Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
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.
“Please don’t reject me when I tell you this!”
I was screaming these words so loudly inside my head that I thought Christian could hear it.
Actually, I thought the koala could hear it. He gave a sleepy nod in my direction and what I perceived as a very knowing look. We were on a day trip to Australia Zoo, a wild experience.
“Please take it well, please don’t misunderstand, please let’s keep in harmony” my inner-monologue continued.
You may have an inner monologue similar to this when confiding with friends and family, but the stakes are higher when you are sharing something very, very, honest with your love partner. Extremely high. You do not want to lose them, so sometimes you wonder if you can be totally honest with them and allow them to be totally honest with you.
Communication in a love relationship is unique: you are special to one another, you are with each other for so much of the time, you want peace and harmony yet you have wants and needs to honestly express.
“I need to tell you something, and it’s going to take a lot of courage for me to tell you this.”
Good start Caroline, but where do you go from here?
I usually bottle things up and then explode during a heated moment. Christian tends to be more honest, but this can be hurtful. Often I keep things to myself, but he still feels the stirrings underneath. This time I was more prepared. The nature and animals around worked their special kind of charm and made me want to disclose, draw closer, share what was really going on and, I hoped, made Christian more receptive. Setting the right environment is important. This was the right moment.
“Okay, I’m listening” Christian held my hand as we walked through a wetlands area singing with birds.
Silence. Deep breath. Look at him Caroline, you can say it.
“When you….I feel….And you have been doing that a lot lately. I need you to be more….”
Whew! I said it and then held my breath.
We often confide on this level, but this time, what I needed to tell him went to the very deep core of our relationship. The stakes were much higher.
I felt like a meerkat on sentry. On guard, watching for the slightest sign of disturbance. I watched Christian closely, the tightening of his jaw muscle. What was it in his eyes, hurt, betrayal, confusion?
“Thank you for telling me.”
Silence as he took it in.
Honesty is tough. It risks a lot. It leaves you standing naked. But that’s kind of what’s supposed to happen in a personal relationship. For a time you sacrifice the harmony in your relationship and go through uncertainty for a deep togetherness, very deep. And yes, you sometimes hurt your love-partner in the process. Truth does that.
The closer someone is, the more they love you, but the more they can hurt you.
“What can I do to make it easier for you” he said through the hurt. We talked it through. A long, difficult talking through.
Before you back away from the daunting task of being more honest with your love-partner, and have them be honest with you, keep in mind the following:
A relationship means sharing love, and having someone who knows and understands you.
If you feel misunderstood by everyone, but your love- partner understands you; life is OK.
If you feel abandoned by everyone, but your love-partner accepts you; life is pretty good.
If you feel betrayed, hated or cheated by everyone, but your love-partner stands by you, loves you and is faithful to you; life is great.
As we walked through another large aviary we saw two Australian Emerald Doves flying from tree to tree. I wanted to take a photo of them but they were too busy following each other. One would move to a tree and the other would try and keep up. They didn’t always get it right, but they always ended up on the same branch somehow, standing by each other, just belonging to each other. It feels wonderful to be known.
After this disclosure Christian knew a lot more about me and it felt wonderful. Honesty peels back the layers, exposing the true gold and growing the deep love underneath.
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.