It Starts with a Secret

Anatomy of a breakup

It starts with a secret— a decision you make in the quiet recesses of your own mind. This decision will redefine your relationship and will undoubtedly affect your partner, but you keep it to yourself.

Maybe you’ve already talked with your partner many times about what led to this decision. That’s what we do when we want to keep the relationship going. We try to make amends and reconnect, or renegotiate the relationship when things change (aka, life happens) and we need to adapt or adjust. In other words, we rock our love boat, when necessary, because ultimately, we want to keep sailing along together.

But this time is different. Instead of turning toward your partner, this time you turn away.

I’m not implying that to keep the decision a secret is wrong, that you’re a bad person for doing it, or that you will most certainly regret it.

When we turn away from our partner, we generally don’t do it because we’re bad, stupid or crazy. We’re not intentionally trying to sink the relationship. We do because It seems like a good idea at the time.

Here’s how it can backfire and you can get blindsided:

Turning away is subtle, gradual, and corrosive.
The decision to turn away is, oddly enough, often an attempt to keep the relationship going.

The Turning Point

Here’s how a research participant explained her turning away moment in Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships by Diane Vaughn:

“I finally came to the point where I realized I was never going to have the kind of relationship I had hoped for. I didn’t want to end it, because of the children, but I wasn’t going to let it hurt me anymore. The children and I are going to be the main unit, and if he occasionally wanted to participate, fine – and if not, we would go ahead without him. I was no longer willing to let him be the determining factor as to whether I was happy or not. I ceased planning our lives around his presence or absence and begin looking out myself. “

Here’s another example: A person shares with others – but not with their partner – the conclusion that “since we can’t expect to get all our needs met by one person,” having an affair is an acceptable solution. “Being able to have other relationships is what makes it possible for me to stay in this relationship,” is the rationale.

Neither of these people was trying to end the relationship. But the undisclosed decision was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end.

Let’s Talk About It — Or Not…

So is total transparency the answer — the key to a happy and lasting love? Aren’t there times when nottalking about it is a great idea?

Like when you just accept that some hardwired, intrinsic aspect of your partner isn’t going to change? That your husband will probably never appreciate the value of good table manners, no matter how much you “emphasize” it? And he accepts that you will probably never read the instructions first or ever be ready to leave on time?

Isn’t it a good thing if you’re able to pull off this acceptance good-naturedly (or at least, begrudgingly) so that — without discussing it — voilà, things get better? Isn’t that what love is all about?

I’m talking about a different kind of decision. I’m thinking about the young woman who decided to stop taking birth control pills but neglected to tell her new husband. (The baby was conceived on their honeymoon.)

The difference here is that you’re making a life-altering decision about the relationship and choosing to not share that information with the person on the other end of the relationship seesaw … who just might have something to say about it, if given the chance.

Does your partner always and automatically deserve that chance?

Let’s say you’re a professional woman married to a very successful and very volatile guy. You’re one hundred percent sure that you’re done; you’re ready to move out and end the relationship. What if your total transparency with him about your feelings and intentions is likely to result in physical violence? (She carefully planned, timed and orchestrated moving out so that he had no suspicions before he came home one day to a semi-empty house.)

When should you turn toward your partner and talk about stuff, when should you keep it to yourself, and when should you turn away? Well, it’s a bit complicated. Let’s start with what doesn’t work, so you can either pivot your way out of it or avoid it altogether.

Sure-Fire Ways to Sabotage Your Relationship

No-Win Strategy #1: Sound Off.

Interestingly, sounding off can happen from two opposite ends of the emotional disconnect spectrum:

Aggressive: Aggressive is pretty obvious — it’s loud.
Needy: Needy is softer and more subtle — and just as relentless.

They may look and sound different, but they’re equally draining and disconnected.

No-Win Strategy #2: Put Up and Shut Up.

This is the ultimate victim position: You put yourself at the mercy of your partner. The emotional disconnect happens because essentially, there’s no more “you” to connect with your partner. Often this strategy spirals into depression or leads to No-Win Strategy #3.

No-Win Strategy #3: Shut Down and Hold Out.

You shut down and (quietly and covertly) fight back. You’re more interested in “getting” your partner than reconnecting with your partner. Your victory is a Pyrrhic one, however; You may think you’re winning … but you’re not.

Got Connection?

Here’s what makes all these strategies no-win: All of them are lacking the essential starting point of a felt connection between the two partners.

Why is this important? Because when we feel connected with our partner, it is much easier to:

Hear hard things.
Say hard things.
Confide vulnerable things.

“Connection is the key. Focus all your energy and effort on a felt connection with your partner, and you’re halfway home.’— Dr. Jan Anderson

Why is it easier? Because the felt connection reduces the risks. There’s a better chance you won’t risk losing the affection of your partner when say the hard thing or share the vulnerable thing. There’s a better chance your partner won’t use the information to retaliate or hurt or humiliate you.

Start Here or Start Over

Connection is key. It’s the starting place and the sine qua non. Focus all your energy and effort on a felt connection with your partner, and you’re halfway home.

It’s so vital that, unless or until you establish a felt connection with your partner, I don’t recommend proceeding further to problem-solving. It’s like trying to converse while sitting with your backs to each other across a crowded room.

Here’s the weird part:

Connecting with your partner doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.
A felt connection doesn’t feel gooey. It feels good. Why? Because you get to feel in control enough and vulnerable enough to make a connection to someone that matters to you.
A felt connection isn’t a one hundred percent guarantee that you will end up on the same page. But I can almost guarantee that you’ll minimize any necessary pain and bypass any unnecessary strife and suffering in the process.

A felt connection with your partner puts you both in the safest, sanest possible position to negotiate. It gives you the best possible chance to successfully navigate through one or both of the following problem-solving strategies:

1) Connect. 2) Confide. 3) Negotiate.

1) Connect. 2) Complain. 3) Negotiate.

That’s how problems get solved and intimacy and happiness grow. In stable, happy relationships, both people find ways to air their dissatisfactions and confide their needs — without fear that doing so puts them at risk of losing their partner’s affection.

It’s also how you figure out whether to stay or go with the least amount of remorse or regret.

How to Do This “Connecting” Thing with Your Partner

The bad news? You can’t just think or will your way into making an interpersonal connection with your partner, no matter how high your IQ, how many books or articles you read, or how much drive or discipline you have.

The good news? Getting good at connecting with your partner (or just about anybody) is a skill developed by experiential learning, just like many of the other work or life skills you’ve already developed.

Experiential learning is not just “learning by doing.” Here’s how it works in a counseling setting:

You get a concrete, tangible experience of how this “connecting” thing actually works and how it feels.
You reflect on the experience, including comparing it with prior experiences.
Based on your experience and reflection, you develop new ideas you want to test about how this connecting thing might work for you.
In a safe, private setting, you experiment and practice acting on your new ideas— until you’re ready to take the training wheels off and put your ideas into action with your partner— and anybody else that matters to you.

This connecting skill is what we call emotional intelligence (EQ). It’s merely a different skillset that, when added to your IQ-based skills, street smarts, and drive, will create an unbeatable combination that dramatically increases your chance of relationship success and happiness. What’s not to like about that?