Why are relationships so difficult?

Difficult relationships
Relationships are often difficult and most people have tried to break up. Photo: Frankie Cordoba.

If romantic relationships are difficult for you, you probably wondered why and you probably felt bad about it; at least that’s what I did for many years. In this post I like to provide a new understanding of why relationships often fail and why so many of us are single. I hope to make you feel better about yourself. The purpose is not to give dating advice but if you come to feel good about yourself that certainly helps your dating too.

For a very long time I have been thinking about singlehood, failed relationships, bad relationship choices and issues like that. Actually, I have been thinking about those issues since I was a teenager because in those days I realized that I myself had one very difficult problem; I was unable to be in a relationship since I only fell in love with someone I couldn’t get.

So I started thinking. And since my problems in that regard were very persistent, I kept on thinking about those issues for many years. Along the way I came up with some solutions and I started to feel that I kind of solved those problems in my own life or at least I was not tormented by them anymore. Based on my own experiences and thoughts as well as some theoretical knowledge, I also started helping other people. I had clients and I even wrote two books (in Danish) about my ideas. 

I used to both pity and blame myself for being unsuccessful in relationships. I also used to believe that romantic love was the doorway to happiness and since this particular door had slammed in my face, I thought that I would never be happy.

I guess thinking like that is kind of normal because we celebrate marriage. Everyday on the radio we hear mostly romantic songs. In Hollywood movies the hero gets the girl in the end and they live happily ever after. That’s the one important happiness narrative in Western culture. Today I no longer worry much about failing in that regard because I think that the narrative is flawed. 

Attachment theory falls short

As I recall it, when I studied psychology at university many years ago I was only presented with one explanation to why relationships fail and that’s “attachment theory”. The theory was originally developed by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) and his American-Canadian co-worker the developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999).

According to them, our ability to form deep and enduring emotional bonds are based on early experiences with our primary caregivers and therefore the theory is also sometimes used to say that adult relationship patterns are modeled on those childhood experiences.

The theory identifies four different attachment patterns that are visible from an early age, that’s “secure”, “ambivalent”, “avoidant” and “disorganized”. Most children are secure, they feel safe and confident. Supposedly they also form good relationships as adults.

The ambivalent children on the other hand are insecure, distrustful and suffer from separation anxiety. As adults they tend to cling to and feel unloved by their partners. The avoidant children tend to stay away from intimacy altogether as adults and the same goes for the disorganized children who also have a hard time controlling anger and other emotions. 

I am sure attachment theory has some truth to it. In my opinion it is, however, not able to account for why so many people have overwhelming relationship issues and why large parts of us either get divorced or do not marry at all.

That’s a general trend in many Western societies and therefore it doesn’t really make sense to try to explain it in terms of individual childhoods. It seems to me that we need to develop other kinds of explanations and that if you are unable to be in a long term couples relationship it doesn’t necessarily mean that something went wrong in early bonding. 

How do you feel about intimacy?

I think it is important to discern the “why” in each individual case. Do you for instance stay away from intimacy due to fear? And, if so, is it a “good” or a “bad” fear. A good fear is when you are afraid of something dangerous. That’s reasonable, it will serve you well and keep you out of danger.

A bad fear, however, is irrational. We call it anxiety or phobia. It resembles an allergic reaction to something that is healthy. For instance, if you are allergic to apples it is probably not very sensible. For some reason your body’s immune system has categorized it in a wrong way. Likewise intimacy and close relationships are good for us, so a basic fear of that is what I call bad fear.

Intimacy
Do you fear intimacy? Photo: Sinitta Leunen

A bad fear like that may have arisen from insensitive parenting as attachment theory suggests. Since it happened at a very early age you don’t remember but subconsciously you are convinced that you must watch out for intimate relationships. If that’s your problem, then you do have a problem. 

But what if the case is very different; for example you do not fear intimacy and you enjoy close relationships but you get easily tired of being in a couples relationship? Maybe you prefer freedom. Or what if you fall in love in November but come January you already forgot about it? What if you are passionate about something else, not marriage? Or if somehow you sense that romance is not really the kind of love that you are looking for?

These examples may not have anything to do with problems in early bonding. However, since our predominant happiness narrative is so closely related to romance, I think that Western culture pretty much fails to address these issues and to provide a deeper understanding of the involved people’s psychology.

As a result, we don’t have a good framework for understanding ourselves in those situations. You may easily come to think: “What is wrong with me?” Therefore a lot of people end up struggling with both confusion and low self esteem if they don’t fit very well into our cultural notions of romantic love. 

Martinus’s view on relationships

When I was in my early twenties I started reading the Danish author Martinus (1890-1981). His writings on spiritual issues are vast and comprehensive; his main work alone, Livets Bog (The Book of Life), entails thousands of pages in seven volumes. I don’t expect you to know anything about him. Even in Denmark he is not commonly known but parts of his writings are translated into numerous languages.

Reading him I began to see things in a new perspective and I realized that my own problems might not be caused by fear of intimacy and bonding issues but rather they might be signs of something natural and meaningful. 

According to Martinus, relationship issues are not a mistake because a new kind of love is on the rise and problems with the old romantic kind is an intrinsic part of the transformational process. 

He sees modern developments in our relationship and family structures as part of a larger evolutionary scheme. He uses the term “zone of unhappy marriages” for our present stage in that evolution and says that our ability to form marriages has been degenerating for a long time already.

It doesn’t sound like a very nice idea, does it? So why would that comfort me in any way? Well, since I used to think that something was wrong with me, the suggestion that I was on the right track was very appealing. What a relief!

According to Martinus, relationship issues are not a mistake because a new kind of love is on the rise and problems with the old romantic kind is an intrinsic part of the transformational process. 

Marital love and neighborly love

He portrayed two kinds of love, “marital love” and “neighborly love”. You may say that marital love is for the one whereas neighborly love is for everyone. Martinus proclaimed that we are all influenced to some degree by both of these two kinds of love but that we differ greatly with regard to our make-up, that is some of us are very much into marital love whereas others are more or less dominated by neighborly love.

He also said that the first one is in decline and the second one is growing. Even if this transition is slow and organic, it is also progressing steadily and will ultimately, in a far off future, lead to a total restructuring of our love lives so that neighborly love takes over completely leaving no room whatsoever for marriages. 

The two kinds of love are conflicting forces because, if you truly love your neighbor, your wife or husband may easily feel neglected or jealous. They will soon realize that they are not the one and only since neighborly love is all encompassing, meaning the object of that love is not just one woman or one man but every woman and every man.

That’s why if you are looking for a partner, you would do well to consider if the two of you have similar make-ups. If both of you are dominated by marital love you will likely be joined at the hip. But if one of you is dominated by neighborly love and the other by marital love, your relationship will probably suffer a lot from that disharmony and you might not stick together for very long.

Marital love is the kind of love you feel when you “fall in love”. It is a natural phenomenon in all of the animal kingdom. It is instinctive and hormone-driven, and I think it is fair to say that this is the kind of love that will most often convince us to start a family. For some of us, though, this kind of love is not at all what it used to be. Our ability to fall in love like that has become eroded and fragmented.

According to Martinus we will experience that more and more in the future. This means that increasing numbers of us will have difficult and unhappy marriages or will not get married at all. If you are like that, your appetite for relationships is rather small and you also may no longer feel like having kids. Those big meals are too much for you. 

Heartaches in the transitional period

During the period of transition your love life may lead to numerous heartaches and give rise to a lot of confusion. At some point you may realize that you are like a wounded refugee in a no-man’s land between the realms governed by these two kinds of love.

Caught up in the middle you might try to fulfill the requirements of both but since they represent opposing ideals and practices you will probably end up failing either way. If you are no longer able or fit to marry and if you are not yet able to truly love your neighbor either, you will have to limp along doing everything in a half-hearted way.

For some that struggle may be very intense and painful whereas for others it is less acute but most of us living in the modern world will probably feel its weight to some degree.

Even if it sounds depressing it is not all bad because you may also experience some progression, for instance getting better and more intimate friendships even with your ex’es or with those girls or guys that you used to date. That’s a good sign showing that neighborly love is on the rise in your mentality.

So to recap, relationship issues may hurt a lot and getting your heart broken may happen too often, however, that doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you. On the contrary, if Martinus is correct, you are probably on the right track in a large transitional process. Hopefully, thinking about it like that will allow you to feel better and more confident. That may even help your dating.


Follow this blog, I will soon give out more advice on dating and relationship issues.

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