Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
Two swans chose to make our part of the world their home a few months ago. Christian and I spent many afternoons visiting them. Their graceful heads would bob up and down in anticipation of our arrival. They delicately ate the food offerings out of our hands. They were always together, always watching out for each other.
We have just returned from a long time of travel and were keen to visit the love partners again on our afternoon walk. As we neared the lake yesterday, only one lone swan stretched its elegant neck above the glassy lake. Perhaps I imagined it, but its eyes seemed to hold a sadness, emptiness and deep loneliness.
Grief arises as a result of loss. It teaches us about who and what we love.
Today we returned again to the lake but found no swan. On our way home we always pass a tree filled with a colony of Ibises. Ibises are messy, crazy, chatterboxes. They are always engaged in some sort of industry: yelling at each other, building nests, flying from tree to tree.
There, gliding tranquilly on the small pond in front of the Ibises, was our swan.
As obvious as it sounds, the best way to overcome loneliness is to be with people and share smiles, hugs and laughs. This is not always easy to do; people can be lonely even amidst a crowd. Being around people raises oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine to bring about good feelings.
Our swan had certainly found a way to raise her oxytocin levels by being around the noisiest birds in the parkland. Although she looked quite out of place, she seemed to be more content and did not even acknowledge our presence. She had, perhaps, found a new sense of belonging, even if it was with a motley crew of dishevelled, raucous ibises.
This Christmas, I know that some reading may have lost someone dear, or may have not yet found a special love partner. It may be hard to draw close to people, for whatever reason. The warm fuzzies have gone out of your life and have been replaced by cold pricklies. Loneliness can do that. If, for whatever reason you feel you have no more to give, that the sadness is too overwhelming, that the pain is too much, Christian and I would like to share a story with you this Christmas. It is a simple story. But one that we hope will encourage you to reach out to others, let people in, even if they seem so very different than yourself. Even if it’s a struggle, even if it initially hurts, remember that warm fuzzies never run out. The more you give, the more they multiply.
Apologies, we have had technical problems here is the post, we are now back on track
Why did this mountain have to be so high on such a hot day when I’m growing older and have a million things to do at home?
Yes. I like to complain. Lots. Can’t help it. Caroline complains about my complaining, lovingly makes fun of it, I try to laugh back.
If you have unsolvable problems, join the club; heart and humor makes the difference. Keeping humour for big problems may be difficult, but you can always remain affectionate. With heart (affection) and humor, the person next to you is your friend and ally, not rival or enemy.
Stay united with heart and humour.
“Heart” keeps the love flowing even during arguments: a touch, smile, encouragement, and listening. These unite you. Touch is particularly reassuring. When a child is distressed, it’s natural to take their hand to say I’ll help you through this. Touching your partner during conflict is like holding hands as you cross a dangerous road together.
Humor and laughter release feel good chemicals in the brain and link our thinking and feeling. This is very important in problems and conflict when rationality is often lost. Helpful humor – joking and fun, not sarcasm or put-downs – enhances relationships, reduces tension and promotes well-being.
Not everyone grows up with humour. For some it’s a foreign concept. Have a go. You may need to yell your partner I’m trying to be funny!! Also, support your partner’s attempts at humour, no matter how lame. You’ll both grow to like it.
Here are seven tips to keep heart and humor during problems.
#1. Show affection. Whatever the problem: listen (both ways), hold hands, caress, encourage, affirm each other with high-fives when making progress. Use gentle loving words, even if things get heated or bitterly cold.
#2. Discuss affection. Consider these questions.
How can we increase our expression of affection?
Hpw can we express more affection while in conflict?
#3. Team up against any problem. It’s two against one: you and me against the problem. When you oppose each other, you’ll start to blame. With affection, you remain united even against your temper or my trust issues.
#4. Try humor. Whatever the problem, when it’s OK to, make light, see the funny side, and explore bizarre options just for fun. Support each other in your attempts to use humor and lightness. Try to find the silly child in you and your partner.
#5. Discuss humor. Consider these questions.
How can we increase smiles, playfulness and humor?
How can we express humor at difficult times?
#6. Use affection during arguments. This is disarming, it’s hard to be too angry while a person is being affectionate. It gives the message that we are not going to break up over this. It’s hard to do but the pay-off is big: give soft touches, looks of encouragement, and say heatedly and that’s another thing! I love you very much!!
#7. Use humor during arguments. Humor is bonding, diffuses tension, keeps perspective, and links thinking and feeling. Conflict does the opposite. Helpful humor stops you saying things you’ll regret. Just don’t use humor to avoid the issue or to hide your feelings. Try these:
Is this gonna be a long or a short argument?
Should I make a cup of tea or should we argue over dinner?
Do you want make-up sex before or after the argument?
Sorry, I’m just staring at that beautiful freckle on your nose.
Before we go further, I want to apologize for the next three things I’ll say.
Can I phone a friend before I answer that?
At any time you can put on a big red nose.
Next blog, we’ll get to actually try to solve the mountain of problems.
 Wardell, Diane Wind, and Kathryn F. Weymouth. "Review of studies of healing touch." Journal of Nursing Scholarship 36.2 (2004): 147-154. See also https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201503/8-reasons-why-we-need-human-touch-more-ever.
 Kuiper, Nicholas A., and Nicola McHale. "Humor styles as mediators between self-evaluative standards and psychological well-being." The Journal of Psychology 143.4 (2009): 359-376. Martin, Rod A., et al. "Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire." Journal of research in personality 37.1 (2003): 48-75. Hall, Jeffrey A. "Humor in long-term romantic relationships: The association of general humor styles and relationship-specific functions with relationship satisfaction." Western Journal of Communication 77.3 (2013): 272-292.
We’re sitting out the back deck having lunch. Peaceful. Quiet. We often like just to be still together. We watched as the neighbour’s cat stalked a bird, lulling it into a false sense of security, waiting to pounce.
Sometimes a long-term relationship feels like that; thinking it’s OK until some pesky personal problem pounces on you from behind.
You know, I used to feel like that bird when you used to lie to me.
Yeah? Well I still feel that way when you correct me.
(Ouch! and Touché!)
You’d think that after thirty years, two counselling courses, specialist psychiatry qualifications, and learning and applying couples’ therapy courses, I could let sleeping dogs and pouncing cats lie. But … not quite. Something made me say it. It’s very good here on cloud eight, but sometimes the stalking cat comes out in us. (We take turns at this).
In a long-term relationship, solving problems isn’t always important, (really? Yes!!) but it’s very important how you handle them. That’s what studies consistently show.[i] If you can support each other through problems, and handle problems with affection, and even a little humour, you do well. Keep a lighter attitude and stay united together against the problem.
Here’s the bottom line: There is no such thing as a relationship problem. Your relationship is not a problem it is your greatest asset to help you handle problems, if you can team up against the problem.
There is no such thing as a relationship problem.
Your relationship is your greatest asset.
It helps to identify the real problem; for example …
She’s alway puts her needs ahead of mine. You don’t have a relationship problem her selfishness is the problem. Together you can manage it.
He’s a workaholic. I’m always last on his list! You don’t have a relationship problem, he has a priorities problem. Together you can manage it.
He looks at other women, this hurts me! You don’t have a relationship problem he has a “wandering-eye” problem. Together you can help him see better.
She never listens, she just talks at me! You don’t have a relationship problem she has a “mouth and inner-ear balance” problem. Together you can help her hear better.
Problems come from many sources: parenting, extended family, finances, cultures, personalities, priorities, political or religious differences, society, drug and alcohol issues, work, health, broken dreams, high expectations, perfectionism, control issues, busyness … and more.
Notice “your relationship” is not on the list.
Identify the real problem and work on it together.
Talk. Share. Identify and work on problems before they fester. It’s useless to say nothing and hope the problem goes away. Things don’t usually get better by themselves (remember entropy). So; get on top of finances before the arguments; get on top of selfishness before resentment sets in; get on top of being a workaholic before you lose out big-time; get on top of differing values before you drift too far apart; get on top of social media before you don’t have time for each other.
Solve a problem if you can (sometimes) or manage it (more likely). Some things can change but most need to be accepted. We all have personality flaws, for instance, and these are difficult for any of us to shift. The love is in the trying. Try to change, just a bit, and your partner can appreciate your efforts. Change is often slow and difficult, so you will need to manage most problems. Together.
Identify the real problem and work on it together.
It may change but often needs to be accepted.
The love is in the trying.
Share the load together.
How to handle personality problems? Try heart and humour:
Would you like some milk before the cat in you pounces on me?
More on heart and humour next month.
[i] See Storaasli, Ragnar D., and Howard J. Markman. "Relationship problems in the early stages of marriage: A longitudinal investigation." Journal of Family Psychology 4.1 (1990): 80 and Johnson, Matthew D., et al. "Problem-solving skills and affective expressions as predictors of change in marital satisfaction." Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 73.1 (2005): 15.
Julie and Sergei were in my office wondering what was going wrong. We see other couples hand in hand, talking, laughing. So good together, happy, in love. But we struggle. We barely talk, and if we do, we argue. We both want a good relationship. This doesn’t feel right.
If both of you really want it better, you can have it better.
I shared some true stories of people on cloud nine. People like …
Musicians Helen and John, together nine years and touring overseas lots. We met while studying at the conservatorium. We’re best friend, lovers, and we make beautiful music together all the time.
Professionals Charles and Marlene, together three years after messy divorces. We’re both so happy! He hates it whenever I’m away. We have a real spark, and great sex. He treats me like an angel. Life couldn’t be better.
School teachers Sandra and Phillip, together thirteen years and love their weekly Latin dancing. When my sister divorced, I told Sandra we would never break up. Why should we? We laugh, have fun and keep fit together. Having kids has added to our happiness.
We all want it. Life on cloud nine: love, laughter, fun, sex and glamour.
Don’t be fooled though. I know all of these real-life couples. They seemed happy, but are all now divorced.
You just don’t know what’s going on in another relationship. Chances are that they go through tough times, just like you, and have problems, just like you.
Don’t compare your problems with other couples’ appearances
A good, strong relationship actually lives on cloud eight, enjoying good times and sticking together through hard times. Here’s the reality, the stories of real-life “cloud eight” couples.
Alma and Freddy, three kids, twenty-two years together. We don’t handle conflict well and we don’t resolve things. She battles depression, and I often feel alone with my work stress. But my wife and family are the best thing that ever happened to me.
Colleen and Bill, together fourteen years, run a crisis centre for homeless children. Soon after we married he had an affair. It hurt bad. I still cry about it. It’s made me more jealous and controlling. Still, he knows me so well. He knows how to make me happy. And he does. I’m thankful, even though it’ll never be perfect.
Skye and Kyle, seven years together after separate divorces. Kyle is unemployed and PTSD-anger plagues him. Skye is understanding, but struggles with her weight and low mood. Living with mental illness is no fun, but when he’s well and it’s just the two of us, life is amazing.
Iris and Vlad, together forty-two years.
I know her well. You don’t think her demands, criticisms, and moods drive me crazy? The hell they do. But she’s also loving and caring. A good woman.
Oh yeah? Well he’s a selfish slob who drinks too much. But he’s loyal, patient, and warm. A good man.
Sorry to burst your romantic bubble, but a real relationship takes the good with the bad. It stays together through big problems, and yes, I know that some problems can get very big.
It’s OK to have problems. It’s great if you can handle them. It’s just not helpful to walk away from them. Work on life on cloud eight with occasional visits to cloud nine.
Science have proven the benefits of a personal relationship:
It protects your emotional health and wellbeing.[i]
It protects your physical health.[ii]
It protects you against loneliness.[iii]
It protects your resilience.[iv]
It protects you against unhappiness.[v]
It protects you against addictions.[vi]
It protects you against anxiety, bipolar and depression.[vii]
It protects you against suicide.[viii]
This is not idealistic babble. This is scientific fact. No pill can do all this. A good relationship is your great asset. It lets you share good times, share bad times, and journey together through this crazy thing called life. If your relationship is good, you end up with half the problems and twice the fun, even if that means life on cloud eight.
On your deathbed, you won’t be counting up the money or the travel adventures, you’ll ask yourself have I loved and have I been loved?
Love is life’s bottom line.
Next month I’ll talk about handling relationship problems.
[i] Waite, Linda J., and Evelyn L. Lehrer. "The benefits from marriage and religion in the United States: A comparative analysis." Population and Development Review 29.2 (2003): 255-275.
[ii] Wilson, Chris M., and Andrew J. Oswald. "How does marriage affect physical and psychological health? A survey of the longitudinal evidence." (2005).
[iii] Woodward, John C., Jackie Zabel, and Cheryl DeCosta. "Loneliness and divorce." Journal of Divorce 4.1 (1981): 73-82, and de Jong Gierveld, Jenny, Theo Van Tilburg, and Pearl Dykstra. "Loneliness and social isolation." (2016).
[iv] Oswald, Ramona Faith. "Resilience within the family networks of lesbians and gay men: Intentionality and redefinition." Journal of Marriage and Family 64.2 (2002): 374-383.
[v] Easterlin, Richard A. "Explaining happiness." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100.19 (2003): 11176-11183.
[vi] Johann Hari “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PY9DcIMGxMs retrieved 26 May 2017.
[vii] Weissman, Myrna M., et al. "Cross-national epidemiology of major depression and bipolar disorder." Jama 276.4 (1996): 293-299.
[viii] See for example Trovato, Frank. "A longitudinal analysis of divorce and suicide in Canada." Journal of Marriage and the Family (1987): 193-203, and Stack, Steven. "The impact of divorce on suicide in Norway, 1951-1980." Journal of Marriage and the Family (1989): 229-238.
Over the past years, Caroline’s relationship stories have been aimed at letting you know that it’s OK to make mistakes, and that your relationship is your greatest asset. They have a magic as she is able to weave together ideas worth pondering in the context of a simple events or nature-filled landscapes.
As Caroline takes a break, I’ll take this more into the direction of sharing practical information, derived from my clinical practice, for you to use to make goodness in your relationship more of a reality. Making a good thing better. Caroline will still choose the photographs, though, she’s quite proud of her vast collection of intriguing nature shots. The main message is simple:
Your relationship is your greatest asset.
It’s worth investing in it further
To make a good thing better.
Long-term relationships are the spice of life. They are the reason so many people are happy. They are the reason some are unhappy; they want their relationship to be better. Long-term relationships can hurt and heal. They promote love and life; anger and resentment; sadness and joy. They’re complex. If you are brave enough to have opted in to one of these, then you have chosen to live life more deeply, more intensely and more meaningfully.
If the bravery of committing to a long-term relationship has left you shaking at the knees, join the club. Welcome to life on cloud eight. (Though we still plan occasional visits to cloud nine.) Caroline and I have been in relationship for over thirty-five years and it has filled our lives with love, joy, warmth and happiness. It’s also been the source of frustration, pain, problems and hurt. Neither of us get it right all the time and our relationship is a lot of work; but the lasting love is worth every exasperating moment and every aching argument.
What’s the one thing that people long for the most?
A long-term relationship.
Not the fairy-tale, but the reality.
A good, solid long-term relationship can give belonging, love, security, protection, a shoulder to cry on, someone with whom to share joy, sadness, love, sex, hopes, dreams and successes and failures. It gives us the opportunity to grow old with someone. It protects us from naval-gazing, selfishness, drifting, getting lost, and, above all, it protects us from loneliness. The brain hates loneliness. Many fears and vices – alcohol excess, drug use, gambling, risky sex – are borne of loneliness.
As a psychiatrist, I have seen the struggle of people in unhappy relationships: drudgery, broken dreams and unreasonable compromise. I have seen people lead problem lives because of problem relationships instead of powerful lives because of powerful relationships. I have seen the devastating impact of separation and divorce. Divorce is a large risk factor for suicide. It often triggers a major depressive episode. I’ve also seen the elation of two people as they work it out and keep it together.
When the going gets tough, it seems our society offers us two choices: break-up or live with unhappy compromise. But there is a third and very viable alternative: nurture your relationship so that it flourishes. Nurture means work, like tilling a garden, but it also means pleasure and joy from the blossoms, fruit and seasons weathered and overcome. In a relationship that may have been battered by the demands of a too-busy society, that means rediscovering the person you first fell in love with; rediscovering the fun things you shared; rediscovering the joy of just beginning to know and trust someone deeper; and bravely being your authentic self to go over deeper.
No matter how tough the going gets, the person you once fell in love with is right in front of you.
Keep talking. Share life. Share more.
A healthy relationship will have its fun but you’ll also need to work through minor rights violations (you’re being a jerk) and tolerate human frailty (now, you’re being silly). You’ll need to tolerate a tendency to be hurtful, while striving for harmony. Working through these frustrating things is the hallmark of a healthy relationship.
It’s a windy day . We’re sitting on the beach watching the breakers. A flash of chestnut and white swoops down in front of us to snatch a small fish held out by a kindly fisherman. It was one of two Brahminy Kites that own the skies over the stretch of sand we walk each day. We named them Juan and Svetlana. I don’t know why.
They seem to be always together. Not always flying together, wing-in-wing but always keeping a Kite eye out. We have watched them battling wild weather, playing games, and searching for food. Committed. Attached. Alive.
They are not looking out for a better deal.
They are not afraid the other will leave them.
Their eyes are on each other and they battle life together. Other predators attempt to overwhelm them. But they are so much stronger together.
I started thinking about all the predators that threaten relationships in our society: commitment-phobia, the fear of missing out, our focus on productivity over relationships, career opportunities, the lure of transient sex, and the list goes on. Commitment is the seemingly largest hurdle.
That both people need to commit to stay together is self-evident. Sometimes one person says that they will commit to the relationship provided they get a better deal. A healed relationship, with mutual give and take, is a better deal. Commitment allows your relationship to become your greatest asset. The most helpful attitude is doing whatever it takes to achieve this.
Thanks to stability from commitment; love can grow way beyond the honeymoon period. The longer two people are together, the more attached they become, and the more love there can be. This happens with commitment. (Provided you spring clean your conflict bugs). It’s the fairy-tale “ever after” bit of “happy ever after.” It’s living the dream of growing old together. If you want “happy for a short time only while the fun lasts,” you are not ready for a long-term relationship.
I’m not sure if it was Juan or Svetlana who had secured the evening meal. It didn’t matter. It was refreshing to see that the Kites seemed unburdened by years of gender roles. We watched as the Kite battled against, but overcame, a very powerful gust of wind and flew back to the nest with their heavy earnings.
Treat your relationship as a secure anchor in a world of change, difficulty and uncertainty. Affirm your love, commitment and support often, in words and actions. You’ll by making your relationship stronger by doing this.
Commit to loving. You want love, right?
Above all, never stop trying.
People don’t break up because they stop loving., they break up because they stop trying.
Their commitment fails to meet the wind.
Both my parents are over 90. I recently had the privilege of being on a holiday with them. We had dinner together, watched movies, played some gentle sports, did a bit of dancing, spent time just staring at the sky.
Yes, they were doing all of these things and more at 90. Amazing!
They have been together for 66 years.
A lot of what they talked about were simple things:
Mum always having a dinner waiting for Dad
Dad’s protection of Mum (even when she protested!)
Mum’s intuitive way of bringing my father into conversations.
Just before our trip, my Mum got really sick.
“He was wonderful, nothing was too much for him to do. He took such gentle and loving care of me.”
I have been thinking about this idea of what romance really is for a long time now. On this holiday, the answer was right in front of me.
Being romantic is being selfless.
Romance involves giving, going out of your way, spending time, spending money, showing you care and fulfilling some of your partners needs rather than your own. We tend to like it when someone goes out of their way for us. If we could have more of that for ourselves, and do more of that for someone else, life would be better. Your relationship certainly would.
Selflessness doesn’t sound very romantic or sexy does it? But it is. Especially in our contemporary world where individualism and getting what you want and need in a relationship seems to be of paramount importance: selflessness appears more of an inconvenience than something to strive for. If you want your relationship to last for a good while, then give selflessness a go.
Here are some tips on being selfless to your love partner:
Compliment them honestly on something, anything, everything.
Listen, listen, listen to what they say, mean and feel. Listening is a very selfless act.
Appreciate who they are: their body, mind, mannerisms and aspirations.
Ponder what you can do to bring a smile to their face today.
Show genuine compassion and concern for their parents and siblings.
Be grateful for how they enrich your life.
Say ‘thank you’ often.
Seek to understand them.
Think of how you can help fulfil their emotional, physical, intellectual and social needs.
After a wonderful two weeks together, I watched my parents walk down a corridor back to their room after I said goodbye. It is difficult for each of them to walk alone. So they hold each other up. That image will stay with me forever. True selflessness is holding each other up through good times and tough times.
I used to lie to Christian.
Sure, I’ve never cheated on him or stolen from him, but I’ve lied.
(Christian lies too, but a lot less and he tries not to.)
I lied about how much I had spent clothes shopping.
I lied about what I thought about other people.
I lied about what I had disclosed about him to friends.
I lied about what I was really feeling.
So…what’s wrong with that. Everyone lies don’t they?
We were having this conversation while walking along a lonely beach.
We talked about how we are at one of those points in history when it’s become socially acceptable to lie. In this post-truth age, the media, the political world, the business world, and many other areas of society sanction and even applaud lying. Lying is not frowned upon. Getting caught lying is.
I thought I was very clever when I got away with lying: “Ha! He didn’t know.” “Great, won that one.”
When he suspected I was lying, I doubled my efforts to cover it up with more lies. (BTW, this is not that easy for me to be disclosing – it’s making me cringe).
Pride. Shame. Guilt.
“So what happened? Why did you stop lying?” Christian asked.
“You started calling me out on it. Oooh that hurt.”
But it wasn’t only that. I realised that I was getting myself into tighter knots.
From Christian’s perspective, if I was lying about seemingly small things, was I lying about the glue of our relationship?
What if I was lying when I said “I love you”?
I looked down at the sand, remembering what a mess I had gotten into.
A sand bubbler crab surfaced out of its hole and was leaving its sand balls everywhere. At first I thought it was an intricate planned pattern. But as I looked closer I couldn’t see any reasoning or patterns. Just a mess.
It reminded me of the tangled web of deceit I had been weaving.
As I moved closer, the crab scurried back into its hole. Yes, that was it. I had been afraid of being my authentic self. Too afraid of rejection. Of not being loved for who I truly was.
Not lying is a risk. You can never be guaranteed that someone is going to accept all of you. But the aim is always to grow together and this will always mean taking the good and the bad while reaching towards as much good as you can.
You need to live with authenticity: to think, say, and do what you believe and have it line up with what you feel you believe. Your brain wants integrity. Inauthenticity leads to self-loathing and depression. When we can be our true selves, we can share that truth with another person. When we live the mask, we share lies.
Lying is the antithesis of living authentically and being true to your self.
As we turned to go back home I shared a thought, “What if both people in a love-relationship are lying?”
“I see this so often in couple’s therapy. They need to reach for a deeper truth where you are able to accept the other person for their strengths, their faults, and even their lies because of the love. It’s deeper trust for realer love” said Christian.
I still lie about little things. Old habits and templates from childhood are very difficult to break. But I try to be authentic daily. I want the foundations of our relationship to be built on solid, trustworthy ground. Not on sand.
Tears were streaming down his face as his wife recalled that terrible moment from their wedding 14 years ago when she collapsed.
“I had lost a lot of weight for my wedding. I was trying to impress.”
“He wasn’t there at the church when I arrived, where was he?”
We were talking with some acquaintances in New York City, (originally from Naples). They shared their story of heartbreak and triumph with us.
Stefano was late, delayed by his mother. Still trying to convince her to come to the wedding. She wouldn’t budge. Nicola, (not Italian), was not considered good enough for her youngest boy.
Shortly after their vows, under the scornful gaze of her new in-laws, exhausted, anxious and fearful, Nicola collapsed. Stefano explained
“She just fell down into my arms, my beautiful bride. I remember, I wrapped her in my jacket until she came to.”
For their early marriage, everything was against them: family, finances, cultural differences. They argued ferociously. His family were trying to pull him away from her. She was feisty, ambitious and prone to outbursts. He was calmer but torn. They were pulling them in different directions. After five years, Stefano’s mother had not even met Nicola. He visited his mother once a week. It was a sore point between them. He started spending more and more time at family gatherings. She threw herself into her work.
They were pulling in different directions.
They were doing less and less together. Nicola felt she couldn’t say anything about Stefano’s family and Stefano felt he had no right to ask Nicola to cut back on her long work hours and time spent with her girlfriends. They respected each other’s right to live the way they each wanted. They gave each other freedom. That’s what marriage is about isn’t it?
I squeezed Christian’s hand tighter. (We’re aware of the “rights” and “freedom” point of view.)
Just being in a relationship with each other curtails your freedom.
I have a right to do what I want. Sure you do, even if it hurts. For many people, the effort a long term relationship needs is too much of a demand on their individual freedom. They also don’t want to infringe on someone else’s freedom by making demands. People reluctant to limit each other’s freedom may break up: I don’t want to limit your freedom, and I don’t want you to limit mine, so bye-bye.
Yet, as people, we always put demands on each other: from a demand that others won’t kill us, to a demand that you drive on your side of the road, to an expectation that others add to our happiness. Every close person limits your freedom in a profound way. A long term relationship makes demands: not sleeping with others, not hitting to get your way, and not being a total slob.
Without any demands, yes, the arguments stopped, but they started growing apart. They told their friends that this was the ultimate marriage, that they had worked things out, but they confided to us that that was one of the loneliest and most heartbreaking times in their relationship. Even the arguing was better.
One mid-winter’s night they decided to end their “perfect freedom marriage.” Stefano explained:
“The boiler had broken again and it was freezing cold. We made the decision and decided to say goodbye forever. Nicola was shivering. We both were. From the cold in the air and the cold in our hearts. I took my jacket off and wrapped her in it. She looked up at me with sad, sad eyes. Then we both cried. The memory of that moment long ago at the wedding came back to me, when I had wrapped my darling bride in my jacket.‘
“What can I do to make it right again?” he said.
“Choose me” Nicola said in a hesitant voice.
“Choose me too” replied Stefano.
From that point on Stefano never saw his mother again. Nicola cut back on her gruelling work hours. They now have a family of their own and spend every spare minute they have together.
A close, personal relationship makes many demands. Having someone make these demands is actually part of the happiness and bliss. It is part of that wonderful feeling of belonging. Both people make demands; both make sacrifices.
Nicola and Stefano still don’t have much money and they still argue, but hanging on their coat rack just beside their front door is a well-worn jacket that was all that was needed to hold their love together.
When you hear those two words, what do you think “it” is? A football game? A meeting? A meal?
“It” is the most important thing we crave above all else, whether we are willing to admit it or not. “It” is a love relationship. Just ask someone who has had a love relationship then lost it, or someone who is not in one.
How many times a day are those two words said worldwide?
We do know, however, that statistically the most common reason for “it’s over” in a marriage is an affair. So its common. So heaps of people are doing it. Does that stop the hurt? Is there any way to get over the hurt?
Ok, so today we are touching on the big one: infidelity. The seemingly unforgivable. I can’t say here what can be written in books or said by therapists. But I do want to touch upon one of the most important steps in the forgiveness process: deciding to forgive.
“He only told me about the affair three years after it was over. I had no idea. How could I be that gullible? It was a work colleague. I was at home with our twins, barely two-years-old. He was ‘working back late’ to pay off our mortgage. It wasn’t just the affair, it was knowing that the person I loved lied to me and accepted my love while he shared his with somebody else. Then he continued to lie. It shattered me.”
World falling apart.
Dreams ripped to shreds.
Aching inside that never leaves.
Deep, deep hurt.
This is what Christian hears behind the closed doors of his office.
A while back, I wrote about Georgia and Sam who went through an “it’s over.” They have found a way to reconcile, but Georgia has since told me there was an affair involved in their breakup and she is finding it hard to forgive Sam.
“It just hurts so much. I keep thinking about him giving his love to another woman. He says it was just physical, that it doesn’t mean anything to him, but it doesn’t help. Why wasn’t my love enough for him?”
She started crying. So much hurt.
“I want to forgive him but how can I even consider forgiving when I feel physically sick every time I think about it?” She was torturing herself.
Infidelity, if it is to be forgiven, needs to be understood and strong feelings processed. This is difficult. It leaves an emotional scar from which many relationships do not recover. How to handle an affair depends on your personal values and the values you forged as a couple. There is no right or easy answer. Each relationship is different.
The contract at the beginning of any love-relationship usually includes there are some things we won’t do with others, one of them is expressing physical intimacy. This is usually expressed in marriage vows, an agreement of sexual exclusivity, or some shared understanding discussed or assumed early in a relationship. An affair acts against this core contract; the sense of betrayal is great. It’s serious: when you’re in breach of contract, the deal’s off.
Getting past an affair means being aware of the damage done to the contract. It will mean putting together a new contract. There are many ways to do this (See Heim “Forgive”)
Re-writing a love contract is a start. A good start. Often the couples will need a therapist to help guide them through. But you have to want to forgive in the first place. You have to decide to forgive. We talked about that first step last week: deciding.
“I want to forgive him. You see, there’s the kids, my parents, our friends” Georgia continued.
“But what about you?” I said
“I still can’t believe he did that to me. I’m still in shock.” Georgia continued.
The second step to forgiving is accepting. Accepting that it really happened.
“Yes, that’s the hard part, accepting that it happened” I replied.
Georgia continued blow-drying my hair. “You’ve got quite a few grey hairs starting here”
“What! Where? No I don’t!” I retorted.
“Caroline, you have to accept that you will go grey one day.”
We both laughed. It felt good and eased some of her pain.
“I still don’t know how to start forgiving.” She sighed.
“You’ve started.” I replied. “You’ve decided to choose love over payback. It’s powerful.”
I think Georgia will make it, but it’s a long road ahead. They’ve decided not to go with the therapist and work through the issues themselves. But they’ve decided to work on it, so their chances of success are much greater.
I want to let you know that I will now be posting monthly. Please look out for it around the beginning of each month or subscribe to get it directly into your inbox (you can unsubscribe at any time).
Welcome to our blog. Each blog contains an insight into your relationship and how to mend or grow it drawn from Christian's 18 years of clinical experience working in psychiatry. They are told as stories. The central ideas are in bold. All the pictures are originals. We post once a month. Looking forward to travelling with you in this amazing journey called life.