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.
“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
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 had barely walked in the door when lists and lists of rules started screaming at me.
“Take your shoes off!”
“Wash the sand off your feet”
“Use the latch so the door doesn’t slam!”
"Bend your knees before sitting on the couch."
I counted seven more signs in the kitchen alone.
This was our vacation. A quiet place with miles of yellow sand and blue waves stretched before us. Salty nights and sun-drenched days. But…
This was my parent’s apartment. So, rules. My family love rules. Rules held us together. I have one relative whose favourite holiday is New Year's Day as she gets to make a new set of rules. I've spent a lot of my life ridding myself of rules and "shoulds."
Don’t get me wrong. Rules help tremendously. Our boys needed strict boundaries to feel secure and safe.
Like a tentative cat I courageously stepped over the threshold but felt myself tensing up. Smells, sounds, & dusty objects from my regimented, (yet happy) childhood assaulted me.
My tension was all the more acute having just spent Christmas Eve with Christian’s parents. They are the complete opposite of my parents. Think “Meet the Fockers.” That different. I’m not kidding. They're flexible, easy going, free spirited. But their flexibility comes with baggage.
My parents get upset if we arrive 10 minutes late.
Christian’s parents are insulted if we set a time to arrive.
My parents expect us to say three thank you's for each Christmas present, call the next day and say how much we are enjoying the present, then send an email about it a week later.
Christian’s parents get insulted if we say more than one thank you, and prefer that we don’t even notice that they gave us a present.
My parents love rules.
Christian’s parents live to break rule.
My parents like cats.
Christian’s parents like dogs.
And on it goes.
You see, our parents are from completely different cultures.
(How did we two ever get it together?)
The parents we love dearly drive us crazy sometimes. Get-togethers weaken and strengthen our relationship. We are drawn into family dynamics, our childhood roles are replayed, and we are challenged and questioned. If we behave differently to our expected role, our parents can hammer us:
“But you don’t like cats”
“But you couldn’t possibly just give that money away!”
“You always loved Whisky”
"You looked better in patterned clothes"
Each of them trying to reclaim their values as “the only way to be.”
But these are just the small things…
Earlier in our marriage, my tears and repressed anger were sometimes smattered over our windscreen on drives home. Cultural differences sought to exhaust and strangle our relationship.
“Culture” means “the way things are done around here.” Be it differences in country of origin, state of origin, or different faith or family traditions.
If you are in a relationship with someone from a very different culture, you may be like an Olympic diver who has chosen to perform a very difficult dive. If you are in a relationship with the boy next door, your dive degree of difficulty is not as high. In cultural issues, we expect our partner to behave in a certain way and are surprised, hurt or frustrated when they do not. Awareness is half of the solution.
To manage this, we discuss the following:
What are the cultural things we love about each other?
What are the cultural things which drive each other crazy?
How can we use our cultural characteristics for us rather than against us?
If you are going to make any New Years resolutions, consider making one of them being aware of your cultural differences.
We walked along the beach. We talked though the issues. There was a blue bottle on the sand in front of us. (A "marine stinger with a long tail." A real screamer. As a child, I was often stung, but now I just keep a watch out. The cultural issues still sting. Now we rely on each other to keep a watch out. We use heart and humour: a gentle hand on the back, a ridiculous comment.
Coming from different cultures, sometimes I feel that we are miles apart. My heart grieves. But on that Summer's day my perspective changed. Looking back on our sandy path, I was surprised to find that our footprints were not only close, but beautifully in sync.
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.