We learn to talk by imitating those around us, this is why we speak the same language as our parents or caregivers. It seems to me that relationship is the same way, we learn to relate by copying those around us.
Learning to speak a foreign language is much easier when it is immersion, it’s easier to learn Spanish when living in Mexico. The opposite is also true in that it is much harder to learn healthy relationship skills when surrounded by people who relate poorly.
Speaking our native tongue is easy, even if it’s Pig Latin, gibberish, or Klingon, speaking it would be effortless on our part if we grew up immersed in this language. This is why dysfunctional relating comes so easily and is normal to us, since birth many of us have been surrounded by examples of what not to do. Relationships where no one is getting their needs met nor are they unconditionally loved.
One relationship language I struggle with is that of unspoken expectations. Easily the biggest saboteur in my romantic relationships was thinking my would be partner is the one, believing that by meeting and marrying the one all my needs will be met. It wasn’t until I was in the middle of a divorce that I was introduced to another idea – that the ocean is fed from many streams. Our ancient ancestors knew the impossibility of one person performing all the roles of an entire village or tribe. Even if one person could be our everything, what happens when they are upset with us or get hit by a bus? Being dependent on one person for everything feels unsafe to me, constant anxiety is how I felt in my first marriage.
All couples I talk to are experiencing similar problems and we are mostly trying to solve them as an isolated single family. Housing, child care, education, food, old age and dying, emotional intimacy, health, and so on. How many of us combine resources with our neighbors to address these? Seems to me like we are all working on reinventing the wheel, afraid to air our “dirty laundry” as if we are the only ones who have soiled undies. For myself I was so unconsciously invested in the idea of the one that I couldn’t conceive of needing support for my marriage or my life, and when I was ready I saw it as a one time quick fix and not as a daily necessity. The idea of sharing anything with others sounded crazy, and I had roommate experiences that seemed to prove this.
What carpenter works without tools? A golfer without clubs? A chef without knives pots and stove? Without the right tools our work requires more effort or might be impossible. I’ve found this to be true in my relationships, even more so when I was so ignorant I didn’t know there are tools and skills for relating. I just assumed that like a fairy tale everything would magically work out, I was quite disappointed in my first marriage when I wasn’t living happily ever after.
Man was I stoked when I was given a toolbox and skillset to work on my relationship problems. Like any apprentice I needed a lot of practice to master my new trade, and not everyone wanted to work with me nor were they as excited by my new tools.
My teachers have said this path of growth can be isolating and isn’t for wimps. I have had many sessions with a half dozen or so relationship counselors and I feel very fortunate and grateful to be given the relationship wisdom from Hold Me Tight, Non-Violent Communication, Breakthrough to Bliss, Getting the Love You Want, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, and Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships. The tools and information we need to have healthy relationships is already known, and most of it is in these books. Reading the knowledge is a great first step. Like reading a book on how to dance, martial arts, surfing, speaking a foreign language we still need to practice to truly learn it. It’s only through practice and repetition that we change, grow, and replace our dysfunctional habits with nurturing beneficial ones.
This is why I am writing this article, I’ve been practicing on my own and in classes, and I need more playmates in my everyday living. It’s lonely being one of the few who is committed to learning this stuff. I understand why people say ignorance is bliss. It was a lot easier to go to parties, sporting events, and bars when I didn’t have a clue about this wisdom. Shallow waters feel safe when we don’t know how to swim, and yet once we are comfortable diving deep staying on the surface can bore us to tears.
It has been very frustrating to read and hear about these healthier visions of relationships and then struggle to relate this way with my family and spouses. I guess it is like being a fast runner, sometimes I need to stop running and be a cheerleader while the others catch up? Or maybe run in a circle or zigzag so I can do what I do best and not leave anyone behind? Or maybe like the lecturer who knows it all I need to shut up and listen?
It seems my favorite teachers have met me at my level and showed me a taste of what the next level is. Done right it is inspiring, I don’t feel beaten or put down, and my understanding is the difference is love. John Gottman talks about how healthy happy couples have heated, even nasty fights, and at the same time they are free of contempt or disgust. They aren’t trying to conquer or demean the other, the love, mutual respect, and friendship are secure and carry them through any conflict.
Every relationship of mine that has gone south has been rooted in – I’m right and you’re wrong and you need to change. Whereas my healthy relationships the vibe is – sounds like you are saying this and I am saying that, how can we work together to find a solution that works for both of us? The former is win-lose or lose-lose and the latter is win-win, how can any relationship sustain when people constantly feel like they are getting the short end of the stick?
In the book The 5 Love Languages I see rocky marriages where the “love tank” is empty, and the road to repair and healthy maintenance is filling up the tank regularly. From my experience the biggest hurdle is our beliefs about relationship.
We all know a car can’t run on an empty tank, yet we are clueless and insist that people need to run full speed on an empty love tank.
More frustrating or even insane is the partner who demands their bottomless pit of a tank be continually filled while they refuse to reciprocate a single drop into their partner’s tank. It is each individual’s responsibility to repair and maintain his or her own love tank, ensuring it is sound and leak free. No one can do this work for us, and at the same time we can find a wise coach to lovingly guide us through the process. This brings me back to the fairy tale idea of the one and being rescued by our partner.
It takes two to Tango, it is as simple as learning the steps and taking them together with our partner. If they want to do the Salsa instead that’s fine. If we just do our own dance without communicating, and then blame our partner for not following our steps we have stopped dancing and started fighting. Throwing more emotional jabs or hitting harder isn’t going to get us back to dancing any sooner, or it might but at the cost of the relationship.
Relationship seems this simple to me, when we are fighting and committed to wrong making we are not relating. If we want to relate then get back to relating, do the steps, listen to the music. Dancing is dancing, who cares what dance we are doing as long as we are doing it together and having a good time?
It seems we have been led to believe that we are doing the Tango, that we are indeed doing the correct steps and movements. When in fact what we are really doing is slam dancing, couples are in this emotional mosh pit – beating the snot out of each other. Why? Well the reason that makes sense to me is that we are running the operating system that our society is built on.
Punishment – There is a better way
When someone doesn’t follow the rules or behave the way we want them to we punish them. Blame, shame, silent treatment, detention, suspension, expulsion, being written up, reprimanded, jailed, solitary confinement, three strikes and you’re out. The collective belief is our partner, and not the system nor the way we are relating to each other, is the problem. It is these bad apples or actors that are wrong and we just need to beat them into submission or get rid them.
If someone doesn’t do what we want, or what we tell them to do, or what we think they should be doing it is because they are lazy, selfish, irresponsible, bad, dumb, evil, defective, or crazy, or blah, blah, blah. If punishment worked the jails would be empty, kids would do what they are told, and there wouldn’t be any divorce courts, lawyers, or estranged spouses.
Seeing the solutions in front of us
The solution for me is to step away from or let go of these ideas of wrong, bad, illegal, victim, criminal and instead approach every situation with the belief that this is happening for good a reason. My understanding is that our ancestors viewed everyone as inherently good and just and valuable, if they are misbehaving it is because there is something wrong with the system or society. They were welcomed as an important messenger, alerting us that our rules and methods are out of alignment with human nature and all of nature.
It seems crazy to me that a society would try to punish people for exposing the flaw in the system, the crack in the dam, and then “kill” these messengers. It is the same in relationship and marriage, a conflict or bump in the road is an opportunity to heal and grow. A wiser path is to stop fighting and come together and say hey what is the gift here? What are we being given a chance to learn? What help is being offered to us here? Can we start seeing each other as allies? Is it possible that our apparent flaws or irreconcilable differences are the exact qualities we need to heal, and that we are or were attracted to this person for a good and beneficial reason?
Instead we often leave this difficult person only to find ourselves in relationship with someone who is even more difficult to live with and causes even more friction. Early in my divorce my counselor had me make a list and write down the similarities and differences of the women I had been in relationship with. Holy cow was that eye opening, why did I keep falling for women with the same poisonous qualities? My eyes were finally opened to what I had been doing to myself, and thankfully why I was doing it.
Can we stop running and do the work?
In my current marriage I married my dad and my wife married her mom, in other words we are still attracted to the unsorted baggage with our parents. Like it or not we keep repeating the lesson until we learn it and demonstrate our understanding. Realizing this has helped me when I am triggered by my wife acting like my father. I can catch myself shutting down and instead say something and take a more empowering action than withdrawing. I have been practicing doing one or all of three things: say how I am feeling, call my partner out for her behavior, or say I can’t do this now and take a timeout by leaving the room to cool off and return to neutral. Sometimes I loose my mind, act the fool, and throw verbal gas on the fire.
What really threw me though a loop was that when I met my wife I saw in her all the qualities I was looking for: sweet, kind, gentle, good listener, empathetic, warm, and one of her gifts is being able to see what someone is going through and know what to say or do to help them. It wasn’t until after about a year of dating that I was able to see other traits that remind me of my dad. So here I was excited that I found the woman I was looking for and we are going to have a healthy nurturing relationship. The universe was like hey you are still people pleasing and your boundaries are really soft and unclear. So like it or not this has been what I am working on for the past few years.
Relationship seems to be ever evolving and I am doing my best to embrace growing more loving and open. I have seen to many bitter old men acting obnoxiously and stuck in their misery. Hardening and resisting what is seems a pretty dim and lonely future. On the other end staying in the womb might sound nice, yet we all need to go through the pain and discomfort of birth. Then it will take a few years of practicing healthy relationship talk and walk before we can run together. In staying on this journey we will move towards a future where we oh so tenderly and affectionately hold each other close, and we passionately and devotedly lift each other up.