I often tell the folks I see that whoever invented relationships must have a sense of humor.
For example, it seems that whatever we do to protect ourselves in a primary love relationship is precisely what pushes our partners' buttons – and vice versa. Let's say one partner criticizes, as a protection strategy, and the other withdraws. It's likely that the withdrawal is just as difficult for the one who criticizes as the criticism is for the one who withdraws.
In similar fashion, we seem astutely able at times to withhold from our partners exactly what they need. Psychologist and relationship counselor, David Schnarch, refers to this phenomenon as "marital sadism", a natural expression of the anger and resentment present in most marriages.
While I see evidence for his point of view, I'm more likely to view the withholding as a way of signaling our partners – with varying levels of awareness – that we're unhappy about something that's occurring or not occurring in the relationship. Of course, as both parties engage in these signaling strategies, each waiting for the other to budge, a painful standoff ensues.
In a more recent view that I'm coming to appreciate and adopt, spiritually-oriented writers describe this withholding as a well-disguised gift – an invitation from life, through our partners, for us to face and heal old wounds, realize wholeness and stop searching "out there" for something already "in here." As Richard Moss wisely puts it, "We are, already, that which we seek."
Regardless of one's perspective on this aspect of relationship, the intimate dance is definitely mysterious and maddening at times, goofy and complex. Our patterns are well practiced, and yet we keep dancing – discovering, over time, unexpected delights, opportunities for growth and new ways to boogie.