The care and feeding of relationships: relationships need maintenance. There’s no magic–there’s commitment to a way of relating
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Prior to Covid, I was sitting on the rancho at our place in Costa Rica the other day, talking with a new friend, and got to thinking about my books, specifically Living Life in Growing Orbits.
Before we came to Costa Rica that time, relationships stuff involving several of our friends was in the foreground.
One topic was “honesty.” As in, a friend of ours wasn’t being totally honest with her partner. The issue was not a big one, but her desire for secrecy was ringing warning bells for me.
That conversation has stayed on my mind, especially after I see her again. And that led me to decide to write a couple of articles on relationships.
Background: I know this young woman very well. I remember back to her previous “big relationship,” and I talked with her a lot when it ended.
She described the following “conflict process”:
We’d start to argue, and I don’t like arguing, so I’d go curl up in the bedroom while he sulked on the couch. Sometimes we’d not talk for days. Then one or the other of us would make an effort to be nice, and pretty soon, things were back to normal.
But I guess they weren’t, because the break-up, according to him, was due to all the unresolved issues.”
Here’s how her resistance to talking applies to what’s happening in her current relationship: the thing she’s avoiding telling him has the potential to have some emotion connected to it, and she doesn’t like dealing with negative emotions.
But this time, she’s not hiding in her bedroom. She’s hiding the information.
Now, I’ve heard it all on the topic or whether honesty is required in relationships. Many are the justifications for “secrets.”
Typically, they boil down to, “I have the right to my privacy! Why should I have to talk about stuff that I’m uncomfortable talking about?”
I have a solution! If you don’t want to talk things through, don’t bother getting into a relationship!
I don’t “believe” in secrets in relationships. And yes, that means there are going to be some uncomfortable conversations.
But really, the issue here is “about” communication, pure and simple.
Darbella and I made a pact, back when were were dating, about both honesty (we agreed on total honesty) and conflict resolution. (We agreed to work our issues through to our complete satisfaction, no matter how long it took. The longest one took 18 hours. Straight. OK. We took pee breaks… ? )
The odd piece? After nearly 40 years of doing this, it’s still difficult.
When we hit a conflict point, I go to arrogant sulkiness, and Dar goes to defensiveness and deflecting. I revert to six, she to 8. I want her to admit I’m right and to do things my way, she wants me to admit that whatever she did pales in comparison to what I did.
That’s our opening gambit.
Needless to say, from that place, nothing is going to get resolved.
We’re not the only ones with faulty opening gambits:
- Our friend hid in her room while her partner hid in the living room.
- Another couple, no longer married: she yelled and name called, and he sulked and sighed in silence. After 10 years, he presented her with a list of everything she’d done wrong (he, of course, thought he was innocent of any wrongdoing,) and ended things.
- Others just finger-point, blame the other, and stop when the fighting or silence is overwhelming. Nothing is discussed, no therapy is begun and then followed through with.
- Some people think that the “right” relationship has no conflict. Magical thinking prevails: “If I am with the right partner, we won’t have issues, fight, get angry. Since we are in conflict, I need to change partners.”
Pay attention, for Pete’s sake.
Our young friend knows that what she does that makes dialogue impossible. She hides in her room, or hides the truth, and when she emerges, she buries the issue that she didn’t want to talk about.
Why? Because she makes herself uncomfortable over conflict. She wants it to go away. By itself.
Here’s a hint. None of us like conflict. However, if you choose to live with someone, there will be some. Conflict. Because fundamentally we each see the world differently.
So, what to do?
Well, in my / our case, we run through the sulking / finger pointing stuff as rapidly as we can. Then, we sit down, and follow the Communication Model, and take whatever time is necessary to come to a 100% agreement.
The nice thing about adopting a model, as well as making a commitment to talk things through even though we’d really rather not, is that the drama drains out of the situation pretty quickly.
Once we get over blaming, it’s pretty easy to own our own stuff, and to find areas of agreement that can be built upon.
You make this impossible if you refuse to get over blaming your partner for what you are feeling / doing.
One person we know, in all the time we’ve known her, has never, not even once, acknowledged her role in her issues with her husband and kids. It’s always, “They’re not doing it right!”
We point out (she asks us for help, which she then always ignores…) her language, and ask her what she can do differently. She looks blank, then says, “You don’t understand. It’s him / them, not me!”
Self responsibility means owning my side of everything that’s happening in my relationship. It’s not taking the easy way out and blaming my partner, or uttering inanities such as “He didn’t try hard enough, and now it’s too little, too late.”
Relating is a slog.
A fun one, but a slog. It’s a slog because, like walking in mud, it’s slow going when things are “up.” But avoidance, blaming, hiding in your bedroom–not helpful.
The only way to get out of mud is to walk out. The helicopter is not coming, and blaming the mud or the rain likely won’t help either.