I have a friend who has been single for years. She is attractive and popular. In spite of her independence, she very much hopes to one day be in a comfortable relationship — maybe even get married. A worthy goal, but that’s where the problems begin. Her relationships always seem to be fraught with varying degrees of conflict. So, my bright and pretty friend ends up leaving a trail of failed relationships, most of them ‘his fault.’ And it’s not as much what she’s doing wrong as it is how she’s ‘thinking wrong.’
Regardless of the pleasures of marriage, most people remember the excitement and freedom of single life. You, and only you, chose when and what to eat, where to go and what to watch on TV. You came and went as you pleased, with no negotiation. For a self-reliant adult, this can foster a strong sense of autonomy. In William Holtz’s book, ‘The Ghost in The Little House,’ Rose Wilder Lane describes it best in a letter she wrote to a lover: ”being constantly with another person, even you, is incompatible with other things I want’. I don’t want to be tied to anyone by the mass-pressure of everyone who knows us; I don’t want all my movements to be dependent upon the movements of someone else, as though we were handcuffed and leg-chained together’.’
This ‘single-think’ has to change when the search for a spouse begins. The compromises that come with partnered life can be unsettling. My friend’s conflicts with her boyfriends always seem to center on his imposition into her treasured routines. He’s mean because he gets angry when she’s an hour late. Or she suffers through his choice of a movie, only to complain to her friends the next day. Or she wants to go out; he wants to stay in, etc., etc. She professes affection, but his very presence in her life is an annoyance.
The tragedy here is that she views these differences as irresolvable. Instead of understanding that they must now think for two, they characterize normal mini-clashes as long-term incompatibilities. But it’s not their personalities that are incompatible; it’s their deep-rooted habits.
He has to be important enough to her that she WANTS to be on time for dinner. He has to crave her happiness enough to give-and-take on the movie choices. She has to see his request to stay at home as part of his desire to be alone with her. They both need patience as their ‘single-think’ slowly gives way to ‘couple-think.’ If they are truly compatible, then all it needs is a chance to become a habit.
An old friend of mine enjoys a wonderful relationship. He said to me, ‘I love her so much, and I know she loves me. When we’re deciding what to do or where to go, it actually gives me more pleasure to let her choose, because seeing her happy makes me happy.’ Is he giving-in to her? Of course not. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Her pleasure makes him feel so good that it’s clearly in his self-interest to ensure her happiness every chance he gets. And she does the same thing in return. They enjoy a satisfying and conflict-free relationship.
Is this some sort of lofty ideal? Not if you truly love your partner. To love somebody is to wish the best for them. The only competition should be to see who can make the other the happiest. I find it sad when somebody tells me, ‘We have to sacrifice, and it’s give-and-take, but at least we’re together.’ For what? Sacrifice and misery are NOT the ideal. When I dig deeper, I invariably find unresolved ‘single-think’ nourishing their resentment.
‘Couple-think’ should make him happy to include her in his decisions. It should make her happy to do the special things that delight him. In fact, it’s not all that different from ‘single-think,’ but now they’re both nurturing their self-interest, i.e., their happiness. This genuine give and take can sustain a devoted relationship for a long, long time.
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