Dec 082013
 

I recently read a number of lists targeted at general audiences about “how to know your relationship is in trouble.” These lists are almost always misleading and unhelpful, to my mind: there’s an easy way to know your relationship is in trouble, and that’s if, in your heart of hearts, you know it’s in trouble. If you can feel in your gut that there’s something dreadfully wrong, that the future you want for yourself doesn’t include your partner, then your relationship is in trouble. (And sure – if he hits you, or has contempt for you, those surely are warning signs. But if those things are true and you need a quiz to tell you they’re a problem, then your biggest problem isn’t your relationship with your partner – it’s your relationship to yourself.)

A more interesting list, to me, is a list of things to do to strengthen your relationship. Now, I’m no pro at this – I’m just a schlub with an imperfect relationship like the rest of you. But here are some of the things I have found most helpful at making things better when they need to be (or when they don’t):

Apologize

When I’m angriest, most aggrieved, most resentful, the surest path to redemption I know is to apologize. Not to feign an apology when I don’t feel sorry, but to find something for which I genuinely can apologize, about which I know myself to be in the wrong. This may or may not have a direct relationship to or impact on the immediate source of my fury. It doesn’t matter. If I can find something about which I feel regret and remorse, for which I can offer contrition and empathy, it’s just always good. This isn’t to say that anger doesn’t have a place, that I might not be entitled (in some cosmic sense) to my sense of aggrievement. It’s to say, rather, that aggrievement and resentment aren’t good places to be, and anything that I can do to get myself to a different space will lead to good things. Not least, often, a softening of my sense of aggrievement as I see aggrievement not as a question of “right” and “wrong,” but rather, of effort, failure, and pain.

Connect and disclose

For me, at least, an easy path to the erosion of intimacy is for me to withdraw into myself, to take solace in solitude, secrecy, compartmentalization. This is a way I feel safe, I protect myself from the pain that can accompany vulnerability, exposure. But it’s an ineffectual, self-defeating strategy, almost always. When I open myself up, reveal my feelings, my needs, my thoughts, my actions, it almost always goes well. (I’m not saying confess – that’s something different. Rather, I’m saying that making the effort to find points of connection, rather than to reinforce points of disconnection, almost always pays dividends.)

Be kind

There’s little that makes me feel better than doing something for you. Cleaning the house, cooking a meal, tackling a long-deferred to-do item, giving a gift, doing a favor, saying something nice – all these things have a softening impact, and promote warmth and closeness.

Let go of expectations

When I remember that I love you, I remember that it’s you I love – not some bundle of things you aren’t, or haven’t done, or did, but bothered me. If I love you, it’s you I love – as you are. When I remember this, it brings us closer.

Tonglen meditation

This won’t speak to most, I imagine, but it’s about the most powerful technique I know for improving things. This is a Tibetan form of meditation in which, simply, I breathe in, thinking about all of your pain and suffering, and then breathe out, imagining you benefiting from all of my good fortune and positivity. The metaphorical goal is to free you from suffering by taking it all into myself, and sharing with you all of my happiness, joy, pleasure, strength, wisdom, confidence, etc.

I suspect I’ll add to this list in coming days. But I welcome your suggestions as well.

  2 Responses to “Relationship tips”

  1. Another great post, that makes me think and resonates with my life… Maybe I’ll write about that too…
    I completely agree when you say that everyone knows, in their heart of hearts, whether the future they envision includes their partner or not. I was wondering though if this type of list might work to know whether there is danger coming from that partner, whether maybe, in her/hisheart of hearts, s/he doesn’t envision her/his future with you…
    That might be good and help trigger a conversation, rather than wait until it’s too late and they just say goodbye.
    I was also wondering : when you say that “There’s little that makes me feel better than doing something for you. Cleaning the house, cooking a meal,” I’m puzzled… because how should cleaning the house or cooking a meal be a present of sorts to your partner? I mean, if you’re partners, shouldn’t these two things be considered as being for both of your benefits (both of you live in that house, both of you eat), and thus shouldn’t they be undertaken if not jointly, at least not as a “treat” to the other, but rather as a chore that has to be done, by one or the other?!
    Right, that ‘s my feminist side speaking, after too many years of not feeling supported in that area myself…
    I do realise it all depends on the agreement you have with your spouse. It’s just that, us not knowing what that agreement is for you, it’s easy to put our life’s story in your script…

    Finally, I like your idea of Tonglen meditation. This is something (meditation) that I want to pursue. However, in order for this particular kind to be efficient, you have to feel good enough in and about yourself that you can welcome someone else’s pain and suffering, and have some positivity to give out, to share. It might not work for everyone or all the time.

  2. Good list, more please!
    I have been doing the withdrawing, solitude and secrecy too much.
    But then I’d just rather split and be alone anyway.
    More of your thoughts please, get me thinking in a different way.

Say something! (I just did....)