There’s a reality TV show currently running, featuring the same group of people, competing to make the most amount of profit from the sales of secondhand goods. One particular couple make uncomfortable viewing, as the woman persistently and publicly berates and belittles her partner, whilst he slumps and looks miserable. Very occasionally he rises up and puts his foot down with a firm hand, as they say, and she will retort, “Don’t tell me what to do – I am sick of you telling me what to do!”
Now, I am aware that this makes good TV, and that there has to be some degree of playing up for the camera, but it is obvious that the whole thing isn’t entirely a set-up… surely, no man would want the world to repeatedly witness his testicles being crushed in the mean little hands of his partner, and surely no woman would want to present herself to the world as a critical harridan? But they stay together, having the occasional warm moment, and some would say, “well, if it works for them, good luck to them”. To be honest, I don’t lose sleep over this warring couple, and I don’t really care what they do. It is just that they got me thinking about how easy it is for emotionally intimate relationships to become a dumping ground for all of our frustrations and disappointments… simply because we can.
I once watched a couple snapping and hissing their way around the supermarket, challenging each other at every turn. “Do you want this for tea, or not? I told you… we don’t need any of those! Just put it in the trolley, will you? Oh, for God’s sake…. do what you want, I don’t care!”
I don’t know whether they’d argued on the way to the store, and were still fuming with each other, or whether this was the normal state of their relationship. But I started to notice how dismissive many couples can be… rude even… and I began to wonder how this comes about.
Okay, everyone rows (been there and done that!), but that is not what I am talking about here. I think that sometimes we have expectations of a partner that we wouldn’t have of others, and maybe this is at the bottom of it all. Obviously, in my line of work, I hear a lot of unhappy relationship stories, and I always say that ‘relationship’ is the biggest challenge any of us will ever face in life; learning to live with ourselves is tricky enough – learning to live with other people is even harder. But how many women do you know who are the epitome of friendship and kindness to their girlfriends, whilst talking about, and to, their partner as if they are something nasty on the sole of their shoe? And how many men, who are cheerful and funny to the outside world, behave like moody, uncompromising old gits behind closed doors? I definitely know a few of both!
Maybe it is because we can’t escape each other. It’s funny, how keen we can be to become part of a committed couple, only to start feeling a little trapped by life, as the years roll by. I sometimes think that ‘romantic’ relationships bring out the worst in us, as well as the best… but that the worst can develop a life force all of its own! It doesn’t mean that the couple who are constantly engaged in reactive tit-for-tat and power plays don’t want to be together… I think they just want life to be different. Yes, it is true that some relationships are so dysfunctional that they shouldn’t legally be allowed to continue, and yes, even the best relationships will go through periodic ups and downs. But what do we do if we recognise that the friendship we once had with our partner has jumped ship, and that criticism and impatience has become the norm?
Well, firstly, we have to ask ourselves if we genuinely want to be in this relationship? Are we hanging on for the sake of security, or fear of making it on our own, or because we can’t face the upheaval and conflict that would come about if we left? Or have we both just lost our way, yet actually don’t want to be without each other? If not being in the relationship is where we are at, then we have a whole new journey ahead of us, and the first painful step will have to be taken, sooner or later. But if staying is where we are at, then we need to reassess and update: relationships, like businesses, have to move with the times, have to shed skins, reinvent themselves, and produce new value. Obviously it takes two to tango, but the repair work is mostly always started by one half of the couple, with the other ultimately following suit (and if your response is, “why should I be the one to pick up the pieces…. what about him/her? – they’re more guilty than I am!” my reply would be, “tit-for-tat never produced anything worth having!”). And if we are going to be the one who takes the reins, we have to start with ourselves, and we can’t announce it… it has to be undercover work, in order for it to be effective!
Starting with ourselves is not about self-criticism, it is about honest awareness. And even if we give it our best shot, and the relationship still falls apart, at least we know for sure that we did all that we could, and that we ourselves have grown, as a human being. Although we are doing this for the sake of our relationship, we are also doing it for us. There will still be a life to live, whatever the outcome… with or without the relationship.
So, here is a selection of some of the things that muddy up the waters of a relationship (some will be relevant, some won’t be!):
Are we ourselves stuck in the past, caught up in the same beliefs, thoughts, and actions, day in and day out, year in and year out? Are we just busily heading towards old age and our deathbed, taking each day as it comes, using the need for ‘security’ as an excuse not to develop and grow? Does our partner appear to want more, yet we ourselves are putting up walls of resistance, trying to keep things the way we feel they should be?
Is it our partner who is doing all of the above, and we are resentfully complying, dreaming about all of the things we would ideally love to do, and the lost opportunities that will never present themselves again? Have we told ourselves that we have no choice, because there would be issues or arguments if we do try to expand our own horizons? And if so, is that actually, completely true… or are we at least partially using our partner as a scapegoat for our own fear and self-doubt?
Are we making mountains out of molehills? How compromising are we, really? Do we fume over small things because they irritate us, or because we don’t believe that they should be done that way? Are we fighting so many battles that the war cannot possibly be won?
Are we entering into power plays, again and again? He hangs wet towels over the tops of doors, no matter how many times you have explained that you don’t like it. She doesn’t scrape the food from the plates before putting them in the dishwasher, no matter how many times you have asked her to do so. Do these things then become about a lack of love and respect, rather than just bad habits?
Do we have expectations of our partner that he/she just can’t live up to, even though they ‘should’? Maybe they have some kind of mental block, where a particular situation is concerned; maybe they’re thick; maybe they are childishly digging their heels in, as a form of protest against other hurts or criticisms. How much does it all really matter, in the grand scheme of things?
Do we say “I have tried talking to them again and again about this, and they just won’t communicate”? Are we sure that our approach is the most appropriate one, or are we going in with the same-old-same-old, every single time? Are we speaking their language… have we even figured out what it is? If we know for sure that if we say this, in that way, then he/she will react defensively, or clear off, are we recognising that we might as well be peeing into the wind? Are we talking at them, or with them? Are we trying to discuss too much, all in one go? Are we actually criticising them, rather than trying to have a a genuine two-way conversation? And is what we want to discuss of utmost importance, or just an old, often ragged-around issue?
Do we immediately become defensive when our partner tries to communicate with us, throwing up a wall of resistance?
When did we last tell our partner we are proud of them, or compliment them? It may be that they never do either of those things for us, but the change has to start somewhere, and with something small.
When arguing, do we say “you always do that, you continuously do or say the other?”… when we know that it isn’t true. They sometimes do, but not every second of every day! Does our partner do that to us… and if so, do we react with a tit-for-tat retort?
Do we drag up the past, every time we are upset with our partner, reminding them of how badly they have behaved, or how they have failed us? If our partner regularly does this to us, despite our best efforts to be a solid and loving mate, it may be that this is as good as it gets, and we need to rethink the bigger plan. This is a major stumbling block, and left to gather momentum, will eventually strangle even the most well intentioned relationship.
Do we make quality time for our partner, or are we too busy with work, children and friends? Have we become like a pair of old socks, one in the washing machine, the other in the dryer?
CAN we honestly, truthfully see ourselves growing old with our partner, and feel good about it, despite the ups and downs… or does the thought of it make us feel like a deflated balloon, more often than it doesn’t?
And the final question has to be: is your relationship in need of a touch of kindness… and are you willing to be the one who starts the new ball rolling, accepting that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that change might take more than a few days or weeks to come about?
Oh… and one last thing: the reason I said earlier that it has to be undercover work, is because no-one likes to think that they are part of an experiment, and few would respond well! However, over time, most of us will respond positively to ongoing, loving kindness! I have seen miracles come about, in the darkest of places, simply because of the presence of a little bit of light…