Your Relationship is your Greatest Asset
“I’ve found it!”
We were on an expedition. Someone had organised our own little “amazing race.” We were climbing a mountain (actually, more of a “hill”) finding clues along the way. One of the challenges was to find the Faraway Tree (taken from a children’s book by Enid Blyton). As the story goes… if you climb the Faraway Tree, you find a new world at the top. The world changes each time you go up. One of the worlds is the land of “Do-as-you-please.” It was always my favourite land because I’m basically a selfish person.
If you could read my thoughts at any point in the day you would probably hear one of the following:
“What do I want to do now?”
“What would make me feel good right now?”
“What can I do now to get what I want from this person or this situation?”
Me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me.
I was thinking “what do I want right now” as we continued our trek. The mountain was a steep, rugged incline that mercilessly zig-zagged up into the sky. What I wanted right then was to sit down. But now was not the time. I also wanted to win.
I’m not great at team sports so I wasn’t working very well with my partner who happened to be my husband. I was ordering him around telling him what to do and getting annoyed at him. I wanted to win. Did I also mention that I am competitive and impatient? This was bringing out the worst in me.
“I just want to win” I cried, as if that justified my callous remarks.
Then he gave me a look, a look that sent me back to the beginning of our relationship and the many, many times when I had pursued my own wants, needs and desires above our relationship.
All I wanted then was someone who was good for me, who loved me the way I wanted and fulfilled all my needs.
“So what’s wrong with that?” I hear you say.
Nothing. But…that is only half of what real, fulfilling, deeper than mountains love is made of.
Yes, your partner’s job is to love you the way you need and want to be loved. But your job is to love your partner the way they need and want to be loved.
Do you know what that is?
Committing to love means loving your partner the way they need to be loved. Not just the way you want to love them. It doesn’t just mean saying I love you, it means showing it.
Shakespeare got it right: they do not love that do not show their love.
You show love by doing things together, listening, understanding, helping make each other’s dreams come true, encouraging, doing big and little favours, supporting, spending time, giving gifts, touching, kissing, engaging in sexual expression, sharing joy, sharing sorrow, and surprising each other, among many other ways.
Exhausting, isn’t it?
As recollections of the years of our years together washed over me, a new question formed in my mind.
“What does he want right now?"
I shut down the rattles and shrieks of the competitive and selfish urges in my mind and went up and gave him a long hug underneath the Faraway Tree.
As I held the embrace I remembered the slippery slip, a huge slide spiralling down the middle of the Faraway trunk to get to the bottom from the land of “get what you want.” I held on to Christian a little tighter knowing that when you love selflessly you win the amazing race.
“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.
“He must have landed by now.”
“His phone’s dead so he can’t let us know.”
We were at the international airport, in traditional Australian costume:
Hats with corks hanging off them
Australian flags in our hair
Weet-bix as a food offering
Waiting for our son to arrive home after 2 years in London.
He hates any fuss.
We have a tradition of fun-filled welcomes, as you will see.
We finally caught sight of him and burst into loud song:
“Give me a home among the gumtrees…a sheep or two and a kangaroo”
He took one look at us and cheekily walked in the opposite direction. We followed him keeping up the singing for three rounds. He finally succumbed to a warm hug from his brother.
I hate airports. Let me clarify: Arrivals are fun, I hate departures.
Early in our relationship, I said goodbye too many times…and it hurt. Out of my stubbornness and pride I often chose to leave rather than stay. Society kept telling me that independence was better than dependence. That I needed to meet lots of guys before settling for one. That toughing it out bred resilience and success.
The only thing that toughing it out bred for me was loneliness.
Stuck in the city that never sleeps for seven long years, I felt the aching depths of loneliness: crying myself to sleep, walking down the busiest streets in the world feeling utterly alone, catching the elevator up and down just to talk to someone. That was a time of despair.
Christian encounters loneliness in his office far too often:
Twenty-two year old Jasmine was sobbing. Do you think I sleep with so many guys because I like sex? No. I put up with their paws and smells to try to get rid of my loneliness. That’s what all of my girlfriends do.
Thirty-three year old Brendan was being treated for depression. I get so lonely. I look at dating sites and they make me feel even lonelier. After a date, a girl finds some excuse not to see me again. Am I that ugly? These experiences leave him more lonely and depressed. (Heim, 2017)
This is scary.
Commitment to a long-term relationship prevents loneliness.
A long-term relationship gives us belonging, love, security, protection, a shoulder to cry on, someone to share joy with, to share sadness with, to share love, sex, hopes, dreams and past hurts. It gives us someone to grow old with. It protects us from naval-gazing, drifting, getting lost, and, above all, it protects us from loneliness.
The brain hates loneliness.
Many fears and vices – alcohol excess, drug use, gambling, risky sex – are borne of loneliness. And people in a long term relationship fare much better battling depression, anxiety, bipolar, PTSD, anorexia, or schizophrenia. Much better. In many cases, it makes the difference between life and death. (Heim, 2017)
The warm feelings that you feel getting off a plane into the arms of your loved ones is the flip-side of loneliness.
The time between being with your parents to finding your partner and starting your own family is getting longer and longer. It can mean independence, experience, adventure, but no-one talks about the cost: loneliness underneath it all.
Jasmine sleeps with lots of guys to alleviate loneliness. Brendan looks to dating sites to overcome depression. Sure, a long term relationship has to be with the right person, but it took a certain incident at an airport to make me realize that he was right in front of me.
I was arriving home after another long trip in NYC, toughing it out and being independent. As I went through the doors in the arrivals lounge I searched everywhere for Christian but couldn’t find him. My heart fell to the ground; the aching returned. Then a strange thing happened. I saw a person dressed in a gorilla suit holding a sign:
“Wanted: Beautiful Redhead.
Aim: Long-term relationship.”
Surprised? Yes. Feeling exposed? Yes. But I had the warmest hug I have ever had. Although Christian often drives me crazy and our values frequently clash, I have come to love the gorilla in him. That warm, furry embrace has kept me secure, fulfilled and at home in the midst of many stormy times.
Wishing you all many happy arrivals.
For a video of "the arrival" see our Instagram: relationship_asset
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.
“I don’t know if he really likes me.”
I was on a train in Sydney and I overheard a young professional discussing intimate details of her latest relationship for everyone in the carriage to hear.
“I think he thinks I’m good in bed. We’ve been dating for 10 months now. We have the same interests. We go out a lot but it’s mainly just sleeping together.”
“Do you think he likes me? How can I know? We have a great time: skydiving, restaurants, movies, roses, theme parks. Did you see my last Insta story? But I’ve got no idea if this is going anywhere.”
We were crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The white flurry of sails on the harbour tacking from side to side reflected her conversation: emotions darting everywhere, driven by the wind of insecurity.
“But you are that model couple” her girlfriend replied. I saw her smile. That comment gave her a dopamine hit.
Dopamine is a pleasure chemical produced by your brain. It causes pleasure and makes you want to repeat the experience. Some dopamine hits involve little effort.
I remember when we were dating, Christian brought me one of my favourite chocolate bars each time he saw me. It gave me a dopamine hit. But there came a time when Christian bought me less chocolates and flowers, but more of himself and more understanding, and this started to build deeper joy.
Dopamine is just pleasure. Underneath the spirit is crying out for something that is so, so much more: deep, lasting joy. This is the cry of nearly every patient that Christian sees behind the closed doors of his office.
We all like big dopamine hits over a short period of time, but a long term relationship is smaller dopamine hits over a longer period of time.
Some people think dating is meeting someone and sleeping with them to see if they are good in bed. Others approach it like a job interview or a police interrogation: you put your best foot forward, you are not ready to be real. There is so much fear of rejection and hidden insecurity.
Do you realise how beautiful and unique you actually are? That is what a real relationship is. Showing that unique self. That’s who people fall in love with. Not an avatar.
It’s okay to put your best foot forward…but there comes a time went you want to go deeper.
So what is the answer for you and the young professional on the train? Less big dopamine hits, more real conversations. Time together just being yourself rather than running after fun.
One day you may be ready to
Stop dating and
Start feeling comfortable
One of my favourite times of the day is just sitting side by side on the sofa with Christian while we are both working at our computers. Sounds boring doesn’t it? It’s only a little dopamine hit. But we share these moments often. Small dopamine hits over a long period of time.
I’d like to let you in on a radical secret:
If you find the right person, boring is bliss.
Sound scary? Good. If you are looking for a long term relationship, what you are aiming for is authenticity and, most importantly, feeling incredibly comfortable and at ease with each other.
As the train arrived at my station I reflected on the conversation: how can this be the model couple if she doesn’t even know if he likes her? And why is she asking her friend? She needs to ask him, she needs to get real. There comes a point when you have to let the other person know that you want more. If you haven’t had the “where are we going?” conversation, then you will need to, and be honest in what you say. All the things I heard her talk about: the sex, the theme parks, are large dopamine hits no relationship can sustain. I hope her turbulent emotions can be replaced by safer harbours. To get into a long term relationship you need to get comfortable with smaller dopamine hits over a longer period of time. Less fun, more togetherness, more joy being real.
Slowly let down the mask. Although the world tries to tell you otherwise, love is not skin deep. It is a profound inner joy that brings deep fulfilment and security. Fun is fickle. Being real is a solid foundation for a lasting relationship.
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.
“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.
Christian wrote a book called “lies of our society” but no one wanted to publish it. Why? There are lots of lies in our society about men. There are many about women. I’ll tackle men in a couple of weeks, but with mother’s day just around the corner, I thought it best to look at pressure on women.
I’m going to make some controversial, un-PC comments. Some may strike a chord in you; others you may disagree with. So hold onto your bourkas.
Women do not like to initiate sex.
Talking for women is what sex is for men: a necessity and a great pleasure.
The female hierarchy at a party is still decided by who is the most attractive in the room.
Women don’t like paying for their own meal (except when there’s an expectation of sex)
Women like to be provided for.
Women are just as controlling as men, but in a different way.
Women often feel they are a failure if they have only a meagre job.
Women feel a failure if they have only been a mother.
Women feel a failure if they haven’t been a mother.
Women do not like mowing lawns.
Not only have I have felt all of these things at some point in my life, but
Christian hears these deep cries, over and over again, from the mouths of the women he treats. Understanding women is a lot more complex than society makes it out to be.
But Christian tells me that the comments above apply a lot less to younger women.
Do they? Really? That’s not what many of my students tell me.
Before you react the way the media would like you to, let me say that there are, of course, many exceptions to the comments above. But…
Why can’t we say these things out loud? Why do they have to be spoken behind closed doors? Sometimes I want to scream them from the top of a mountain. I have met many women that are so in chains to what society wants them to be that they think something is wrong with them. They often lead unfulfilled lives and supress their needs because “you’re not supposed to think like that.”
When I was studying as a mature aged student, one young woman approached me, clearly distressed:
“I think I have some sort of mental illness”
“I’m being pressured into having sex with lots of different men because that’s what you do, but I don’t want to. I just want someone to take care of me. I don’t want a career, I just want to have children. What’s wrong with me?”
So how do we stop the “that’s what you do” messages that shout at us from billboards, screens and even popular songs?
Be honest with yourself.
Be honest with your partner.
Exploring and authentically living out a true self is a life-long journey. It can be painful and confusing, but enlightening and enjoyable. A good measure of the following is useful: self-reflection, patience, humility, the ability to listen, a sense of humour, and a willingness to learn from mistakes and from successes.
Be real and let the social mask drop down just a little, and watch others do the same. It is not easy negotiating the demands of mutual trust and vulnerability when society bids you keep your mask on thick and tight. If you can, you will enjoy the ride of an authentic self in relationship with others. (unpublished)
A few years ago I attended the wedding of my friend who had been pressured to be someone she wasn’t. As I watched her talking with her husband at the reception dinner I witnessed her deep contentment. She had put on a bit of weight, she laughed more than I had ever remembered and there was a softness in her expression I had never seen before.
I rejoiced for her.
Unlike my friend, I have not yet overcome the pull of this wonderful yet pressure-filled society we live in. In many ways I have been hardened by it, and this saddens me. As a wife, as a mother, as a lecturer I keep, however, striving for authenticity because I know that not only is it the secret to fulfilment for me, but it will help those in my life to also live deeper, fuller lives.
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.