Avoiding difficult conversations in relationships can damage trust and intimacy, says therapist David Darvasi
Relationship problems are one of the most common reasons people go to therapy, individually and with their partner
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‘I need to know what to do with my relationship’ is a line I often repeat to myself, and I hear the people I work with say it too, as they talk about their struggles. The tone in which it is said is tired, disappointed, reaching the point of defeat. It speaks volumes of what is often an isolated process. A process the individual takes on alone: ‘I can figure this out’. This conviction coupled with impatience: ‘I should know what to do’.
Nobody knows what needs to be done. If they did, they would know what happens next. And yet, in my overwhelming anxiety, I often tell myself that I should know. If the only option is being all-knowing, then the relational experience of being lost together is never lived through. And so instead of turning to each other, we turn to the future and like solitary workers, start planning our next attempt to turn the relationship around. It quickly becomes about the next evening, the next weekend, the next holiday, all the while drifting further away from each other.
It is as if there is a silent, shared agreement to not rock the boat of the relationship; in this agreement it is conversations that represent the waves that do the rocking. And so we alienate our emotional reality and assign it to something other than us, a conversation. We label these conversations as heavy, deep and intense.
This is one way to carry on avoiding them, as if these qualities were not inevitable parts of any connection, of any relationship. By not leaning into them but trying to move forward as if they were not there, intimacy is sabotaged and growth is undermined. It is as if we are drifting alongside one another without being in the same river. This can feel even lonelier than being actually alone.
The more disconnected we are, the more tenaciously we hold onto the idea that dialogue is the threat. Talking can then seem a monstrous, deadly wave; a one-off event that could sweep our relationship away. The tragedy of it is that it becomes near impossible to be present in moments of joy as there is always an end in sight, in the form of a conversation.
It is important to remember that conversations rarely add to the truth, they purely reveal what is already there. Through having them, previously unaware choices may emerge, but a conversation never decides the fate of a relationship. It doesn’t have that capacity; in fact having honest dialogue with one another might restore a sense of power in you.
There is no pretending this isn’t hard, though it is possible to develop resilience to tolerate the experience of connecting with each other through trouble. We can notice when we withdraw into our own rivers and instead look for our loved one and say something about what is happening, rather than trying to figure out what needs to happen by ourselves. In those moments, we suddenly find ourselves in the same river, still drifting but together at last.