In this age of technology and digital communication, I have seen a growing trend in my practice of serious technology related issues in relationships. These issues can signal the beginning of the end for relationships as they can propel the couple to try to control each other and to descend deeper and deeper into codependency and mistrust.
Cell phones are wonderful things, they allow us to stay in constant communication in a myriad of ways, but they can be the source of much conflict. Text messages are a prime example. Communication with someone other than the partner can trigger insecurity and suspicion in a relationship and the informal nature of text messages can sometimes allow for communication to veer towards subjects that may be seen as inappropriate or that feel disrespectful to the other partner. Someone already prone to insecurity may be propelled to anger and jealousy by the discovery of messages to another.
Computers can be another source of pain. From Facebook to pornography, there are triggers everywhere that can cause hearts to constrict and fear to rule. Friend requests from former flames can cause more anxiety than a four-alarm fire, and private messages when discovered can damage trust and build walls. It can seem like there is nowhere in the world that is safe from the potential “threat” to the relationship once the line is crossed.
It seems like the first response to these events is to “control” them. The wounded party may ask to see the offender’s text messages or view their computer history on a regular basis. Monitoring the phone records and promises not to delete anything until inspected become commonplace. It seems like once that first step to “monitor” is taken, the relationship becomes a playground for crazy making.
There are too many ways around being monitored for monitoring to be an effective means of achieving that feeling of safety. There are apps that allow you to receive texts on a server so that they never actually show on a phone, and ways to wipe and encrypt information on a hard drive so that it is never found. The person trying to feel safe because of the feeling of control that comes with being able to check the phone will exhaust himself or herself with having to think of all the ways they could be deceived.
Relationships can become so codependent and enmeshed once they head down this slippery slope that they hold no resemblance to the loving environment that was originally triggered by suspicion. Monitoring someone is futile. If someone wants to cheat they will. There is no surveillance mechanism strong enough to track someone who wants to be underground. This is hard news to hear for someone in love who simply wants to feel safe.
The first step in dealing with an infraction, whether infidelity, flirtation or mere miscommunication is to evaluate your boundaries. What are you willing to do or to put up with to stay in this relationship? Is the relationship worth saving? How much discomfort are you willing to bear? Are you willing to risk being hurt to love this person? For some the answer is no, and for some, staying in the relationship is worth the work it will take to stay there.
So how do you do it? You realize that you are in a relationship with a person who is separate from you who has the ability to make decisions on his or her own. You accept the fact that no matter what you do you cannot prevent yourself from being hurt when you love someone. The risk is always there. Then, you nail your feet to the floor and take a deep breath. This is the hard part.
Distress tolerance skills are useful when we are unable, unwilling, or it would be inappropriate to change a situation. Learning to coexist with discomfort can go a long way in increasing our quality of life. Sometimes learning a few skills can allow us to stay in a relationship and thrive versus intervening and trying to control and pronouncing the beginning of the end for the relationship.
Radical acceptance is the first step in distress tolerance. Acceptance means being willing to experience a situation as it is, rather than how we want it to be , it is a willingness to accept things as they are and to learn to exist with the fact. This doesn’t mean that what happened is ok, it merely means that it happened.
Repeatedly ‘turning the mind’ is useful as well. To be in the actual situation you are in, rather than the situation you think you’re in, or think you should be in is a must. Your mind is always going to give you other ideas, interpretations, reminding you of old strategies. Each time your mind wanders and you notice these other thoughts and images, simply bring your attention back to this moment. Not judging the situation to be good, or bad, or in any way. Simply bringing your attention back to this moment, this situation, and being effective in this situation. That means accepting that something happened that made you uncomfortable, and resisting the mind’s desire to control or fix the situation.
Taking a deep breath and finding things to distract you from the desire to monitor or control can help. Engaging in activities is often helpful. One should focus their undivided attention on the activity alone, and attempt to push away any thoughts that try to come in related to the trigger. Mindless, or tedious activities usually work best for this, such as needlework, washing dishes, filing papers, etc. It is important not to attach any opinions to the activities you are engaged in because doing so opens the door to judgmental thoughts and images related to the triggering event.
Finding meaningful activities outside of your relationship can help you to keep perspective and a healthy sense of your significance. Volunteering or engaging in activities with a purpose helps redirect your attention upon others. There is a tendency to become hyper-focused on your relationship when triggered to anxiety, and developing contributing skills helps move your focus to others. Examples of contributing skills would be doing someone a favor or making someone a nice card for a “just because” occasion, or writing a letter to a loved one, telling them how much you care. Contributing not only helps distract you from your own painful emotions but it helps you build a sense of self respect and gives back meaning and purpose to your life that may feel diminished due to the current circumstances in your relationship. Doing things for others can be very rewarding, especially when the act is unsolicited. This distress tolerance tactic is very effective.
Self-soothing is a skill that many of us neglect when triggered to anxiety. This is a skill in which one behaves in a comforting, nurturing, kind, and gentle way to oneself. You use it by doing something that is soothing to you such as taking a bubble bath, or spending time in nature. It is used in moments of distress or agitation to great avail when you are feeling afraid and compelled to act.
Committing yourself to a relationship based on mutual respect and refusing to allow yourself to take that first step towards losing self-respect despite your partner’s actions is a must. Once you take that first step down the slippery slope you not only lose your self-respect, you give your relationship the seal of doom. What feels like it will save the relationship and make it “safe” for you is actually the guaranteed way to keep you in anxiety and pain. Monitoring also prevents the offender from being able to redeem himself or herself, and takes away their dignity, which ensures that they will never be able to perform up to their highest capabilities in the relationship.
Sometimes outside support is necessary to enable you to thrive in a relationship where your trust has been broken. As a psychotherapist who specializes in anxiety, I have seen relationships dissolve due to infidelity and the ensuing mistrust, but I have also seen them heal and grow. Having an advocate to help you navigate the uncharted waters of relationship insecurity can go a long way towards helping you decide whether to stay in a relationship or leave. Psychotherapy can help you keep your dignity and to step into your power and use the situation as an opportunity for growth.