Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
“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.
I believe New Year’s resolutions are overrated.
I also believe that daily resolutions are underrated.
Each day has new possibilities a new sun rises. Each day you can make good choices.
I just don’t think it should be done only once a year and tied to a calendar date. I see so many people fail miserably by February. They let themselves down and feel worse than before.
The two most common New Year’s resolutions are related to health:
I’m going to eat healthier
I’m going to get more exercise
Your relationship is not only your greatest asset, it’s your greatest health benefit too. It saves you from the negative effects of bad health: especially mental health issues.
They protect your emotional health and wellbeing.
They protect your physical health.
They protect you against loneliness.
They protect your resilience.
They protect you against unhappiness.
They protect you against addictions.
They protect you against anxiety, bipolar and depression.
They protect you against suicide.
Every one of these facts has at least one scientific study to back them up (See Heim 2016, 4). This is not idealistic babble or romantic rubbish. This is scientific fact. No pill can do all this. No amount of exercise can do all of this. No special diet can do all of this.
If you want to do something on New Year’s day to help your health, take the below relationship health check. All of these questions cover aspects that we have looked at over the past year. Click on each question to link to each entry. They are related to questions about your love partner, but nearly all can be applied to any very close relationship that you are invested in.
When your partner needs to share something, do you really listen?
Do you avoid conflict in your relationship just to hide from the truth?
Do you trust your partner enough to let them know what’s really going on inside?
Do you rate the health of your relationship by comparing it to others?
Do you use the “cold shoulder” as silent warfare in your relationship?
Are there unspoken words between you that you don’t have the courage to say?
Do resentful thoughts separate you from your love-partner and feed your pride?
Are there family or friends speaking poisonous words into your relationship?
Are you so different that you seem to always be in conflict?
How honest are you in your relationship?
Are you loving your partner the way they need and want to be loved?
Are you on top of all of these aspects of your relationship? We certainly are not. But each new day of the year is fresh start, an opportunity to work on your relationship in some way. When you are working on your relationship, you are working on your health: physical, mental and emotional.
Look forward, love forward. Happy New Relationship, every day, from us both.
“Great view from up here.”
“Looks like more rain.”
“Crazy weather huh?”
We had climbed a small mountain and a young man started up a conversation with us. He was alone and, we sensed, was hungry for a talk, some human connection, anything to assuage the aching loneliness in his eyes. The small talk was like cotton candy, nothing lasting. When he left us he still seemed sad.
We stayed up for another half hour, soaking in the fresh air and glorious views. Two sea eagles swooped and circled around each other. A couple took selfies. Two joggers past us on their way down. Everyone seemed to have someone to share the experience with. Except the young man.
Except thousands of people worldwide at Christmas.
Mother Theresa said that poverty was not the biggest problem in the world … it was loneliness. And the late Robin Williams said that loneliness was not being alone, it was being surrounded by a group of people who make you feel like you are alone.
You can be lonely in a crowd.
Lonely when you stop work (a great day-time companion).
Lonely when your kids leave home.
Lonely in a relationship.
Lonely in a meaningless job.
Lonely when you move house.
And then there are the big ones: lonely because you have been abandoned, family members have died, you are divorced or separated and haven’t found anyone.
We all experience loneliness to some degree.
I know this is heavy to contemplate at the season of hope and joy. But please keep reading, there is hope.
As we descended the mountain I felt heavy. My heart despaired for all those that would be alone again this Christmas. I had to get myself together, we had an event to prepare for.
Wherever we live, we hold Christmas Carols for people. We have just moved and we didn’t know any of our new neighbours, but left invites in mailboxes anyway. We spent all afternoon preparing the house, baking gingerbread, decorating the tree, but we were tinged with sadness. The empty heart-shaped gingerbread reminded me that our boys were far away. They’ve left us. It hurts.
Christian sees the devastating effects of loneliness too often.
Loneliness is a bitter experience. Intense, prolonged loneliness is a risk factor for suicide. We go to extensive efforts to avoid it. Our brain drives us to find a bad relationship in the absence of a good one, or to feel good through alcohol, drugs or other addictions. Loneliness, depression and addiction are closely connected.
The time came for people to arrive. The music was on, the candles were lit. We waited. No one came. We felt worse.
Just as I went to blow out the candles we heard a knock at the door. Ten people, young and old, spilled over the threshold, laughing and chatting. My heart soared. We shared drinks, talked, laughed, ate and sang carols. Unbelievable. Strangers. We found out we were all displaced people, from all over the world. We all were hungry for companionship, togetherness and community.
As obvious as it sounds, the best way to overcome loneliness is to be with people and share smiles, hugs and laughs. Being around people raises oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine to bring about good feelings.
But what if you are alone … really alone on Christmas? We know that “all is not calm, all is not bright” for many, many people. Those that cry themselves to sleep. (And who am I to talk about real loneliness?)
The next day we received a phone call from a neighbour who lives alone. She arrived late at the carols and knocked and knocked. She could hear the laughter and merriment, the singing, but we didn’t hear her. She returned home. I was upset for her.
Perhaps if she had knocked a little harder … or just pushed the door open. She would have been welcomed with open arms.
Everyone stayed very late that night. Strangers being together, sharing joy. We all parted with a hug. Strangers no more.
Maybe there is hope at Christmas.
What brought us together? Music, some drinks, being displaced and all searching for community; companionship.
Christmas does hold a spirit of joy and peace that transcends small talk. It is in music of carols, in a child’s smile, in good will in giving gifts, lights in shop windows, the smell of live Christmas trees, and the anticipation of peace descending on Christmas Eve.
Stop, listen for it. Let it wash over you.
If you have friends and family, you are fortunate. If you are alone, or missing someone, try knocking a little harder at a closed door. Christian and I, and many others, will be thinking of you. Even strangers hug and share merriment. Consider yourselves hugged.
So it’s nearly Christmas: the time for giving gifts.
What present are you going to get your partner, your mother, your brother-in-law, your best friend this year?
Last year I listed some special gifts to give to your love partner.
This year I’m going to look at one very unique gift idea.
It’s going to cost a lot, but its also not going to cost anything. So you don’t need to start saving. Actually, it’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving, not only to the recipient, but to you.
To explain this gift, I’m going to ask you to remember last Christmas. Who was there and who wasn’t that should have been there. Picture it in your mind. Now think of this Christmas and who will be there and who won’t. Good. Now hold those pictures while I tell you a little story to introduce this gift.
Our cat has threshhold-phobia: a fear of stepping through a door into another room, or from outside to inside. He stands frozen in front of an open door, shaking, terrified. “You can do it!” we coach him and even entice him with food. After several minutes he takes a deep breath and takes a running leap over the threshold to much applause from us.
Two Christmases ago, Christian and I stepped over the threshold of a relative’s home that we hadn’t entered for many years. We felt like our cat. You see, long ago, we had a large misunderstanding and we didn’t feel welcomed to enter their door. We tried hard to reconcile with no results. No wonder, 20 years later, we were feeling like our cat. Our family always have a secret santa present draw that we send in the mail and 3 years ago we had to buy a gift for our unmoved relative. We thought long and hard, did a lot of research and chose a very special gift. It was perfect, and they were genuinely touched. We’d made some steps in the right direction. The next year we were about to cross their threshold for Christmas. Invited.
So it’s nearly Christmas again: the time for giving gifts. The time for forgiving gifts.
I know I’m tackling a big one here and in some future entries I’ll talk more specifically about forgiveness. I’ve introduced it because this is the time of year where we often have to cross the threshold into a room where people have hurt us so badly we are screaming inside while trying to keep up “pleasant” but oh-so-painful chit-chat.
Picture your Christmas in your mind again. Is there anyone you could give the gift of forgiveness to?
What! No way!!! I hear you yelling.
Forgiveness? Me forgive? What an out-dated, out-moded, old-fashioned idea. It’s religious tripe that my grandmother used to dish about. Why should I? I’d rather fight and make ‘em pay.
This was Ken’s attitude. Ken’s a war veteran that Christian sees. For him, forgiving was a sign of weakness. But the science is against Ken. Forgiving has a multitude of health and wellness benefits.
Although forgiveness may not be for everyone – some people do not believe in it, some do not like it, some are too exasperated by the injustice and the effort – it is often discussed in Christian’s office. People agonizing over to forgive …all sorts of things.
Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself
After we had made it across the threshold, we still felt uncomfortable all day. I tried too hard to be enthusiastic about our relative’s scrapbook collection and sounded fake. Christian put his foot in it a few times and conversation was stilted, but it was a start. Little steps, small little steps to tackle a big mountain.
Forgiveness takes time and for major hurts takes even longer. If you want to give the gift of forgiveness this Christmas, start with the first step: deciding to forgive…that’s enough.
Christmas is the time for giving. Is it the time for forgiving for you?
Not forgiving has its advantages: it leaves your pride, anger, bitterness and resentment intact. Forgiveness, on the other hand, promotes peace, calm and understanding, while leaving your anger, bitterness and resentment in tatters.
Tis the season for peace, calm and understanding
Christian has just published a new book: "forgive (how to using neuroplasticity)" now available on our books page
We were building up speed down the runway. I reached out to take Christian’s hand as I always do when we take off on a plane. But he wasn’t there.
Cold feeling in my heart. Emptiness. Angry at myself for going on this research trip without him. Angry at myself for feeling this way. Angry at him for not coming with me. Confusion because all the literature says this jet-setting lifestyle is “living the dream.”
After 28 hours of travel, missing baggage, negotiating a new language and a taxi scam I arrive at the hotel. Exhausted. Not only from lack of sleep, but from having to fight. Fight the cold, fight for my baggage, fight for a taxi, fight against the enquiring looks of single men. On my own. And this is meant to be the glam life?
I was only away for 3 weeks this time but it reminded me of the time early in our relationship when we spent months and months and months apart. Christian and I know well about long-distance relationships.
It was hard enough being apart, but the first few days back together could sometimes be hell.
There’s so much pressure.
Oh we pretended that it was lovely. We pretended to “pick up where we left off.” We pretended that because we had missed each other so much, we were closer. But we weren’t. We were faking it.
Yes, distance makes the heart grow fonder…but often only while you are away. When you return there is so much ground to make up, there can be so many pieces to put back together. There’s an underlying anger of “where were you when I needed you?” on both sides.
Distance makes the heart confused.
And then there’s the hurt. But we can’t talk about this. Hurting because of distance is a taboo.
Do distance relationships work?
In our global, crazy but wonderful society, this is a question that gets asked a lot.
Instead of giving the answer everyone wants to hear,
I’m going to approach the question from a different perspective: why are you making the decision to spend so much time apart?
Half-way through my trip I was walking aimlessly around a city, aching to share my experiences with my love-partner. Lonely. Sad. I was thinking a lot about all the couples worldwide who spend months, years away from each other.
These are some of the “distance” dilemma’s Christian hears in his office:
I have this great job offer in New York. I have to make the move, the money’s great and will make up for the distance.
I hate it when he travels on business. I get lonely.
He just doesn’t understand that I have been waiting my whole life for this opportunity.
Well, she wouldn’t give up her career for me, so why should I for her?
Our world values careers and consumerism. We work, earn money, then spend it, save it, invest it, all to fulfil the consumerist dream. Money can be measured easily, the success of a career can be measured easily, but the success of a long-term relationship can’t. This can lead people to prioritize the money and the career rather than their relationship.
There is no substitute in the world for a meaningful, love-based relationship. A committed, satisfying long term relationship is highly desired. It is precious; it is your greatest asset. Your treasure is not a career, or money or an experience, it is the person right in front of you.
But they need to be right in front of you. Not thousands of miles away.
Yes, video chatting daily helps. Yes, distance date nights help. Yes, watching a Netflix series together helps. But…
Touch is touch.
Intimacy is intimacy.
Experiences are made to be shared in the moment.
And some talks take timelessness to unfold.
There are many reasons why couples have to be separated for periods in their lives and some cannot be helped. But many can…
As the plane began to descend on my arrival home, the billowing clouds were preparing me for a tough landing. I caught myself preparing for yet another fractured drive-home conversation with Christian. But not this time. Our times of getting back together are getting more and more gentle but our times apart are getting more and more difficult. We miss each other, tremendously. Do distance relationships work? Yes, they can. But they are tough. The less time away and the less distance the better.
We were standing in a field; mountains surrounding us. Powerful clouds aching to drop their heavy load were hovering. A young man stood in front of us peering intensely into the distance, waiting for his bride. He was accompanied by a large crowd of witnesses, family and friends, waiting for this important moment.
A word that gets stuck in your throat.
A word that means forsaking all others.
A word that means no going back.
Scary. But powerful.
We were at a wedding. Sheets of rain had pelted down all morning. The heavens were taking a momentary break, as if holding their breath in anticipation of the moment of commitment, watching, waiting.
Commitment to one person.
Love, sex and commitment are the basic components of a long term relationship. You need all three in there somehow. Commitment seems to be the unpalatable killjoy. Commitment phobia is now a social cliché. We want the joy of the love and the fun of the sex, but the commitment seems to be the cost. It is, but it more than that. It is the actual bond that keeps you together. It supplies the secure, stable framework so that the love can flourish and the sex can be safely and intimately shared.
A committed LTR is like a home: fireside warmth, nourishment, rest, protection, and a place to be yourself. It is a secure base. Difficult times will need special understanding. During these times a long time relationship shows itself to be much more than a mutual transaction. Love and commitment take over.
The young man in front of us was about to take that big step. He wasn’t at the warm fireside just yet. The clouds threatened, the witnesses held their breath, the mist swirled in, suspending this moment in time.
And then she was walking towards him. A white dream, crowned with billowing clouds, tears of joy defying the grey skies.
The young man turned his shining face towards her. Time seemed to stand still and gaze in awe at these two. And in front of the witnesses and the mountains and the heavens above they took a vow of commitment:
“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part” words that date back to 1549 and basically say no matter what, we’re together. It’s commitment.
She giggled when she said “I do.”
Two whip birds sang to each other in the distance, echoing the vows.
The young man and woman joined their hands and placed a ring on each other’s fourth finger. A forever reminder of their commitment.
The success of your long term relationship is in your hands, all four of them.
There was a 100% chance of rain predicted for that day. The heavens held their breath, but an hour after the ceremony, they opened up and flooded the field. A long term relationship is not all blue skies. As Shakespeare reminds us,
“Love looks on tempests and is never shaken.” (Sonnet 116)
Actually, love and commitment show their strength in hard times.
Christian looked at me and smiled with so much love in his eyes, remembering our moment 28 years ago, but also remembering the tempests that had battered at our door.
“The rain held off!” I sang in triumph.
Against many odds, in the middle of a tempest, two young lives made a powerful commitment to each other.
I will remember that very moving wedding for its incredible beauty, for its tempests, and for the love that was deeper than the mountains.
There was so much forever in that moment of time that is etched on my heart.
Commitment. Strong as mountains.
Love. Powerful enough to overcome tempests.
“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.
“You’re not listening to me!”
Have you ever said this or been told this by your love-partner?
This week we are going to have a break from our journey stories and do a little brain exercise.
Stop what you are doing right now, close your eyes and listen. Listen. Yes, I mean right now, listen. What can you hear? The loud sounds, the repetitive sounds, the hums, the murmurs. Really listen. Listen for details. Listen for about a minute.
OK, so that’s your first step into listening.
Now ask yourself the question “how do those sounds make me feel?” Secure? Lonely? Annoyed? Bored? Good. Now you are active listening.
This was a simple exercise, but for that whole time you were activating one area of your brain that we rarely use in our extra world. Because of all the distractions and attention grabbing, we almost need to learn how to listen from scratch.
This morning I was standing out on my verandah while a wild storm raged around me. I was so overwhelmed by the sounds of nature that I momentarily forgot my work worries, family worries, friend worries, cat worries, health worries. The sounds of nature can be so healing, they can also teach us how to listen. Here is an exercise Christian has developed to help you to shut out the clamouring world and re-learn how to listen.
Get out in nature. Find a spot to relax and be undisturbed. Take a decent chunk of time, at least an hour. Lie on the grass, sit on a bench, on sand or wherever. Look around to familiarise yourself with nature’s wonder. Take a few deep breathes. Relax.
Then close your eyes and just listen.
Hear; then listen; then actively listen. Open up your thoughts and feelings and allow the sounds, however short or quiet, to affect your inner world.
Ask yourself these questions.
What is that sound?
Why is it happening now?
What does it remind me of?
What emotions does it evoke in me?
What other thoughts does the sound lead me to?
Move on to another sound and follow through the same questions. There may be four or five dominant sounds around you. Listen to silence as well, and work through the same questions.
Do this task in a nature location. Find a space, have some time, and have a willingness to listen. The experience can do wonders.
Learning to actively listen to nature sounds lays the groundwork for deep listening to another human being: you just have to be there, sounds come at you, there is nothing to judge, there is no problem to solve, and you cultivate warm feelings of trust just by being in nature. (taken from Heim Listen: how to)
Listening is all about trust, time and selflessness. I know the times when I am not listening. These are usually the thoughts that are going on in my head:
Planning what my next activity for the day will be
Making judgements about what the other person is saying.
Thinking about what I will say next.
Thinking about how the other person is perceiving me.
Thinking about how I look (yes, my appearance) while I am listening.
When I want to deeply listen to another human being, I have to put all of that inner dialogue aside and really be there. Heart, soul and mind. Just as I am overwhelmed by nature during a storm, I have learnt to be overwhelmed by another person’s emotions, not my own. If you take on this simple skill of listening, you can say “OK, I’m listening” to your love-partner and go deeper in your relationship. Listening is a gift you give someone else.
We were driving to work along a busy major highway and someone had dangerously pulled in front of us causing us to brake.
“Honk!” Christian hit the horn of our car. Hard. Loud.
I hate it when he does that. It draws attention and I hate the attention.
“What did he think he was doing!”
Christian was exasperated and had a good rant for the next five minutes. He wasn’t particularly angry with the driver, but he used this opportunity to complain about everything that’s wrong with the world. He likes a good complain but I feel the need to save him (and me) from his overwhelming mood.
I tried everything:
I changed the subject
I talked about what he had to do at work that day
I even complained about how bad my headache was…to get his sympathy (that usually works). But no, he kept complaining.
We moved into the next lane to overtake as we needed to exit. As we passed the erratic driver I slunk down into my seat with embarrassment so he couldn’t see me.
A fortnight ago we looked at turtle and a chimp profiles in relationships. Christian had just displayed some choice chimpish behaviour and here I was, hiding back in my turtle shell, trying to calm and soothe and pretend nothing had happened. So what does it look like when turtles and chimps are in love? Or more importantly, when the two personality types clash.
A chimp may say they aren’t getting enough love, companionship, understanding, conversation, sex or attention. The poor turtle withdraws into a shell to protect itself from the onslaught, leaving the poor chimp with what seems like less love, affection and attention. The chimp then criticizes and demands more, leading the turtle to withdraw more, leading to more screeching by the chimp.
The remedy is to recognize that the chimp is acting out of love. The chimp wants love, understanding, warmth and more of the person they are so in love with. The chimp is trying to get these things the best way it knows how: by being a chimp.
The turtle, too, is acting out of love. The turtle wants to be safe and secure. The turtle is trying to protect itself but, out of love, it is also trying to protect the relationship and even the chimp. The turtle wants to save the poor chimp from any bad moods or complaints the turtle has. Turtles often don’t like their own bad moods so they don’t want to inflict them on others (chimps are quite willing to share their bad moods). The turtle thinks that not sharing these and avoiding conflict is the best way of sharing secure, harmonious love. The turtle wants gentle, secure love and is trying to get it the best way it knows how: by being a turtle.
The chimp needs to soften up and make things safe for the turtle. The turtle needs to come out of its shell and share more. Safe conversations help. (For more see Heim Relationship Asset, 67)
As I slid back up into my normal sitting position I took Christian’s hand.
“Are you really more comfortable on the floor?” he joked and laughed. I decided to try laughing too. It worked. I felt better, he felt better and we felt we were living on the same planet again. Yes, 27 years of marriage together and I still need to be encouraged to come out of my turtle shell. Heart and humour always help.
“What can I do to make things easier for you?” he said gently.
Wow! That came from left field. Now I knew we were no longer on the planet of the apes. (Believe me, with Christian it feels that way sometimes).With a genuine, heart-felt comment, he provided a safe place for me to emerge out of my shell and disclose and that just gave me a bit more courage.
Yesterday, with glee, I honked at a car that cut me off. We all have a bit of turtle and a bit of chimp in us underneath.
News Flash: We have just finished recording our first relaxation exercise to classical music. Christian is on piano and I am taking you through the relaxation. Follow this link https://youtu.be/UvthN3tvTY4
Are you a turtle or a chimp in your relationship?
I was reminded of Christian’s insight into these different personalities when we were meandering along the beautiful foreshore of the Sunshine Coast National Park. This is a unique place in Australia where two currents meet, two opposite sea temperatures, resulting in an abundance of sea life.
“Oh my gosh, a giant turtle!”
There below us in the turquoise, melt-in-your mouth sea, a giant turtle glided up to the surface for air.
I am the turtle in our relationship and I often need to come out of my shell for air. I’ll explain why later, but first let me describe Christian’s turtle and chimp profiles.
A turtle doesn’t talk about problems. If I pretend it’s not there, I don’t need to deal with it; maybe it will go away. It hides feelings in a shell and says nothing. A clever turtle can put on a show: pretend to have fun while feeling angry or hurt. A turtle gives the silent treatment, the cold shoulder. It keeps hurt and anger inside, bottled up, and pushed down. Alternatively, a turtle can be a loud and very social person, but it’s all a façade to keep feelings hidden.
A turtle may have a placid, peaceful and calm nature, but its lack of engagement can become stubbornness, avoidance and rudeness. A turtle is more likely to come from a family which was stoic, and where peace, consideration and order were valued.
A chimp on the other hand usually comes from a family which readily shared opinions and emotions, where jokes were made and people were spontaneous. It may come from a household full of arguing. When faced with conflict, a chimp will talk it out, nag it out, criticize it out, blame it out, and even fight it out. A chimp will let the other know just what a so-and-so they are and give them a piece of their mind. A chimp can be fun to be around when in a good mood, but when in a bad mood, it can become intrusive, obstreperous, blaming and annoying. (For more see Heim Relationship Asset 66).
I’ve talked about Christian’s chimpish ways before: annoying but loving. I’ve talked about my turtle behaviour before: avoidant but a good listener. I am attracted to Christian’s chimpiness and he is attracted to my turtle ways.
Of course you may be a turtle, you may be a chimp, you may alternate, be both, or be some sort of a turtle-chimp hybrid or mutant. Compared to your partner you may be a chimp, but with someone else you may be the turtle because they are a lot chimpier than you are. Or, as a turtle, you start looking very chimpy next to a turtle with a much thicker shell.
What has really helped me is understanding this dynamic in our relationship. There seems to be a great comfort in knowing and identifying different personalities. When I understood that Christian was a chimp, I was able to forgive him more, accept and even grow to love aspects of his chimpishness.
As I watched the turtle break the surface of the water, take a gulp of air and then soar with new-found energy and purpose into the luminous depths of the sea, I felt a deep joy. I realised that for many years I used to be lonely and controlling in my shell. Marrying a chimp was challenging, uncomfortable and overwhelming at times. Early on I wanted to hide in my shell. Especially when he unknowingly used to do things in public or social situations that embarrassed me. I have since learnt the joy of living with a chimp.
We continued our walk. There are so many opposites on the coast: sea meets land, rock meets water, soft meets hard, warm meets cold. We laugh a lot; chimp around. I break the surface of my silence and come up for air. It is the air we both breathe: of acceptance, love and a celebration of our differences.
Do opposites attract? Yes, no and everything in between. The real question is, how do chimps and turtles dance together?
…More next time on chimps and turtles in love.
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.