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Oct 13 2011

The Road to Hell and (Sometimes) Back.

Published by at 9:30 am under Knowing Relationships BLOG




By Philip Alan Belove, Ed.D.  All rights reserved
You need to know this, you really do. I see couples all the time who love each other, and yet they do things to each other that hurt each other and tear their relationship apart. And yet, all the while, every step along the way, they feel that they are doing the right thing, and the only sensible thing. The road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

Somehow, if you can step back from what you are doing and see how it works, why your actions are so tempting and justified and why they are also destructive, you can send things in a different direction. This is useful knowledge.

It’s about how people try to make their relationship better and end up only making it worse. It’s about what you can do instead, how you can protect yourself, your partner, and the relationship, as well as protect your honor and your heart. Useful knowledge I think. I’ve explained to so many people that I finally decided to write it out.

It’s my upgrade of an extremely useful tool originally developed by Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs.

Feelings are Information.

“How do you feel about that?” is the same as saying, “What is your emotional relationship to that?”

Not everyone can put that stuff into words. Baby’s establish very complex relationships with the people around them long before they can talk. Dogs establish very complex emotional relationships and never can name them.

You don’t have to be able to name your feelings to get along. However, when a relationship is complex and you have a lot of different feelings and among those feelings are some unpleasant ones, then you want to be able to name your feelings.

Why? If you can name a feeling, then you can make decisions about how you want to handle it. You can be constructive. Or at least no more destructive than you want to be.

This ability to name feelings is something that we develop as we mature. It isn’t something we are born with. We are wired to be far more aware of what’s going with the other person because to a baby, and also to a child, what to expect from an adult is very important information. But if all we can think about is what the other person is doing, then we are only reacting, and that has to change if we want to be able to shape the relationships that matter to us in a healthy way.

What follows is a map, a system, that will help you recognize the early warning signals of how relationships can go from good to bad to worse and, finally, to hell.

General Perspective

A relationship has two sides. If you are emotionally connected to someone in a reasonable healthy way, they are also emotionally connected to you. Being emotionally connected and in sync makes people feel good, at peace, happy, and capable.

The road downward happens in predictable, regular stages. If you know how to identify the characteristic feelings for each stage, then you can tell how bad things are getting to be, and what you can do about it.

Each stage is marked by a more and more extreme form of protest. A protest is a weird statement. It is usually a statement about what you do not want. However, it is also simultaneously a message about what you want instead. It’s a request for change. “Less of this; more of that.”

Protest mount in intensity. Each level of protest is best handled in it’s own special way. You want to be able to recognize the more and more extreme levels of protest.

Here are the levels.

One: Irritation and Annoyance
Two: Anger and Confrontation
Three: Pain, Punishment, and Payback
Four: Contempt and Avoidance

Now, in detail.

First Zone: The Bug Zone
Irritation and Annoyance

Some folks call these irritating moments, “red flags,” because the feeling of irritation is an emotional message that says, “pay attention.” Right or wrong, legit or not legit, a “red flag” is a sign that you are starting to have serious misgivings about how things are unfolding. These things will make you stop and think and question this relationship. You have to respect your instincts and intuitions here. They are forcing you to take a closer look at what’s going on.

Most of the time we accommodate each other. Give a little here, get a little there. But sometimes the balance starts to feel out of whack. Then, what happens, usually, is one person gets irritated. This is usually the one who is doing the accommodating, and the other one gets irritated that the first is irritated. “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just enjoy what we’re doing?”

This is simple grumpiness. He wants this, she wants that and “this” and “that” don’t fit into the same moment. Toilet seat up or down? Dinner dishes done before dessert or after? Go out with friends or stay home alone? Look for a parking spot here or there? Shall we buy a new freezer or keep the money in savings?

We are not infinitely flexible. We all have our limits. Put me (or anyone) close to the edge of our range of flexibility and we get irritated. It’s that inner experience of feeling near our limits. “I can tolerate only so much of this and then no more.”

There is a struggle here. Even if one side wants to pay attention to the irritant and the other wants things to go smoothly without the complaints, it’s the relationship that is out of sync and it’s out of sync on both sides.

If this struggle continues, however, the protest will escalate to the next level. People get angry and the are angry about being so damned irritated.

Zone Two: The Hot Zone
Confrontation and Anger.

Confrontation is the right word. “Con” (both of you) + “Front” (look at it!). The two of you put the issue squarely in front of you and face it, usually with some hard feelings of anger between the two of you. It’s a good thing to do.

You can’t agree on what will happen next and you aren’t willing to let the other make that choice. The anger usually stops everything. It is a power struggle. Anger is its signature emotion. It means you have to focus on the disagreement.

This may, in fact, be a good thing. Certainly it’s better than the alternative, which is to take the protests up another level and get destructive.

In and around all this anger is a bit of healthy fear. Anger can be dangerous. It can get out of control. Getting angry is expensive and risky. You don’t do it lightly. Usually you’ll do it because you feel you have to.

You will use anger to force a resolution because you fear that if you don’t draw the line and force a change something awful will happen. Usually, but not always, women are afraid they will lose love and be alone and abandoned, and men are afraid they will lose their effectiveness and be shamed and humiliated. Either threat can get folks pretty angry.

Zone Three: War
Pain, Punishment, and Payback.

Here is how the thinking goes:

If you can’t get your way, then at least you can make sure the other person isn’t going to enjoy winning the power struggle.
If the other person won’t concede the power struggle, you can just make it more and more expensive for them.
Never mind what it does to your friendship.
Never mind what it costs you.
It’s a matter of principle.
This is the face of hatred.
This is what you need to win a war, whether it’s a hot war or a cold one.
You have to make it expensive for your opponents, regardless of what it costs you.
Some people can carry on like this for generations.
It’s addictive. You feel like God is on your side. Like you are doing right and doing good.
This is very emotionally intense.
It’s so hard because it’s like killing, but at the same time, people doing it feel very alive.

Most of this stuff is justified in the name of “Justice” and “what’s only fair.” War is hell. Hell is all fire and heat and filled with punishment.

Zone Four: The Dead Zone.
Contempt and Avoidance

Hell may be the realm of the damned but all that fire means there is still caring, still giving a damn. There is yet a place which is beyond caring. This is where relationships go when they die.

When you say, “We don’t have a relationship anymore,” this is what you are talking about, a relationship which is shadowy and dead-but-not-really. When the person you “don’t have a relationship with anymore” walks into the room, if you still have an emotional reaction, like, say, contempt, it’s because you still have an emotional relationship.

Disgust is also a good word for it. Yuk. Eeouuuu! Spit it out! Ptui. Make it go away. Those would be the early and more primitive forms of it. In a more mature form it’s simply cold cordiality. “Oh, Hi. Nice to see you. Ummm. Excuse me. I see someone over there I need to speak to. Nice running into you. Bye.” It’s all very smooth. I’ve even seen it accompanied by a handshake that held the person at a distance and then moved them away. Deadsville. Silent and lifeless as a Grave.

So, Now That You can Name the Zones, What do you do?

First of all, just recognize it.

You will have feelings. They are the way you connect with the world of other people. The difference between you and a dog is that a dog just has feelings and reacts. That’s why we like dogs. You always get a totally honest and authentic emotional reaction from a dog. They don’t lie about how they feel. They don’t hide how they feel. That’s also why dogs are sometimes muzzled and often put on a leash.

In a sense, you are your own dog and you are also the leash holder. The name you put on the feelings helps you hold onto the leash better.

Second. Each Zone has its own rules. Know the rules and take action.

First rule: One step at a time.

You can’t skip over a zone to get to a different one.

Leaving the Dead Zone.

Hatred locks you in. You have to acknowledge the depth of your hatred. Then, if you want to take that relationship out of the dead zone, you and your partner have to find a way to forgive.

That means you both have to say “I’m sorry for the harm I inflicted on you. It was not justified. You didn’t deserve it.”

This doesn’t eliminate the reason why you had the war. That’s a different step. It just means that you acknowledge the harm done.

Leaving the War Zone.

You will still have to face the disagreement and the anger and the power struggle. But you will have to agree to face the disagreement. In essence you have to say, “This hurting each other isn’t working for either of us. Can we just talk?”

Leaving the Hot Zone.

You have to learn to keep your cool in the hot zone. Feel the anger. Understand that you are angry, that you really, really, really, don’t like something. And at the same time, keep your ability to think and plan. The problem most people have in the hot zone is that they are shocked that the other person can’t see their side of things.

The advice? Get used to this. Stop being shocked. Accept the reality of significant, meaningful differences.

The second rule is simple. You can confront anyone as long as you are also supporting them. If they feel that you are still basically on their side, you can oppose them on a specific point. So you have to convince them that you are genuinely willing to hear their side of the disagreement. You can disagree with anyone as long as they are convinced that you see and respect their side of the issue, too.

Leaving the Bug Zone.

There are lots of little things — squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, not putting the toilet seat down, making noises when eating, mentioning an old lover at a stupid time – that might or might not be changeable. You can try.

Remember, most of these irritating habits are unconscious habits. You might have to remind, bring them to your partner’s mind, more than once. Keep it light. Be generous.

If you’re a perfectionist, you will always find something not quite right, unless you learn to find all the little flaws charming. That does happen.

As Fred Astaire told Ginger Rogers, when she had a head covered with shampoo,

“And that smile that wrinkles your nose
touches my foolish heart.
You’re lovely.
Never ever change.
Keep that breathless charm.
Won’t you please arrange it
‘cause I love you,
just the way you look tonight.”

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3 responses so far

3 Responses to “The Road to Hell and (Sometimes) Back.”

  1. Deaconon 19 Dec 2011 at 2:58 pm

    There’s nothing like the relief of fdining what you’re looking for.

  2. rogeron 15 Sep 2013 at 6:42 am

    so true, often break-ups happen at the zone 2 stage and zones 3 & 4 happen when there is distance, which is difficult. The power struggle then becomes, I am not going to call her she has to call me, or when I run into her I will try and be cool and pretend that my heart is not shattered.
    that part after the break up where non contact is advised, would like to hear your perspective on this.

  3. drbeloveon 04 Oct 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Really, as I understand my own model, and speaking strictly, I’d say that the break up happens at 4 and it’s a way to escape from the pain and guild (for delivering pain) of 3. But yeah, we’re on the same page here. The lines between the levels are not all that sharp.
    That “pretending to be cool” is brutal. Lots of good old songs about that. Hank Williams was one of the best. “Today I saw you on the stree and my heart skipped a beat. I can’t help it if I’m still i love with you.”
    People who study grief for the death of a loved one say that it takes a couple of years. I’d say that the death of a dream takes about as long and at some level, it’s always there a bit.
    Another song was more revenge. “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when someone breaks your heart… and that’s when I’ll discover that revenge is sweet, as I sit there applauding from a front row seat when somebody breaks your heart like you broke mine.”
    Obviously there are lots of ways this resolves.
    I’ve also seen it end when one partner really apologizes. A man who had abandoned his wife came back to her ten years later. They had both moved on and he said to her, “I want you to know that I see now what a terrible thing I did to you and I’m very sorry” and she burst into tears. They had several more conversations and then it was done.
    The most common one…well, I counseled a woman who had been terribly mistreated and then after a while, she said, “You know, there comes at time when it’s really not that interesting anymore. ” She’d understood all she needed to understand.
    Lots to talk about.

    Philip Alan Belove, Ed.D.