relationships are not as automatic as we think.

Relating is not automatic, but REACTION IS!

So, we can agree that this relating thing ain’t easy. The question then is, what the hell makes it so hard? You may be surprised by my answer (or not if you’ve listened to me for more than 2 seconds), its’s… drum roll…the brain! Yup, as much as we WANT to relate and have good relationships, our brains, specifically a part called the brainstem, gets in the way.

Here’s how it works:

  • When the world gives us what we want and the people around us are behaving the way that we want them to, life is lovely, relationships are easy. We are in a WANT. No problem. We are happy, kind and we like ourselves and the people around us. As one of my favorite songs puts it, ‘easy as Sunday morning.’
  • But, as we know, it doesn’t always work that way! WHY? We whine and cry from our primordial lizard brain, why can’t I always get what I want? Because my love, we just don’t. Enter stage left, the dreadful ‘DON’T WANT.’ Herein lies the problem.
  • When a person we are relating to says, does, feels or we even think they are thinking something we Don’t Want them to, our brainstems, which are designed to automatically jump into gear to protect us, REACTS.
  • It says ‘Don’t Want’ equals threat, which equals reaction. We react to protect ourselves from the threat of the ‘Don’t Want.’ This is what is at the base of all negative behaviors in our relationships. Hard to believe, I know, but there’s science to prove it!

Fight - Flight - Freeze

The protective mechanism of the brainstem, in the face of the threat of the Don’t Want, drives us to automatically react by moving to Fight, Flight or Freeze. We know what that looks like in the face of a real threat. A gun man shows up and we may try to fight him off to get the gun, or we take flight by running away OR we freeze by hiding to be safe. Perfect, brainstem did the job of protecting us. However, Don’t Wants are not REAL threats, they’re what’s called perceived threats. Something that we think will kill us, but not really. Like I’ll die if my husband leaves. Truth is, it’ll hurt like hell, but I won’t truly die. Perceived threat. And when the brainstem tells us to react in the case of perceived threat, it does not work, in fact, it causes more problems.

Unfortunately, the brainstem, hanging out at the bottom of the brain and not being so smart, can’t tell the difference between real and perceived threats. It thinks you will die if your husband leaves, or kid fails the test, or mother is disappointed, or you lose the job, so, in the face of those Don’t Wants or perceived threats, it reacts.

Reactions to perceived threats look slightly different than reactions to real threats. That’s why they are hidden-not easy to detect and that’s why most of us don’t even think we are reacting. When our partners do or say something that we Don’t Want, we react in hidden Fight by arguing in our heads, controlling and over-planning. Our co-worker is late on their part of the assignment AGAIN and we go to sneaky Flight by over-explaining, negotiating to avoid conflict or sometimes we use the other version of flight, people pleasing. We tell ourselves, “no problem, I’ve got this.” Your kids left the toys on the floor for the umpteenth time and you use Freeze, “I’ll pick my battles” you tell yourself, so you can ignore, deny or excuse the problem. Another form of hidden freeze is fake optimism. “It’ll get better,” so I don’t have to deal now.  

Our ‘not-so-brilliant’ brainstems offer these strategies to us for self-preservation from a perceived threat. But, countless studies show that the results of these behaviors hurt our relationship with ourselves and with others. Evidence demonstrates that they are not sustainable strategies and long term they damage the person using them and everyone around them.

Bottom line is that just about every interaction is an interaction between brainstems. Our brainstems are designed to protect us. It doesn’t give a rat’s ass about our parents, our children, our partner or our co-workers. It only cares about protecting us. That’s it’s job and it does it well. That’s why we are reacting in sometimes obvious and mostly hidden ways - to protect ourselves. This hurts, while creating strife and struggle in our relationships.

Knowing this doesn’t make relationships easier, it just shows why it’s so hard. It also means that we can do something about it. We can learn to SEE our reactions. We can train our brains using neuroplasticity to step around these automatic, relationship-sabotaging reactions.

Where should I focus?

While the brain is a big part of it, I‘ve got to admit that there are other factors as well. The science of neuroplasticity, which says the brain can change, identifies that we also need to look at environmental factors, which impact how the brain functions.

Look up from your iPhone, the world we live in is super busy and distracting. In spite of all of today’s comforts, we’re actually more stressed. Stress related illnesses are at an all-time high from - you guessed it - perceived stress. We are busy with work, school, social media. We spend our days on a comparison rollercoaster, focused on everyone and everything but ourselves.

Our eyeballs are turned outward SEEING others and NOT seeing ourselves. It’s hard to rewire a brain that we don’t take the time to look at. It’s hard to correct behaviors we don’t SEE. We can’t change what we can’t SEE. When we don’t take the time to be self-aware, what I call SEEing in terms of how we are relating, there’s nothing to change.

Since relationships are not automatic AND we do have this automatic default button wired into our brain to mess things up, we need to learn how to relate better. That begins with learning how to SEE ourselves. That’s also NOT automatic.

SEE. CHANGE. DO. in your Relationships

The fact is we need to LEARN how to be in relationships. We spend money and time to get trained for all kinds of things. We invest resources on learning trades, getting licenses, we watch DYI, YouTube tutorials for EVERY possible thing. Well this is one of those things we also need to Believe it or not, we need to LEARN how to relate, at least if we want to do it well.

We can rewire our brains to step around reactivity AND we can affect the environment in which our brains function. We get to choose to train our brains or not. We make the decision to invest in ourselves and our relationships because we SEE the importance of learning relating skills.

While this relating stuff ain’t easy, training yourself to do it better can be one of the most smart, efficient, effective and worth-while investments of a lifetime! Again, I ask you, stop and think, is there anywhere in your life where you are not relating? Wouldn’t you like to learn how to do it better? Can you see where not doing it well is costing you too much? Look in your personal, professional and parenting life, look at what happens when you don’t relate well? 

It’s not easy. It’s not automatic. But it’s doable and worthwhile. Trust me, I know personally and I know from the thousands of people that I have helped to rewire their brains around reactivity and relating better. This is a game-changer!

But it all begins with SEEING. We need to SEE what is happening in our brains and how it gets in the way of our relationships. We then need to lean the process of rewiring so we can CHANGE how our brains function in the presence of a Don’t Want. Then we get to DO better so we can relate with greater joy, ease and success in every area of your life.