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):
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.)
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.
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.