The couples who come to see me have reached an impasse. Often they can’t talk without yelling and insulting each other. Sometimes they can’t keep house in a way that satisfies them both. Often one feels burdened and believes the other is not doing enough. Always the issue is communication.
Almost always neither one feels heard. Every word seems to be misinterpreted. Worse, one person thinks the other is simply not paying attention. When we think we’re being ignored, it’s as if we don’t matter. This predicament is especially painful when you love someone.
More than anything else, we all want to please the people who are important to us. We show them that we value them when we honor their preferences, tolerate their quirks, say things that make them feel good, and touch them lovingly.
To have a successful relationship means that you must accept the stuff you do and don’t like within yourself as well as within your partner. There are no saints. Embrace the sinner within! We all have one. When you condemn parts of yourself, you set the stage for a conflict that will undermine your ability to reach out.
A romance with your clone would be dull and unsatisfying. Don’t demand that your partner be like you in every trait or habit. Approach the differences with tolerance, humor, and appreciation. They are news bulletins that show you how the other person is living in the world.
Acceptance and tolerance are both fundamentally boundary issues. If you are constantly trying to remold the other person to your liking, you are overstepping. The cure? Rather than demand that the other person change, zero in on your own discomfort. Find ways to make yourself feel better.
Typically this process entails revisiting the ways in which you take care of yourself. You are always your own first responsibility. Your love for yourself and your willingness to minister to your own needs determine your ability to reach out to others.
We all seem to carry within us an unattainable vision of the ideal relationship. We yearn for a magical amalgam of parent, admirer, and clairvoyant lover. It’s a challenge to stay tuned when this apparition fails to materialize. The best payoff comes when you set your sights on maintaining the connection rather than on making the other person toe the line.
Wondering how well you are faring in your own relationship? To find out, ask yourself how many things you and your partner can talk about. Can you handle the touchy topics? How I turn you off sexually? How your mother behaves on holidays? How you use the credit card? Your binge eating and my alcohol abuse? How to get our daughter out of our bed at night?
Ideally you can talk about even the subjects that are most fraught with tension. In most relationships, though, doors close over time. People learn to avoid discussing matters that tend to produce conflict, personal attacks, and intense anger. The scope of conversation narrows.
When I see couples, one of my first tasks is to open up the dialogue. Then I try to help each of them learn how to listen nonjudgmentally. You want to hear the other person’s feelings while staying tuned to your own. “I feel disrespected when you condemn my mother!” “You violate my privacy every time you check my cell phone!” “Of course I cheated on you. It was the only way I could get your attention!”
We all have the same assortment of feelings, and so in principle it should be easy for us to hear, validate, and comfort each other. Anger, which always looks hostile, frequently masks another feeling that a good listener can identify and speak to.
People especially like to invoke reasons (thoughts) to defend their feelings, as if the feelings needed somehow to be justified. They do not. If you start debating whose version of the facts was right, you will never stop.
The real problem in communication breakdowns may be our innate inability to accept our own feelings whether or not they are validated or shared in the moment by the people we care about. We all constantly crave affirmation.
In our relationships, as elsewhere, we all need to believe we have some control. Your peace of mind, and mine, can’t depend on our ability to manipulate each other or we will both feel powerless. Instead we must find other options. If you are fed up with me, you can take a time out, log more hours at the gym, visit your mother or a friend, or (worst case scenario) divorce me.
Before you dismiss some of these possibilities (and others) as out of the question, remember that when you do so you are making a choice. Once you know that you can choose one course of action over another you have the single most powerful weapon against feelings of helplessness and defeat.
In the quest to do, be, and feel your best, it helps to have had some benchmark experience of happiness. Then, as you move forward, making improvements, you can refer back to this reference point to gauge your progress.
As your relationship gets better, you will sense that you are coming home. T. S. Eliot wrote of arriving “where we started and [knowing] the place for the first time.” For couples, this spot is often the courtship period, which lays the foundation for love and commitment. Because of its importance down the road, lovers should take their time at this stage rather than hurry through it.
Most couples get stuck reprocessing the past, especially the parts—hurtful words and deeds—that felt traumatic. We instinctively return to these sore spots, poking them again and again to see whether the pain is still there, hoping somehow to allay it.
Since no one can change the past, a better solution is to cultivate new habits that transcend and replace the old. Practice listening skills. Remember that anger has more to do with the person expressing it than with the person listening. Have fun together. Embark on new adventures. Connect in positive ways. Plant seedlings for new blooms.
Relationship problems arise when no answer is obvious. Sometimes there’s a tug-of-war. The best solutions emerge when the parties step back, listen to each other’s concerns, and create a bridge that spans the difficulty. In this way the conflict is bypassed and becomes irrelevant. Treat the problems as not mine or yours but ours. Think of Einstein’s remark that problems are not solved at the level at which they were created.
For any relationship to thrive, both parties must show that they cherish and respect each other. There is no single recipe for this wonderful result, but each of us can show someone else how to make us feel loved. When you aim for profound acceptance of the other person, you make it more likely that he or she will approach you in the same spirit.
Life is often lonely, difficult, and painful. We all crave validation and a sense of belonging. We are all challenged to be good to ourselves and each other. No relationship is worth pursuing unless it can become, at least some of the time, by the mere fact of its existence, a source of joy. Life is too short for anything else.