Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
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.
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).
“Goodnight” Christian said.
I didn’t want to say goodnight. I didn’t want to say good morning, I didn’t want to say anything.
This was the night after our last argument. (I wrote about it a few months ago.)
I didn’t want to reconcile, I didn’t want to keep talking about it, I just wanted it all to go away.
I had just been editing some of Christian’s writings and remembered this:
Forgiveness is distinct from reconciliation; you don’t necessarily need to be back in relationship to forgive. With your love-partner, however, you need to reconcile. It’s part of the deal. Otherwise you can’t go on living together comfortably. Without reconciling, you’re in a stand-off, a cold war; the relationship virtually ends: sure, I forgive you, I just don’t want to talk to you anymore.
Part of the deal? Really?? (It is so annoying to be married sometimes.)
I also had a proverb going round and round in my head. I had been at a meeting at a service club during the week and we had to write a piece of advice in a card for one of the members that was getting married. About one third of the members had written:
“Don’t go to sleep while you’re still angry with each other.”
Far out! All these “shoulds” screaming in my ears. I hate “shoulds” and spend most of my life getting rid of them.
To stops the “shoulds” I started thinking about what we were arguing about and tried to make sense of it. Christian had said some things that hurt me and I said some more hurtful things that surprised even me. They seemed to come from left of the Nullarbor (a huge, flat, arid desert in South Australia).
Why would a person who loves you want to hurt you? In most cases, they don’t. They don’t mean to. But something inside them “makes” them do it: conflicting emotions, strong desires, unmet needs, unfulfilled ambition, greed, selfishness, jealousy or some other inner conflict. Something. Rarely is someone just mean.
Sometimes, you, their love-partner, become collateral damage in a desperate struggle happening deep inside their head. Your relationship mirrors what’s going on for them:
People who criticize are usually very self-critical
Hard task-masters are usually very hard on themselves
People who lie often, often lie to themselves
People who say they hate you, often hate themselves
People who push you away, often feel unworthy of love
People may hurt you to hurt themselves: self-sabotage
People who are insecure will test you to see if you are loyal
People who manipulate are usually deeply insecure
OK, so something was going on inside me and I was working it out on Christian. This needed much more thought. But right now I needed to do something to reconcile. Even though I didn’t really want to, I wanted to at the same time. (Humans are so complex and contradictory.)
“Goodnight” he said again … I begrudgingly gave him my hand.
There’s something powerful about touch. In the soft pressure of his hand I realised that Christian was my greatest ally … against myself and my own sometimes terrifying thoughts. As I was his greatest ally against his own terrifying thoughts.
“I’m sorry and … I … forgive you for what you said.” (sort of.)
It was a bit strained, a bit forced, a bit artificial, but there was a huge part of me that wanted to reconcile. (After I said it I felt my temperature go back to normal.)
“Me too” he replied.
At least we were talking again.
Love. It will keep getting up and trying again. It will work hard to forgive when hurt (even if it doesn’t want to). And it will wake up in the morning with fresh eyes and a heart that knows that its greatest ally is the person walking beside you.
We only hurt the ones we love the most.
“Leave her” the mother whispered
“Leave her” said the movie he watched
“Leave her” said his clients
“Leave her” said his weekly horoscope
“Leave her” whistled the winds of change
Worn down and exhausted, not by his wife, but by the voices whispering in his ears, Sam left her.
I relayed this story told to me by my hairdresser as Christian and I were walking along some rocks near the sea. There was a high wind. The rocks were very slippery and mossy in parts so we had to walk slowly and carefully. (Even in our relationship we have to tread carefully in high wind)
I have been listening to Sam’s story for a long time. Sam’s parents didn’t like Georgia from the start.
She wasn’t good enough
She was too “different” than their family
She had “issues”
The gradual undermining of their relationship increased yearly until the poison seeped into Sam’s insecurities and he started listening.
This is the litany he hears now:
“You are much better without her”
“You have your freedom back”
“You have much more time to pursue your own dreams now”
But he isn't feeling any better...
In a society emphasizing individual happiness, his genuinely concerned family and friends were offering unhelpful advice rather than pitching in. Maybe they’re too busy chasing their own happiness.
I have seen this devastation with someone close to me. Her weekends and special holidays are spent battling for her relationship. It is a common scene. I’ve heard this story so many times from different people.
I have also seen the icy claws of doubt tighten around a marriage and squeeze the life out of it.
As we walked around a point, we saw a wind-blown tree grasping hold of the edge of a cliff face.
It reminded me of a story Christian had talked about:
Kim was in Christian’s office, in tears.
“I can’t tell you how often my parents have told me I should leave him. My sisters and friends have told me the same. They just don’t understand. Sure, it’s difficult. He gets depressed and needs to be in hospital. Money is tight. I get tired and frustrated. I need support. Before his depression, Josh and I were wonderful, there was nothing we couldn’t do. We had lots of fun. It’s less like that, but I just can’t walk away. We belong together. Nobody understands.”
Our world values individualism. Kim’s family and friends are worried that she has put her individual happiness aside to support her depressed husband. She has.
What is she doing that keeps her marriage together?
She is cultivating selflessness and reaching for something deeper. Leaving would leave her miserable. She gains strength from being selfless. Kim is happier with Josh than without him; even if he adds to her burden at the moment.
Selflessness is not a popular idea in the 21st Century. But selflessness is a key ingredient of the glue that keeps a relationship strong when strong winds start blowing around you and the road ahead seems slippery.
The grass may seem greener on the other side, but it’s often moss and weeds.
When I looked back at the grasping tree, I noticed the rock face that it was holding onto. The wind had worn out hollows, but it was solid, beautiful and immovable, just like Kim and Josh’s relationship.
The wind does not have all the answers.
I woke up this morning and couldn’t see anything out of the window. A heavy mist shrouded the landscape swallowing the trees. I could hear the birds singing but only faintly; their normally clear, crisp melodies were muted and hollow.
The mist outside reflected my mood.
We had been at a party. Something came up which triggered a resentment, so we had been talking late into the night about past hurts. Ways we had hurt each other. There had been no anger, no malice, no blaming, but there were wounds there that had been opened and were stinging.
I was still hurting. Christian was still hurting. Even though we had discussed these hurts before. Even though we had “worked through” the issues, there were still resentments there that reared their ugly heads now and again. I felt heavy.
I found myself getting upset that these had not healed.
I used to think something was dreadfully wrong with our relationship when episodes like this happened. But I have grown in this. We could live on the surface and pretend everything was alright. Or we could share our hurts, our fears, our longings and go deeper in our relationship: I choose to go deeper.
Resentments that destroy relationships can be seemingly very small. They come in many shapes and forms
Resentments about parents and siblings - “yes but your father never…”
Resentments about trust issues - “why do you always pay attention to…”
Resentments about sex - “but you never ask what I want…”
Resentments about money - “you just spend, spend, spend…”
Resentments about children - “Why do I always have to be the bad one…”
And the list goes on.
Resentment is a safety blanket for many people. We feel justified, energised, even strangely triumphant when we dwell on our resentments in our minds. So why do we hold onto them?
We hold on to poisonous feelings because we feel entitled to them or out of pride. Resentment is effectively give away rent-free space in your mind to a hurt. Resentment feeds our pride or what Christian calls “the angry wolf.”
Resentment is a hungry, bitter wolf that is never satiated.
Layers of resentment are prickly protective shells that keep you at a distance from your love partner. Especially when they have to do with his parents, or her selfishness or his fear of commitment.
Later in the morning the mist was starting to lift so we went for a walk to clear our minds and dissipate the heaviness. The trees were beginning to emerge from the gloom.
“Sorry” he said.
“Sorry” I said. And we kept walking.
We have said it many, many times before, even for the same resentments, but my steps became lighter and the aching in my stomach began to subside. Christian holds on to resentment longer than I do, so I knew some thoughts from his bitter wolf lingered.
Saying sorry is a part of a healthy relationship. It is an acknowledgment of hurt when it occurs, and taking responsibility for it. Apologizing says I do not take you for granted and I want to learn more about you, your needs, and our relationship.
Letting go of resentment is not easy and I’ll talk about it some more in the future. The first step, however, is acknowledging that it is there. Instead of giving away rent-free space in your head to resentment and hurts, that space can be filled with deeper understanding, love and commitment to each other. Yes, this can happen.
As we turned around for home, I noticed my feet were wet. The dew on the grass had soaked through my shoes. But the sun was just stretching its golden head from behind the trees and the path in front of us was easier to navigate. Joined with the now clear melody of the birds, I felt my soul start to sing again.
“But what if she has just found out she’s pregnant to another guy?” I almost yelled.
Christian shooshed me. We were out on a walk and, as usual, everyone could hear my loud voice.
We have a colleague in the UK that we occasionally skype. He has been in a long-term relationship for 8 years. He suspects his partner is having an affair. He is completely tied up in knots about it. He can’t sleep, can’t eat properly, takes sick days for no reasons. But he can’t ask his girlfriend the simple question: are you sleeping with someone else?
“Why not?” I said exasperated. “Why can’t he ask her? Then he’d know.” Christian led me down a path to a less-crowded area so we could continue talking without stealing the peace.
We like visiting parks and had discovered a lovely Japanese garden. The delicate foliage on the trees, the flowers, the chosen stones were in complete harmony. Nothing was out of place: all was ordered. For all appearances, everything was in agreement. My emotions were far too inflated for a gentle atmosphere such as this. Or was it all gentle and harmonious? What was underneath? I began to reflect on how much silence is observed in nature, but what is hidden underneath? … weeds, debris, dead leaves.
I come from a background where there is much left unspoken. Where people are often “silent” about things that are going on and their partner is just meant to “know.” Marrying Christian changed all of that for me, but that’s another story.
“Not saying things” is another badge of honour in my background just like never arguing. I often hear my friends say “I couldn’t tell him that” or “She wouldn’t understand so I don’t tell her.” I know where this comes from as I have the same struggles myself. But I also know now how liberating it is to say something.
Even if the answer you hear will hurt.
Even if you have unspoken rules in your relationship.
Even if it may lead to an argument.
Even if you may feel exposed.
It’s worth it.
The unspoken in a relationship eats away and erodes your relationship. It feeds the green-eyed monster of jealousy. It creates fantasies in the imagination that grow into huge empires of distrust. It is often a one-way street to despair.
The unspoken breeds loneliness. Shared loneliness.
It may look harmonious on the outside, but it may be a relationship built on sand, not on weathered rock.
Couples may boast that they never argue (they don’t), never have conflicts (they do) and are always polite with each other (they are). The trouble is that their relationship may be falling apart one unspoken word at a time.
Like our colleague.
“Why can’t he just ask her what’s going on?” I repeated.
“I don’t know” Christian replied. He doesn’t have all the answers.
I gazed at all the beauty around me searching for an answer, a way through the mess of people not communicating and the complete bind they find themselves in because of the unspoken and keeping up appearances.
And the devastating consequence can sometimes be the end of a relationship. But there is a way that leads to healing, restoration and a deeper relationship …. to be continued in two weeks
Why am I qualified to talk about men? I’m not. But I’m surrounded by them. At home I have a husband, two sons, a male cat, a male dog that died 2 years ago and a male kookaburra called Harold that visits me nearly every morning on my back deck. At work, all the colleagues in my department, with the exception of a new appointment this year, are male. I loved bringing up boys: visiting building sites, playing pirates and reading Moby Dick. I was happiest when they came home covered in mud. Sounds sexist doesn’t it? It is.
I’m also going to draw heavily on a book Christian has written and his lectures on men’s mental health. Listening to the lectures has given me insights and lots of surprises about what it means to be male.
I’ve learnt enough to know how hard it is for men to be themselves in a world that increasingly seems to say that it’s wrong to be male. I watched this happen to one of my boys: it broke my heart.
OK, so we looked at controversial comments about women last week. This week it’s about men. Let’s get on with it:
Many men have a problem with anger
Men hate failing and particularly hate others seeing them fail
Men are not mind readers
Most men feel that if you take away their work they are a nobody
At work and in sport men know who the top dog is
It’s difficult for many men to trust other males
Men have huge hearts which they are constantly told to suppress
I know these are generalisations. This doesn’t apply to all men, but in his practice and in his lectures these are the ones Christian has found stand out.
Interesting facts: the larger percentage of our readers are male and females now initiate more divorces than males.
Since there is so much I could say about all these comments, I’m going to choose one with practical, immediate application. Let’s tackle the comment about anger in the straight-forward, problem solving way that men do: head on. Dealing with anger is actually all about having your head on: in the right way.
Let me start with an important point: strong emotions in men are not wrong. Women often make that mistake. I did. I couldn’t understand why my sons would listen to hard-hitting metal music, wanted to tackle each other on the football field or wanted to play mortal combat games on the internet.
Strong emotions, tempered by responsible thinking, are assets. Strong emotions help us survive. They teach us. They help us solve problems and are useful in relationships.
Strong emotions are as natural as fierce storms, raging oceans and howling winds. Too much suppressed anger can, however, become uncontrollable. It needs to be dealt with.
Below is the traffic light technique Christian gives his war vets to help them deal with the type of anger that consumes men so much that they do something irrational:
RED: STOP everything you are doing when gripped with a strong emotion
YELLOW: THINK. Tackle it with your head on - think about the emotion you are experiencing and ask yourself: what is safe to do? What is safe to say?
GREEN: GO. Put your safe choice into action when you are in control.
(Taken from Christian’s book Five Steps to Men’s Mental Health 2016: 89)
The traffic light technique is all about tackling strong emotions head on.
The men in my life, especially my three boys, fill my life with so much joy, adventure and passion. They are a constant source of strength, dependability and affection. They fill my love tank. It is not wrong to have the strong emotions that males experience in this complex world. It’s time to let boys encounter strong emotions, and learn how to control them, so that they can grow into men that can handle being men.
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.
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.