On relationships

"I don’t claim to be a relationships expert (so few of us are). Sometimes I think the extent of my knowledge can be summed up as: Men are from Sears, Women are from Nordstroms. Still, I’ve been around the track — married young, divorced after eight years; then married to Joy, the love of my life for over thirty years and it’s getting better all the time. Point is, I’ve seen the lows and the highs, the difficulties and delights of relationship, and I have a few perspectives to share.

Relationships prove that God has a sense of humor. After all, it’s difficult enough for any two egos to get along — but add to the mix some differing world-views and communication styles and voila! — we have the human drama. As the saying goes, “Women need a reason, men only need a place. Men use love to get sex; women use sex to get love.” Generalities, of course, but with grains of truth.

The demands of relationship — for compromise, sacrifice, openness, vulnerability — all provide a primary arena of personal growth. Committing to a relationship means losing face, feeling frustrated and downright incompetent at times. Committed relationships are a form of shadow work, seeing ourselves as we are — clearly and realistically. (How many of us, in the face of a relationship difficulty, have seen parts of ourselves we’re not too proud of?)

Mating is easy; intimacy is more difficult. The work of relationship is both humbling and humanizing — a demand to mature (or flee). Relationship calls us to let go of exclusive self-interest and move from “me” to “we” (at least some of the time). Relationship teaches us to forgive ourselves and one another.

Those who have difficulties with intimacy may favor disposable relationships — enjoying the initial fun and excitement, then leaving after the first big fight. Or “falling out of love” and moving on to the next wonderful person who, in a few weeks or months, no longer seems so wonderful after all. And serial relationships grow old after the fifth or sixth or twelfth time we get to know someone and tell your life story and run the usual numbers.

Our new love-interest may end up having the same flaws as the last one (especially if we’re seeking someone like Mom, or Dad, without realizing it). Or the new person may be blissfully free of the last partner’s problems, only to reveal a whole new set of issues. (All travelers carry some baggage.)

Some of us jump into a commitment with blinders on, basking in a romantic glow (love being blind and all). We discover that we love the same song or movie, but forget to explore fundamental compatibility questions about religion, children, aspirations, sex, values, politics.

Most of us are ready to mate long before we really know ourselves. We project onto our prospective mate our hopes and dreams and images, expecting them to fulfill our fantasies and change to suit us. Maybe you’ve heard the saying: “She hopes that he’ll change, but he doesn’t. He hopes she won’t change but she does.”

The years have taught me that the most important quality in sustaining a long-term relationship (whether male-female or same gender) is FRIENDSHIP. Over the long term, friendship is more important than sex; more important than ease of communication. (Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint. Sex and communication are certainly important at first, but won’t take you the distance.)

Friendship means you have each other’s back; you are in each other’s corner; you can be YOU with that person; you can go beyond role-playing or trying to live up to someone else’s expectations; you can speak your truth; you can listen as well as talk; you are elevated by that special person and you also lift their spirits in times of need.

True friends are collaborators, not competitors. They aren’t constantly comparing work-loads or weighing how much one brings to the relationship in terms of money, energy, work. (But if one of you is the driver and the other total hitch-hiker, it’s not going to last for long.) In a true friendship, you WANT to help, to give, to contribute, to support one another. That person’s happiness is as important to you as your own. Sometimes, even more so.

I once attended a traditional, religious wedding ceremony that began with a ritual: She carried her candle, the flame burning brightly, and he did the same. They came together, joined their flames and together lit a third candle, representing the joining of their separate flames. Quite beautiful.

But then they blew out their own candles. DON’T EVER BLOW OUT YOUR OWN CANDLE! You are both an “I” AND a “we.” You each bring your own resources, destiny, process and treasures into a relationship. This is the paradox of relationship. Two become one, but the stronger each one, the better the two are together.

Enrich one another’s life by keeping your own center, values, and interests. Continue to play a leading role in your life; don’t just become an extra in someone else’s. You come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of your individual parts. So remain equals and respect one another’s individuality. Rather than total dependence or independence, strive for interdependence.

Our choice of life-partner is one of the most important we ever make. This doesn’t mean that we have to find “the perfect match” or “one true soul-mate.” Even the best relationships take work. So when a difficulty arises, you WORK THROUGH IT TOGETHER.

Some couples, however, are “working through it” nearly all the time — fighting and making up — one slams the door and walks out; the other goes ballistic. Or one walk on tip-toes to avoid making the other angry or moody. For such difficult relationships, you may need a third party to help you to stay together (or to go your separate ways, because commitment is not the same as masochism).

In choosing a mate, apply the Goldilocks Principle: Avoid someone too similar to you (no friction or growth) or too different (constant friction) in favor of someone who is different (and challenging) enough to keep things interesting.

Also, consider your partner’s relationship with his or her parents: If it is relatively open and close and friendly, that’s a good sign. If your partner never speaks with one or another parent (even with good reason) it’s a possible red flag. Bear in mind that (if you choose to marry) you are not just marrying your partner; you are joining that partner’s family (mother, father, close relations) as well. If that is nice news, you’re good to go. But if you have a serious problem with your partner’s family, you’ll have to deal with it now or later.

For most of us, relationship is a work in progress, always under construction, like a house or a life. Over time, you’ll build deeper levels of communication and intimacy, and freshly discover who you are, together, at each new phase of your lives — even as you make mistakes, learn from them, mature and evolve.

When you’ve formed a relationship you intend to build for many years into the future, nourish it as you would any growing thing: Remember to say “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” often — you’ll have cause to do both. Appreciate your partner out loud; acknowledge his or her skills and any small acts of service and kindness.

In this creative and sometimes challenging arena of intimacy, I have found both growth and Joy. I wish the same for you."

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