How to tell the difference
Ah, that first adrenaline rush of new love. When hormones surge and blood races around your brain and your body, making desire swell and slipping rose-colored glasses over your eyes. It feels so good, doesn’t it? But sometimes in the rush of all that fresh new emotion, it is possible to mistake the drama of a difficult relationship for true passion.
When you’re first getting to know someone, you don’t know what to expect. Unpredictability can be exciting, but if you get addicted to the rush, it can land you on the roller coaster ride of fighting, making-up, and fighting again, just to keep that feeling alive. If you find yourself in a pattern of dating bad boys who break your heart again and again, but the make-up sex is so good that you keep coming back for more, you might be falling into the trap of confusing passion with the adrenaline-fueled flush of relationship drama.
True passion doesn’t make you feel like you are stuck in a repeating cycle of ever-increasing heartache and hurt. True passion, when it manifests in a healthy relationship, is a shared experience that excites and uplifts you both.
So, why do people stay on the roller coaster of relationship drama even when it’s clear that the constant ups and downs are taking a serious toll on their emotional health?
One reason can be a fear of vulnerability.
Fighting feels comfortable because it allows you to keep your emotional walls up. It gives you an excuse to stay in defensive mode and focus on what is wrong with the partner instead of taking a good hard look at yourself. Making-up feels so good because it gives you a temporary respite between the fights, but as soon as another situation arises that requires one of you to open up and be truly vulnerable to the other, it’s easier to start a new fight instead.
Let’s be honest, there are ways that fighting feels good. It feels good to get that rush of energy as the anger builds. It feels good to be self-righteous and defend your stand. It feels good to unleash anger at the other person over the long laundry list of everything they have ever done wrong since you first met. It feels good to push them away or to be the one to walk away. And it feels good to go tell all your friends what a jerk your partner has been over a couple of cocktails. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it feel good to complain and hear your friends complain about their relationship problems in turn? It feels like bonding. But this can sometimes be what Brené Brown calls Common Enemy Intimacy in her best-selling book Braving The Wilderness. Brené explains it like this:
“Common Enemy Intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection.”
In this case, the common enemy would be the partners being complained about, mainly men. Having a strong and supportive circle of friends is important for everyone. We all need those close, emotionally intimate friendships where we can share everything about our lives with the sure knowledge that these people will not hold anything against us because of the long history of trust and love. But when we start bad mouthing a romantic partner to a group of common enemy intimacy friends, it may perpetuate the cycle of fighting and making-up. Those friends will be ready to remind you of any bad thing your partner did that you might have forgotten. When you are getting along with your partner, they might bring up something to upset you again. Not because they want you miserable, but because discord and fighting are what you bond about. It is the foundation this kind of friendship is built upon. And it keeps the drama alive.
Another reason people stay stuck in relationship drama is that it may be so familiar that they don’t believe anything else is possible.
Particularly for those who grew up in an emotionally tumultuous environment, the idea that love can exist without the catastrophic ups and downs might not even occur to them. I recently read an article by Matthew Salis who asked the question, why do the children of alcoholics marry alcoholics? It seems like they, more than anyone else, would know better. But here is one of the reasons that he came to in his research and by studying his own life:
“My wife’s father was an alcoholic, and I am an alcoholic. But Sheri didn’t marry me because of unfinished business. She married me because of the second reason I’ve consistently heard that children of alcoholics marry alcoholics themselves. My wife married me because she wasn’t sufficiently repulsed by my alcoholic behavior. She’d seen it before, so it didn’t shock or threaten her. My behavior as an active drinker might not have been acceptable, but it was familiar to my bride. And familiarity breeds comfort.”
In modern life we see drama-filled relationships modeled everywhere. What popular TV show or movie would be complete without some difficult, heartwrenching emotional situation for the characters to work through before achieving true love? Shows are even made about the pursuit of love and marriage like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. These shows wouldn’t be interesting at all, much less entertaining, without a whole lot of drama mixed in. How many popular love songs employ language that sounds more suited to war and death than the kind of constant, strong, reliable, and passionate love that most of us claim we someday want to find?
So how do we learn to get comfortable with the discomfort of passionate but undramatic love?
And how do we know the difference between the two? The main difference to look for is how it makes you feel. Does the relationship make you feel insecure, jealous, unloved, or not good enough? Do you ever feel tempted to say or do something to make your partner jealous just to make sure they really care? Those are signs that it’s drama your feeling rather than real passion.
If you feel secure, trusting, loved, and appreciated and still feel your cheeks flush with an adrenaline rush every time you think about this person, then it’s more likely to be real passion.
So focus on bringing your best and happiest feelings to this kind of relationship. When the little hobgoblins inside your head start to make you feel antsy that nothing big and dramatic has happened for awhile, pause and ask yourself what you want to happen next? Try planning a special date or a weekend getaway. Instead of letting the feeling of restlessness push you into picking your partner apart to look for something to fight about, instead funnel those feelings into doing something positive. Your relationship and your partner will thank you.
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