It’s called the “upper limits" problem.
Never heard of it? You've definitely experienced it, likely without even knowing it’s happening.
The idea comes from Gay Hendricks, one of our favorite relationships experts. He has observed that we all have an upper limit when it comes to happiness and connection in relationships.
In his words, “Each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy. When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we will often do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure."
How might this show up in your relationship?
Imagine that you and your partner have a weekend trip, away from work, kids, and other commitments. For the first part of the trip, you both feel more connected than you've felt in years. But then, as if out of the blue, you start arguing with each other about something trivial.
Now you no longer feel the ecstasy of connection. You’re right back to where you were before the weekend started. You feel frustrated, misunderstood, and upset.
Has this ever happened to you? It's certainly happened to us, and it doesn't mean that you're doing anything wrong. It just means that you've hit an upper limit.
Of course, upper limits can also arise in more catastrophic ways. Think about Bill Clinton. He rose rapidly to success from humble beginnings. And then, at the very peak of his presidency, he engaged in an infamous act of self-sabotage. He's not alone. The lives of other politicians, rock stars, celebrities, and athletes reveal the almost universal nature of this pattern.
The moment you go beyond your upper limit of joy, connection, or success, you will often unconsciously create some form of drama (arguments, accidents, illnesses, or outbursts) to bring your inner thermostat back to its comfort zone.
How can you overcome the upper limits problem in relationships?
The first step is to become aware of upper limits in real time. Without awareness, after all, this unconscious pattern runs the show. You pick a fight with your partner, not because you want to, but because of that unconscious part of you that's trying to stay safe.
Here are some signs to look out for:
When you spot the signs of these upper limits, everything changes. You can actually say to your partner in these moments, “I feel like I'm hitting an upper limit." This gives you a unique freedom. You can now follow the path of unconscious habit or take steps to shift the pattern.
Mountaineers who summit high altitude peaks have a deep insight: as you reach new heights, take some time to allow your system to adjust.
This same wisdom applies to relationships. When you feel an upper limit coming (it feels "too good to stay true"), take time to get grounded in the experience of connection.
Going for a walk is one great way to do this. The physical act of walking in nature will take you and your partner out of your heads and into your bodies. There is also a literal grounding effect of feeling the earth with each step you take on the trail.
Breathing is another great way to settle into states of joy and connection. When you feel an upper limit coming, take a few deep breaths to savor this elevated state. Allow yourself to consciously acclimatize to feeling amazing so that you can avoid the unconscious urge to revert back to your old comfort zone. And, like mountaineers, don't try to climb higher in that moment, but stay where you are, letting this become your new set point.
During these rare moments of connection, we tend to avoid creating space from each other. And yet taking 30 minutes or an hour away from each other during a weekend away or an extended date night offers yet another antidote to the upper limit problem.
Like walking or breathing, these short breaks give both of you an opportunity to settle into the exquisite and yet often unnatural feeling of deep connection.