Harry Chapin was an amazingly successful folk singer of the 1980s. He attracted huge crowds and was on the way to a major career when he ended up in the wrong place at the wrong place. He died in a car crash on the Long Island Expressway at the age of 38. The career he might have had never came to be.
Amazingly talented people have the same bad luck as anyone else. Emanuel Feuermann, considered by many to be the greatest cellist of all times, died at age 39 due to complications of hemorrhoid surgery.
Jacqueline DuPre, who might compete with Feuermann for the title of greatest cellist, died at age 42 due to complications of multiple sclerosis.
Just a reminder that whatever problems you may have, there may be others who have done much worse!
But let’s return to Harry Chapin. Chapin’s greatest song, some people believe, was Circle, which begins “All my life’s a circle.”
In the song, Chapin writes about a relationship the narrator once had that just kept circling round in round. Things would work; then the relationship would fail; then he and his love would try again—and fail again; and then they would try and fail again. They kept ending up where they started.
Have you ever been, or are you, in a circular relationship—one that seems to be moving forward and then somehow ends up back in the same bad place that you were trying to leave?
It can seem like a story out of The Twilight Zone, and indeed, there is an episode, “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” in the TV series, The Twilight Zone, with analogous problem. A couple, Bob and Milly Frazier, try to get out of deserted town, Centerville, on a train, only to discover that they keep coming back to where they started.
How do you get out of circles in relationships—situations where, despite your multiple efforts to solve a problem, you keep ending up back where you started? You just can’t seem to get past the problem.
For example, maybe you always argue about the same thing, or keep promising not to scream at each other only to end up screaming at each other, or the one-time affair becomes multiple affairs over time.
Or you keep spending too much money despite your pledges to cut down on spending—and then blame each other?
When I’m not studying love, I study intelligence, creativity, problem solving, and the like, so I have some suggestions for what you can do when you keep circling round—based both on my research on love and on my research on problem solving.
1. Are you solving the right problem?
When you keep trying to solve a problem in your relationship and it won’t solve, ask yourself whether you are solving the right problem. Sometimes, the problem is not solved because you are solving the wrong problem. For example, if you keep screaming at your partner, or she at you, is it because your relationship is failing or is it because you or your partner have an anger-management problem that is not about your relationship but rather about how you handle anger and frustration? Or is it about something in your lives you believe you can’t control—for example, a health issue or a financial issue—and the easiest way to deal with it is to blow off steam because dealing with the actual problem has gotten you nowhere? Or if you keep spending too much money, is it because you are not bringing in enough money, or because you cannot control your impulses in the financial domain or, for that matter, any other? Or is spending money somehow relieving anxiety in the short run, kind of like an addiction, only to cause more anxiety in the long run? My point is that you cannot fix a problem in a relationship if you inadvertently focus on the wrong problem and instead try to solve that.
2. Is the problem only part of a larger problem?
It may be that you are addressing the right problem, but only a small part of it. Consider, for example, a problem many people want to solve: smoking. They want to stop smoking but they keep returning to it again and again; they never stop for more than a short period of time. As a colleague once said to me, “Smokers never conquer smoking; they only go into remission,” meaning that they could start again at any time, given the right cues. Smoking is not a single problem. It is a physiological addiction to nicotine, one of the most additive substances known. But nicotine patches and nicotine gum often do not solve the problem. Why? Because nicotine addiction is only part of the problem. Smoking is also a psychological addiction, or at least, deeply ingrained habit. It is something that has become so routine the smoker may scarcely notice they are lighting up. Smoking is also heavily cued by the environment. Do you smoke when you drink? When you are with certain friends? When you are nervous? When you need a break?
Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said, when suffering from terminal oral cancer, that he would not be able to work without smoking. Perhaps for you, it is a cup of coffee you need to work, or whatever.
Relationship problems usually are like the smoking problem. They are complex. Addressing only part of the problem does not solve them. Rather, the problem keeps coming back because the solution was inadequate to the scope of the problem. To solve a relationship problem, you need to figure out its whole scope. If you cannot do that yourself, you may need to consult with a counselor or a therapist.
3. Do you really want to solve the problem?
Sometimes, people don’t solve problems because, in the end, they really don’t want to. This is one of the first lessons one learns about psychotherapy and marital therapy: People can solve problems only if they really want to solve them. There is a joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb. The answer is just “1,” but the light bulb has to really want to change. For example, a partner having multiple affairs may, in the end, prefer the affairs and the risks they carry to the relationship. He (or she) may want to change, but not enough to stop having affairs. It’s like losing weight: Unless you really want to lose it, forget the whole thing; you won’t lose it without a serious effort to change the way you eat. So ask yourself whether you are circling because however much you dislike the problem, you dislike all possible solutions to it even more.
4. Do you really need to solve the problem?
Emanuel Feuermann, mentioned at the beginning of this essay, learned that the cure was worse than the problem. We all encounter this kind of situation from time to time. Sometimes, the solution is worse than the problem. For example, for older men, “cures” for prostate cancer are often worse than the cancer, leaving the men impotent or incontinent when they would have died of other causes way before they would have died of the prostate cancer. That is why sometimes doctors recommend so-called “watchful waiting.” Ask yourself whether your problem is one you can live with? Look, we all are imperfect. How many times has your partner asked you to clean up your messes? How many times have you been reminded not to have that huge dessert? How often times has your partner warned you to stop using foul language? We are all imperfect, often, seriously imperfect. A lot of any relationship is simply learning to live with our own and each other’s imperfections.
5. Are you manufacturing a problem where none really exists?
Every once in a while, I realize I create a problem that does not really exist. Someone acts in a way I don’t quite like at the moment and I try to think of some deep reason why they acted that way. I start obsessing over it. I ask, “What does it mean?” In fact, it meant nothing. They had no ill intentions at all. I just turned nothing into something. Do you ever take innocent comments, or well-intentioned but misspoken words, into a major confrontation? I have done so more than once. I just am too sensitive sometimes. How about you? There are enough real problems in the world. Don’t manufacture ones that don’t exist. Ask yourself, before you start to solve a problem, whether there is really a problem to be solved. Maybe you keep finding problems not because there are problems, but because you keep inventing them!
If you deal with circles in your relationships, try and see if one or more of the points above apply to your problem and can help you break the circles.
Let me know if my thoughts were helpful!