Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
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.
I have a confession to make.
I like to control other people.
If there’s conflict, I go silent. That makes me feel in control. Others have to work hard to get my attention and I can get my way.
I was watching a scene from a play that my students were performing. The couple in the play had just had an argument and the male character was giving his girlfriend “the silent treatment.” The pain that this caused the girlfriend, who tried everything to break through the wall of hostility, was excruciating.
Early in our relationship I used “the silent treatment.” It was my way of handling conflict. I could control and manipulate Christian that way. Christian had a different way: “getting it all out;” arguing. Both these ways of handling conflict are culturally inscribed or learnt behaviour.
Arguing has been given a bad wrap. The silent treatment seems more acceptable, kinder, more “civilized.” (I wince at that word.)
“Getting it all out” during arguing seems more aggressive than “the silent treatment” also known as “the cold shoulder.” But it isn’t.
The silent treatment is a form of cold warfare.
Not talking is just a type of wordless arguing at a distance; emotions are usually still flared up. It is avoiding rather than confronting the conflict. The conflict is, however, still felt. Emotions, thoughts and feelings get suppressed rather than expressed. If you are “not talking” you are still communicating: watching behaviours, body language, looking for signs of diplomatic envoys or olive branches, seeing if things have gone “too far” this time, and so forth.
I watched my students playing this out onstage. The female character looked like she was pleading with a brick wall. I shuddered as I felt the icy coldness of the male character’s aggressive silence.
The silent treatment can make the other person feel terribly alone. Useless.
Silence severs your relationship with your life partner. Although you may feel they somehow deserve it and gloat that you are in control, you keep them at arm’s length, creating a huge chasm that you can fall into. You can be left alone with only your pride to console you.
Aren’t we strange human beings that need control but also need rescuing?
So what can you do?
Use these words:
When you … I feel …
The way I see it is …
What would work for me is …
Every couple has different ways of handling conflict. Some argue it out. Some go silent for a couple of days, then they slowly come back together. They have a kind of silent contract of silence.
I still use the silent treatment at times, I can’t help it. But I am getting better at “getting it all out on the table” while trying to employ heart and humour. Christian is getting better at being less reactive and toning it down.
“The course of true love never does run smooth” (Midsummer Shakespeare)
There will still be arguments and conflicts. The love is in the trying. Keep trying. Keep valuing the greatest asset, the relationship; then perhaps cold shoulders will one day be replaced by warm fuzzies.
We walked through a lush rainforest at the foot of Mount Warning. If you stand at the summit of this natural wonder at daybreak, you will be the first in mainland Australia to see the sun cast its long gilded beams over our desolate continent.
I’m not that fond of mornings, so it was 11am before we commenced our ascent.
We didn’t carry much on our journey, but still the rain's heaviness made us feel each dragging footstep. Our backpacks were full of unspoken words, unfulfilled longings and confusion.
Rainforests are filled with so much depth and beauty, but they also harbour secrets. Vines creep and entwine themselves around trunks and branches, concealing the trees beneath. They made me think about an issue of our relationship, sitting below this weekend's disagreements.
We had been niggling each other for days. This was a warning. A deeper problem festered underneath.
Problems come from many, many sources: parenting, extended family, finances, sex, differing cultures, your personalities, your values and priorities, political differences, society, drug and alcohol issues, work, friends, ill health, misfortune, broken dreams, unrealistic expectations, technology, being too busy, and the weather, just to name a few.
Notice that “the relationship” is not on this list.
When you identify the real problem, you capture it, hold it captive, and then you can begin to work on it.
I couldn’t stand it anymore so I ventured,
“We need to talk about this.”
We both knew what “this” was.
“Oh you mean how I always wear my t-shirts inside out and it drives you crazy?” he grinned.
I laughed. It eased the tension and helped my heart speak more gently.
I took a deep breath, took his hand and we began a long, deep conversation that crept its way around many corners and steep learning curves. We talked about how the attacking and defending of seemingly insignificant issues was a symptom of a bigger tension that had been smouldering underneath. We had both felt that our relationship was the problem but realised that the problem was somewhere else. It was a silent peace-stealer that had worn us down for months now.
The problem (if you want to know) is that we both felt stuck. Stuck with a house that wouldn’t sell, stuck with missing our boys who had just left home, stuck with work overload and stuck with unfulfilled dreams of wanting to do meaningful work at a university full of red tape.
And we were taking our frustrations out on each other.
But … we finally identified the real problem.
When you know and define the problem, you know what to work on.
In this and nearly every case where blame, shame, and guilt are plastered onto a relationship:
The relationship isn’t the problem, the problem is the problem.
I know I’ve said this before, but it’s what we come back to again and again.
It is so liberating. For us.
On the way back down the mountain, I noticed a tree that had uncovered, beautiful slender roots for the world to observe and enjoy. It was growing beside a stream and the longest arm had stretched its delicate fingers into the water.
I realised that although I was mentally and emotionally drained from our talk, I felt much lighter. We had uncovered the problem underneath. We could now work on a way out of this tangled undergrowth.
“I just don’t think we should!”
“Well I do!”
I have a bit of a temper. And no, It’s not because I’m a redhead or have a Scottish heritage. It’s just me. Actually, I have grown quite fond of my temper. It’s a great match for Christian’s hot-blooded European personality. Things can get a bit explosive at times. Like during an argument.
“And that’s another thing, you always get your way.” Christian sparred.
Argue, argue argue…
“And that’s another thing, you don’t understand me.” I retorted and went and hid myself in our room.
I suddenly felt a warm hand on my shoulder.
“And that’s another thing!” Christian yelled “I still love you very much!”
That was it. That was what I needed. The tight hand I had clenched around my opinions lost its debilitating hold.
As we walked along the beach a few days later, I was thinking about this argument. The pristine, beautiful Australian beach is Christian’s place of solace and healing. He goes there often to fling his stress into the waves. This time we both needed the winds and waves to heal some wounds. The tempestuous ocean reminded me of our heated interchange.
We had been arguing over something very insignificant in the
grand scheme. Christian thought we should get solar panels on our roof (a no-brainer if you live in Australia’s sunshine state). I thought we shouldn’t (a no-brainer if your house was on the market).
What resolved the argument? Heart and humour.
On later reflection, I knew it was a technique that Christian talks about in his book about arguing in relationships, but at that moment, I knew he wasn’t using something from a bag of tricks. It was straight from his heart. He had overcome his own fervour to connect with me again: a touch on the shoulder from the heart and a ridiculously loving comment in the middle of an argument.
Those words still bring a smile to my face.
Helpful humour stops you saying things you will regret or stops you letting your feelings run away with you. Helpful humour ideas:
Is this gonna be a short or a long argument?
Should I make a cup of coffee or can we fight over dinner?
Sorry, I just never noticed that beautiful freckle on your nose
Can I phone a friend before I answer that?
Just don’t use humour to avoid the issue or hide your feelings.
Christian sometimes falls into this trap. I fall into the trap of hiding my feelings all together. Neither is healthy.
Using heart and humour is part of healthy arguing. It keeps emotions and reasoning working together.
But it’s not easy. You have to swallow your pride. I’m not good at humour. Touch is easier for me. But even that's not easy in a heated moment. I need to make it a wilful act of love.
After our walk and talk on the long, lovely stretch of golden sand, we just stared at the vast Pacific Ocean. We hadn’t actually solved anything or decided about solar panels, but we had gained perspective.
I still have sand in my pockets from that day. Hurtful words are like the grits of salty sand that get in your eyes: stinging and aching until they are washed out. Heart and humour ease the pain and keep you in relationship.
We haven’t resolved anything, but we're now talking about what we were really arguing about: the problem underneath our words …
TBC in 2 weeks
“Handling problems with heart and humour” is one of the 5 Steps to keeping it together and keeping it great in Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset.
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.