Of all the subjects people talk about in my office, one of the most common is issues with (and questions about) relationships. Boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives and otherwise partnered couples sometimes tell me that they don’t feel ‘connected,’ or that their relationship failed because they were not ‘connected.’ When I ask them what they mean, they say that they didn’t feel like there was enough interest being shown by one (or both) of them, or that one of them valued the relationship differently than the other.
It’s no surprise that some people just aren’t compatible. For example, one partner might prefer to stay home most of the time while the other enjoys going out more and hanging out at home only occasionally. Or one partner likes to express his or her emotions while the other is more reserved. Daytime talk shows and endless self-help books breathlessly tout the virtues of ‘compromise’ as if it’s the end-all and be-all. Well, my experience has shown that too much compromise can sometimes be worse than no relationship at all. A relationship shouldn’t be a non-stop negotiation. Choices can be difficult, and each partner must make up his or her own mind about whether it’s worth it.
One key to sustaining a relationship is to turn your differences into strengths. This is a lot more effective than wasting time trying to change somebody (or expecting them to change). That’s a dead-end if there ever was one.
Many of the problems with marriage and romantic love stem from attitudes that many men and women hold about themselves and each other. Much is made about the differences between men and women (you know, Venus, Mars and all that nonsense), but both sexes often share one very large error: They fail to take responsibility for the emotional aspects of their thoughts. In other words, to be aware of what they feel (and why!), and what they objectively think of those feelings — in other words, living the ‘examined life’ predicated on awareness and self-reflection.
Some men sidestep this responsibility by ignoring that emotions even exist. “Emotions? What are you talking about? I don’t feel that way! And why should I bother to talk about this?” I suspect that’s why men tend to resist therapy much more than women do. Women, on the other hand, are inclined to be more aware of their emotions, but will sometimes not submit them to reason and logic. Of course, not all men and women are this way, and the extent to which they are is often a matter of degree. That being said, women sometimes make the error of elevating emotions above reason. And men (who often ignore that emotions even exist) are driven away by this. At the same time, the men evade responsibility for their own mental health and the impact on those close to them — which, of course, drives women away. This cycle is probably at the root of why so many marriages flounder or fail. Intimacy, loyalty and good communication cannot be maintained unless each partner takes responsibility for his or her own psychological self. Individual cases will vary, with the blame falling on one or even both partners.
Couples therapist John Gottman, Ph.D. says, ‘Whether people are struggling to save a marriage, to cooperate in a family crisis, or to build rapport with a difficult boss, they usually have one thing in common: They need to share emotional information that can help them feel connected’. Whatever conflicts the couples may have — sex, money, housework, kids — all of them long for evidence that their spouses understand and care about what they’re feeling. Sharing such information through words and behavior is essential for improving any significant relationship. This includes bonds with our kids, our siblings, our friends, our coworkers.’
It’s not just about marriage and partnership — it’s about all of the relationships in our lives. I have a friend who is a physician. Though she may only spend a short while with each of her patients, they always tell me that they feel like she talked to them much longer. While some medical professionals leave you feeling rushed, physicians such as my friend generate just the opposite feeling by being engaged, connected and interested. And it’s the same with all relationships.
To engage fully in business interactions and personal relations, you must first be engaged with life. The worn-out clich ‘Make every moment count’ is, in fact, true. The more you engage in life, the more you’ll get out of life. Be alert, aware and present. Don’t try to do two, six or twelve things at the same time. Don’t water yourself down with the myth of ‘multitasking.’ Instead, do fewer things better and more thoroughly. Make the one you claim to love feel that you’re engaged and interested. It’s a good thing for you and it’s a great thing for them.