“Love and work are the cornerstones of our human-ness…” -Sigmund Freud
Learning how to stay and grow inside your relationship is an art form, a meditation practice and a work ethic all rolled into one. The nice thing about the work is that it is constructed of basic skill sets you can develop and strengthen just by attending to them and practicing. No one is born a great communicator or even a skilled listener. Many of us grow up in the midst of invisible negative thought patterns that infiltrate our best thinking efforts, without even our notice. Even showing up for your relationship is a skill that gets better when expectations and the meaning of promises are shared and negotiated.
In this new series, I will share stories about couples that might resemble people you know. See if you can imagine a way that a single interaction in the story could have changed to make the situation more sustainable and healthy. What else could have happened for the people involved that would have made the relationship more compelling? How could they have been kinder to each other?
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Nancy had seen her boyfriends fall out of love before. She knew all the signs – the distracted half kisses, the late nights of work, the impatience at small requests… She also knew that her response to Michael had become short and less descript. She tried not to fixate on the stupid way he left his dirty socks rolled up in a ball in the couch cushions or the way he slurped the milk at the end of his cereal because she knew it wasn’t the little things that mattered. She tried to ignore all the ways she felt disappointed in Michael and she tried to not notice the quiet ways she felt him looking at her with the same disappointed glances.
Walking on eggshells might have been easier than the ways they both worked to dance around the change in their relationship. Each night one of them lingered longer in the study or in front of the television so that they wouldn’t have to face each other in the quiet of preparation for bed, a time that used to be Nancy’s favorite moment of her day. The more space they built in between them to hold their unspoken feelings, the more lonely and resentful Nancy became of the socks she would find under every cushion.
She thought she loved Michael, but now that he was hardly ever really present, her doubts about what he was thinking about her and their relationship seemed to show up even in the smallest of exchanges about where to meet for coffee or who would pick up bread for dinner. Finally, one evening while making dinner, Michael broached the subject of finding his own place again. “I just think it would be good for us to have more space…” His voice wandered off. Nancy couldn’t decide if she was relieved or sad that another relationship that seemed to have so much promise was disappearing in front of her eyes. She caught his eye and for a moment thought she could see the same mix of doubt and regret that she was feeling. She wanted to do this differently even though she was afraid she would just make it worse….
Meanwhile, Michael too wished he could think of a way to reach back in time to their connection that felt so strong just a few months before.
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Warm-up Exercise: Think Differently
Close your eyes and take ten deep breaths. With each breath, let go of the thoughts and concerns filling your mind. Then, with the next ten breaths recall a memory of when you fell out of love with someone or they fell out of love with you. You could even just look for a memory of when you fell out of love with yourself. Try to remember what that disappointment felt like and even where you felt it in your body. Make a mental list of five things you told yourself about you, your partner or your relationship when the in-love feeling was fading. How did you resist the changes that were happening? How did your communication change? Were you able to be kind to yourself? Did you blame your partner? Did you blame yourself?
Imagine you could go back to that time and do three things differently. Imagine yourself back in that situation with one new thought about yourself or your situation that would have eased the situation. Imagine one way that you could have communicated more kindness during that change. Imagine one way that you might have embraced the change that was happening in your relationship: how would that have looked?
Take ten more slow even breaths and see if you can feel in your body how those changes register physically. Paying attention to physical sensation while imagining a new way of thinking and interacting is a powerful way of remembering and embodying changes we want to make.
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What we pay attention to multiplies. Emotional pain that comes from seeing the full view of who someone is after the “in love” feeling goes away often gets multiplied by our resistance to look at it. This is a useful way to become mindful of whether you are allowing yourself to attend to the painful aspects of relating or whether you are multiplying your pain with resistance and falling into suffering through something that will quickly become untenable.
Pain of all the small annoyances that make a life together both challenging and rewarding is workable if you are willing to give it the air and attention it is asking for. Resisting it only multiplies its impact because our thoughts that are left unsaid become an internal storm. Other people sense the storm, too. Giving our weaknesses or those of people we care for our full attention is usually all it takes to dissipate their force. Adding humor is better still. Try throwing a balled up sock into the middle of distant conversation. Risk bringing full presence to your relationship, especially when things get hard; for this is where you both can transmute the pain of learning how to love into a new experience of really being loving.
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