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Creating Healthy Relationships

We expect things of our intimate partners that we expect of no one else. Our expectations are like a private litmus test we apply to our lovers. They “flunk” whenever we feel bewildered or betrayed, or realize that what we expect is not what they expect or are even able to fulfill. Being unaware of our hidden expectations or the validity of our differences can sabotage and destroy our relationships. We can return to pleasure and revive a relationship by identifying the hidden “love knots” and “emotional allergies” that bind us and our loved one together in pain.

Love knots is a term coined by marriage therapist Lori Gordon in her book of the same title. They are caused by subconscious assumptions about love, families and what we can and cannot talk about that we bring into our relationships. Many of these beliefs and assumptions originate in childhood and have never been thought about or shared or updated. They feel so obvious to us we may have a hard time reframing and letting them go, yet they become hidden landmines that explode when touched.

One of the most common of love knots is: “If you really loved me, you would know what I think, need or feel and you would give it to me.” Many people are astonished and hurt when their partner either doesn’t know that they are upset or why they are upset. When asked, “What’s wrong?” they might retort, ”Well if you don’t know…” and then walk off, leaving their partner feeling puzzled or guilty for they know not what.

In effect, the message to our partners is, “You owe it to me to make up for everything that I didn’t get before, so always do this positive thing I loved from my past. Never do anything like this painful thing that I hated, and we’ll be fine!” It’s empowering to know we can feel more love with our intimates by taking more responsibility for what might be going on within us.

Every love knot contains a false assumption that if someone loves us, then they implicitly know what is in our mind and heart, and certainly hold our likes and dislikes in high regard. When they don’t know, the next assumption is that they must not love us. Believing this generates an emotional reaction of anger or hurt and a behavior; we walk away and distance ourselves or lash out.

Healing a love knot is based on identifying it and then finding its more humanized premise. Rewriting the aforementioned love knot goes like this: The only way to know for sure what someone wants or cares about is to be told. We must make our expectations explicit and share them without blaming. To expect our partner to read our mind is unrealistic and courts disaster.

To understand the origins of love knots, we need to realize how different parts of our brain operate and process information. According to researcher and author Paul MacClean, the “love brain”, or emotional brain, is one of three “brains” we possess. It only scans our memory banks for pain or pleasure. It doesn’t ask, “Is this reasonable?” That’s the job of the frontal cortex, which we often leave out during an emotional reaction.

Love knots, and to a large extent our expectations of intimate relationships, are invisibly programmed by our previous close relationships, especially with parents, siblings, former spouses or lovers. Disappointments and hurtful memories remain in the love brain’s emotional memory, clouded by the passage of time. They command us from our subconscious mind and still play an active role in our day-to-day lives in the form of emotional allergies. “We need to talk,” might just trigger our partner’s unconscious memory of a parent saying this right before delivering a punishment. They will not want to talk as a result.

Undetected emotional allergies create intense negative reactions toward the people that trigger them, making them appear as an enemy against whom we need to launch an attack to protect ourselves from harm. Our reactions may appear rational to us, but they are not. They are connected to an unhealed emotion or traumatic event in the past creating a protective, yet maladaptive response. Our partner, to whom we unconsciously hand this bill from our past, is unaware of our balance sheet. If we treat them as the unreasonable enemy, we are evening up the ledger on someone else’s account.

So the next time there is withdrawing or blaming, take a pause for centering, put on a detective hat and get curious. Untangling hidden love knots may require some help, but it is worth the effort to discover what the possibilities for healthy relating really are.

Maureen Riley is a therapist for couples and singles with an international practice. She is a certified facilitator of the PAIRS Foundation marriage and relationship education classes. Contact her at 773-761-9412, [email protected] or