Standing on the steady ground of four decades of a successful marriage, I realize that there are a few things I've learned about how to navigate the waters of close relationships. I'd like to share some of them with you now.
Perhaps the first and most important is self love. If we do not love and value our own self, we will not have the ability to stand up for ourselves and meet our most basic needs in life. Self love gives us boundaries. And good boundaries keep us safe and whole. They protect us from what I call, "Deal Breakers."
If I realize or discover that someone who I am becoming close to has unresolved issues that they need to work through such as: alcoholism, drug addiction, illegal activities or basic moral or ethical problems like lying, cheating or stealing, I can make a choice as to whether I feel called to help them with that soul growth or not. For a potential life partner, either of these would most likely be a 'deal breaker' for me. And for a friendship, depending on how much drama I might want to allow in my life, I might find myself distancing from that relationship.
A couple of other examples of 'deal breakers' might be when one person is wishing to start a family, while the other does not feel called to that experience. Or, if one person really wants to pursue higher education, or a higher station in life while the other finds that they are contented with how things already are. These are perhaps less difficult for a couple to consider than say, addictions or what not, but they can none-the-less be good reasons for not being in a marriage together.
A second relationship dynamic that I've observed is that we often choose and are attracted to people who have mastered qualities that we ourselves have not yet fully cultivated and would love to be able to express. When we find someone who has those qualities, it allows us to observe and hopefully develop some of those traits in ourselves so that we can become a more well-rounded individual. Thus, the engineer is drawn to the artist. The structured and orderly life craves some of the freedom and spontaneity of the creative life and visa versa.
The trouble begins when we start to judge the other through the lens of our own perspective. The artist can't understand why the engineer won't just take a day off to relax and have some fun for a change. And the engineer gets to the point where they can no longer abide by the constant messy chaos of those art projects scattered all over the place. Each tries to make the other be more like themselves. What first attracted, can later become the thorn of contention.
Herein lies a bit of surrender. It just becomes so much easier when we let the people in our lives be who they are and do what they are capable of doing. Yes, we all have chores and we absolutely do need to contribute, in the way that we each best can, to our shared lives together. But, it is good to remember that the only person we can actually change is our self. And the more we try to change someone else, the more frustrated or resentful we become. If, instead, we change our tack and simply accept them, just as they are, the less burdened we become in our own minds.
In addition, when we allow our own internal emotional climate to be determined by the actions of others, we potentially set ourselves up for a lifetime of misery. We need to realize that we are all flawed individuals. Who among us is perfect? No one. This is very true in a marriage too. We are all here, to learn and grow.
So, yes, we all have improvements to make. But we need to grow at our own pace and in our own time. We wouldn't force a six year old to do a twelve year old's algebra problems. We would allow them to gradually develop into that capacity. And in the meanwhile, rather than focusing on what's wrong with each other, we need to focus on what's right.
This is my main point here. Keep the grain and let the chaff blow away. I like to ask, what makes me feel better? Do I like being criticized for what I haven't done or did wrong, or do I like being complimented for what I did right and thanked for all that I do do in the marriage? The answer is clear. I appreciate being appreciated and thanked. It is good to remember this. I love that old saying, Gratitude Brings More Blessings.
Peace Pilgrim used to say, "If you smile at the world, it smiles back at you." So, for homework here, and to start making changes in yourself, the next time you feel frustrated or angry with your significant other, stop yourself and think of 10 things that they've done right. And warm your heart with those realizations. Let them remind you of why you were attracted to this person in the first place. And, then mention and focus on these things instead.
It is amazing how transformative this practice can be on a relationship. When one person starts doing it, often the other responds in kind. Soon, rather than complaining about your spouse to others, you are off to form a mutual admiration society and come to be, as Frank and I like to point out, "President of each other's fan club."
Another relationship pattern that I have noticed in myself is irregardless of whatever the fault or error or misdeed that I may see in the other, if I look closely enough. I'll find that at one time I have committed some version of that same misdeed. Introspection is good and it helps us to see the bigger picture.
This is not to say that I am always to blame for everything that goes wrong in a relationship, because some people, and it is especially common for women, can fall into this trap and feel that if they just work harder on themselves, or make changes in who and how they are, everything will right itself. But a happy marriage takes mutual effort. Gentleness, caring and loving respect, on the part of both parties, is essential. This is a daily task. Both have to pull their weight. If one does all of the work, that is not going to yield any kind of lasting results.
I remember one marriage where the woman was so in love with being in love that she did everything to hold onto the relationship. And it is important to realize that we teach people how to treat us. In this case, she taught him, right from the start, that she would do it all, diminishing her self and her own needs in the process, and he didn't have to do a thing. Unfortunately that even included his not remembering to treat her with loving care or consideration. Until too near the bitter end, she felt that being in relationship had greater worth than her own sense of self.
When the love of oneself is strong, and our boundaries are good, we can remind our self, and the other, that this is a partnership. We can ask how can we help each other to get each of our needs met.
Sometimes the stressors in a marriage arise from outside of the relationship. Jobs can be too demanding. Grief or difficulties with aging parents or other problems can cause us to become overwhelmed. When this occurs, we can say, "I see that you are not happy." Or we can say, "I'm not happy." And then, "What can we do, or what change can we make, together, so we can both be happy?"
Oscar Wilde said that the core of any good relationship is conversation. This is another key that I find to be extremely valuable. Life is meant to be shared. It helps us to stay connected when we talk. And often it is the simple things, the little things that we remember and love. This is where the long burning embers of love lie. And it is how we grow together and not apart.
Everyone is different and some are not as free with words. But even with quiet ones, we can create the time and space to talk. Sometimes it is easiest to begin with the day to day events of our lives. And opening the doors to communication can happen in any number of ways. We can chat during meals, or go for drives together. We can take a walk, or share a cup of tea after a movie. Just asking each other about any little thing can get the words rolling.
Cultivating the habit of conversation is good. And it gives us the opportunity to share about the more challenging things in a relationship, when they arise, like miscommunications or finding and admitting to our own short comings, or very importantly, expressing our gratitude for what is right and good in our partnerships.
Another valuable tip for cultivating healthy relationships is loving touch. Our hands and arms make a circuit to our hearts. Even our friendships need a gentle touch on the shoulder or a nice hug from time to time. But, in our marriages or more significant relationships, it really helps to remember to express the love that is in our hearts through the gentle articulation of our hands. We need to help each other up when we have fallen and let each other know that we care by patting a back or taking hold of a hand or softly caressing a cheek.
A fairly common relationship challenge can happen when a family is born. When a new baby comes into a partnership, quite often the parents place nearly all of their attention on the child, as they should. But, sometimes the connection between the mother and infant can allow the bond between the parents to lapse. The husband may be able to understand this mentally, but emotionally he can feel left out. As things settle down, it helps to remember to share the love, all the way around. When raising a family, I feel that it is important to remember where the primary relationship lies and to keep that strong. It takes a lot to navigate family life and the load is best shared.
This was one of the gifts that my parents gave to me in my childhood. And I feel so blessed because of it. They worked together as a team and they directed the lives of their children. My brothers and I knew where we stood and neither of us kids stood at the helm. Our parents worked together to raise us, each with their own specific roles. There was a tremendous sense of comfort and confidence that that brought to us all.
In family dynamics, it is also good to remember that children's minds are not fully developed and their
capacity for rational thought still lies ahead of them. They are simply not capable of being a fully functioning life partner. It just seems to work best when adults are holding the reins. This lets the child feel the consistency, order and security of adult decisions being made. And when there are two adults, they can each look to each other for guidance and decision making. This, as well, models for the child what a successful working marriage looks like, one that they can then pattern their own life after.
I'm not forgetting 'deal breakers' here. Sometimes we have to let go of a relationship. Our work together is done and we go our separate ways. And if a marriage doesn't work, for whatever reason, being a single parent or sharing parenting in separate households is a much better option than having ill-will and contention rule the home. But if we can work through our differences and keep a happy home, it does wonders for a child to be able to witness that.
One of the enduring markers to health, which includes the health of relationships, is to ask oneself, 'When did I stop singing?' And, 'When did I stop dancing?' If you have stopped, start the work there. And then do it together. We need to remember to have fun. To sing and to dance and to be playful. We need to laugh and crack jokes, and have a good time. We need to touch and smile and chase each other mirthfully around the house every once in a while. We need to sit together and watch the sunset and make and eat good food.
And last but certainly not least, we need to remember that the doors to love open from the inside. It is not so much who someone else is, or how amazing they are. We are all amazing sparks of Divine Love. What matters is that we hold our focus on seeing that spark in the other. They didn't cause us to fall in love with them so much as we came to the place in ourselves that was ready to open the doors of our hearts, to open ourselves to love. And this is a choice that we can make everyday. We can choose to love.