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.
“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.
Do you have a list of things you don’t like about your love partner?
I don’t like her ….
He makes me upset when he….
She always …
I love a good list.
Shakespeare wrote a play about people writing lists of likes and dislikes of the people they love. It’s called As You Like It. The pining lover Orlando writes lists of all the things he loves about Rosalind and pins the lists to the trees in The Forest of Arden. Romantic huh?
Then there’s Phoebe, she’s a shepherdess (no gender-neutral pronouns in those times). She’s a lot more down to earth. She compiles a list of the good and bad attributes of the “boy” she has fallen in love with.
Two weeks ago we talked about how unspoken words can gradually erode a relationship. So can unspoken lists. People often play a role in a relationship, second guessing how the other person would like them to act. They play “As You Like It” not “As It Is.” They are not honest.
Because they want to keep the peace
Because they don’t want to hurt their partner
Because “you have always got to be positive”
Or worse, because they compare the happiness level in their own relationship to those in others:
As Orlando says, “O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man's eyes!” (As You Like It Act 5, Sc 2)
“I’m leaving you.”
Brandon walked out leaving my friend Alana so shocked she couldn’t even cry.
Yes, it had come out of nowhere.
Yes, she didn’t know why.
One of the most tragic things that can happen in divorce and separation is when a partner just leaves, doesn’t say the unspoken words, doesn’t share his/her list, doesn’t give the other person the opportunity to change. Just says “I’ve had enough!” Enough of what? Not sharing your list of dislikes, of unmet needs, of hurts is unfair. You never gave the relationship a chance.
There is an alternative to a relationship breakdown: nurturing your relationship to improve it. As idealistic as it sounds, this is a realistic consideration.
Do you have the courage to try and make it work?
This is where list sharing is very important. Get out your lists. Your dislikes list and your likes list. Make sure you each have two lists.
Schedule a day or a weekend of deep disclosure. This is very scary, so be careful and gentle. Taking turns and taking time, really listen to the dislikes, hurts and unmet needs over the years. Apologise. Then take turns to listen to how you have helped each other to grow and nourish. Say thank you. You may be surprised how much of an impact you have had on each other over the years. Thank them for letting you know.
It is a difficult assignment which needs much courage and understanding. It presupposes you are committed to going forward. If your relationship is on shaky ground at the moment, postpone the “dislikes” list and share the “likes” only.
I have two lists about Christian, the things I like and the things I don’t like.
As much as I love lists, it has been hard for me to share my lists with Christian: both lists. Pride, embarrassment, fear of hurting, one-up-womanship, all inhibit my list sharing.
We have a small Forest of Arden beyond our back fence. Seasons and time have weathered and changed the lists I pinned on the trees long ago. Some of the dislikes have turned to likes as we have grown closer. Many of the past likes are now superfluous. Some entries have not and will not change. The important thing is that our relationship does not depend on crossing things off the dislike list or adding to the like list. It depends on deep, committed sharing of the hurts, unmet needs and dislikes, and rejoicing in the likes.
A word of caution. If you are going to share your lists … be gentle. Very, very gentle.
I had just been talking to a friend who is on the brink of separation.
So much hurt.
There were no affairs. There was no lying, no emotional abuse. They were just “too different” she told me. “We’ve hurt each other too much.”
“But why do people in close relationships hurt each other so much?” I pleaded with Christian.
We were finally back to our walk-talks. The trees were shedding their bark (beautiful but messy) and the bark on the path crackled under our feet as we wound our way through the gentle giant gumtrees.
“The closer someone is, the more they love you, but the more they can hurt you.”
Christian replied. He sees couples that are on the precipice of separation often.
Christian and I also hurt each other (I guess you know that by now). Cold shoulders, selfish actions, but mainly hurtful words. At times it has escalated and built up so much that I feel I have to change my life. Something seems wrong, dreadfully wrong. Emotions are so powerful. It’s actually comforting for me to know that everyone, at some point in their relationship, feels something like this. Whether they admit it or not. Whether they repress it or not.
Then the hurtful words begin. Or resentment. Or they “keep the peace” for the sake of the kids, or the crowds that surround and press in on every side: parents, friends and colleagues.
So why do we hurt each other so much?
Christian calls the hurtful words “quills” like those on an echidna or a hedgehog or porcupine.
Our hurtful quills are our pride, defences, selfishness, unresolved conflicts, demands or whimsical wishes. These lead to conflict. Conflict is everywhere; the whole world handles it badly. The only way to avoid conflict in a relationship is to make sure you don’t get close. We are all flawed, spikey, fragile humans.
A relationship need not end because of conflict. But conflict needs to be managed somehow. This is a skill you can learn.
The path we were walking along became more overgrown. It looked even more of a mess: the weeds, the bark. Australia is one of the only countries in the world where the trees shed their bark. Its messy, it needs to be cleaned up. My Dad spends hours each week cleaning his front yard to get rid of it. He even designed a catapult in his backyard to shoot the excess bark deep into the bush. That’s one solution, hide the mess so no one can see it.
A tree on the path caught my eye. The bark had almost completely shed, revealing a smooth, cream trunk underneath. There was writing on the trunk. Scribbles that were lovingly etched by little moths onto the surface.
If you shed all the spikey bark in your relationship, what you find underneath may surprise you.
Your relationship may have grown layers of anger and resentment or a rough protective shell. But the love is in there somewhere, otherwise you wouldn’t hurt or be hurt so much.
You hurt because you love. You wouldn’t bother arguing or having demands on another person if you didn’t love them. Think about that early time together. There was something that person fulfilled in you that other people couldn’t.
Find it. Dig it up.
Underneath are the words that are written on the tree of your hearts.
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.