“Things are very comfortable with Tim1, but I just don’t know … there seems to be something missing”. Miranda had come to counselling to talk about her current boyfriend as she was contemplating whether to take the next step and move in with him. Another client, Fiona, was in the opposite position. She had already moved in with her boyfriend, Simon, but was wondering if she had made the right decision. “We argue all the time about so many things. I look at my friends’ relationships and this doesn’t seem to happen for them. They seem calm and relaxed together and things seem to go smoothly for them. Maybe Simon and I just aren’t suited. Perhaps we shouldn’t go ahead and get engaged.”
On the surface it could seem that Miranda and Tim were suited to be together since they got on so well and that Fiona and Simon were perhaps not right for each other. But this might not be the case.
Many people think that relationships are about finding someone you feel comfortable with so you can settle down and have a cosy life. But there is so much more on offer in relationships. Indeed, to make them work you actually need to step out of your comfort zone and grow emotionally and that can be quite uncomfortable! But in doing so you might just find that there is much more to you and more to your partner than you originally thought.
Why we have relationship difficulties
Initially we enter relationships because they feel good, so it can surprise people when the relationship becomes difficult or uncomfortable. One reason problems arise is that your partner is the person you will spend the most intimate time with and they are going to see all of you, including you at your worst. And you in turn, will see the best and the worst in your partner.
In an intimate relationship there are two people who are being their uncensored selves. There might be mean, impatient or controlling words or actions that lead to hurts and misunderstandings. We don’t have this degree of familiarity or transparency with our friends or colleagues and they wont provoke us in ways that really hurt our heart. We can hide many foibles and unvarnished character traits when we are out, but at home they start to come out and play.
If we are to make a relationship work, then we have to polish off our rough edges and moderate our negative patterns of behaviour. We have to learn to work with another person and find ways to understand each other and communicate with compassion and tolerance. This can be hard work but it helps us to grow into more mature, loving beings. This is the potential that a relationship can offer. We get to evolve together. This might not be comfortable but it is very rewarding and it just might be one of the most important things you ever do.
So back to the two couples we spoke about. Miranda and Tim were comfortable together but that doesn’t automatically mean the relationship would bring them into a deeper connection. This is what Miranda was expressing. “We just don’t talk enough. Or we do, but it’s just not about anything that’s important. We talk about what we will do on the weekend, or what’s happening at work or about our friends. But it’s just not enough. We don’t go to any depth.”
Miranda was having trouble with her decision because there was nothing overtly wrong between her and Tim. They enjoyed outings together and had some similar interests but Miranda just didn’t feel engaged enough. The relationship wasn’t lighting her up. It seemed predictable and bland. It was safe and sensible but didn’t demand something deeper from her. She could get away with living on the surface of life and this wasn’t really enough for her.
Fiona and Simon on the other hand, were admittedly having arguments, but if they truly loved each other and were motivated then it could be possible for them to use these difficulties for good purpose. They could find out more about each other and more about their own foibles and then the relationship could offer the potential to evolve.
We get to choose the sort of relationship we want. We can keep it superficial or we can ask for something more. Miranda wanted something more and it remained to be seen whether Tim would want the same thing. In comparison, Fiona and Simon loved each other but their difficulties meant that they would have to bring something more if the relationship was to work. If they were prepared to work through their difficulties they might find a greater depth and intimacy possible between them.
Of course this is not to say that a relationship always has to be hard work. But over the course of an ongoing relationship you are guaranteed to have some difficult phases. Lets look at some of the challenges that can arise in relationships.
Imagine you have a partner and you love them, but the way you are behaving is hurting them. Perhaps you lose your temper easily, or your anxiety makes you a bit controlling. Wouldn’t you want to learn to manage things differently so that you stopped hurting your partner? And what if it was really difficult to change. Wouldn’t you still want to meet the challenge because you didn’t want to lose that person?
To stay in the relationship you would have to confront parts of yourself that you didn’t like and parts that you couldn’t yet manage well and that, apart from your partner, no one else got to see. It would be easy to get away with it by leaving the relationship. But that means you never get to work on this aspect of yourself. It remains hidden and you stay comfortable but you miss out on growth. Wouldn’t it be better to step up and face what there is to face and work through it?
Then, on the other hand, what if your partner had traits and behaviours that drove you mad, but you loved the person. Maybe they give up on things too easily in life or don’t speak up for what they need. Wouldn’t you want to learn to love them unconditionally and bring compassion to them even though they weren’t perfect? If you leave them you lose the love.
If you love a person and don’t want to leave them you can’t just walk away when there are difficulties in a relationship. You are forced to work through things. The love we have for the other person encourages us and gives us the motivation to work on ourselves when we could otherwise get away with not doing so.
In a relationship there is the love that is already there from the initial attraction between the two people. But there is also the love that is there as a potential. It is calling you forth to be more, so that this potential love can come forth. The more you work on yourself and the relationship the more this love can arise. That’s the magic of working together in a relationship. You get to grow love. Or actually it’s really that you get to uncover the love that is already there deep in your heart.
This is why relationships can be challenging – we can feel how much we love someone but we might be letting our bad patterns of behaviour get in the way of this love. We have to learn to build ourselves as the ‘container’ that can hold and express the love. For most of us this doesn’t come easily. We have to work at it, but it’s definitely worth it, and think how small we would stay if we didn’t do it!
The eyes of love
So how do we start working with our partner when we are having difficulties? Firstly we have to create a ‘space’, or ‘atmosphere’ between us that can ‘hold’ the challenging conversations. What this means is that you need to have patterns of engaging that are affirming and you need to encourage each other to be open by not criticising when one of you is being more vulnerable. In this way you both develop the trust that the relationship is a safe place to express yourselves and you know that your partner has your wellbeing in mind and that they hold you in their heart with love and want the best for you overall. You can then hold to this trust even when times get difficult between you.
So for example, if you are both criticising each other all the time then no conversation is going to go well. Nothing that is said can land well because there is hurt and criticism all around and this will just lead to more of the same. Each of you will just react to anything the other says. So this means that you need to actively cultivate a habit of noticing the good in your partner and commenting on this to them. You cultivate a loving gaze. This is cultivating the eyes of love.
Love doesn’t look at someone and say, “I love you but look at that fault and that issue in you. These things are just not good. You are lesser because of this.” Love says, “Yes I can see the difficult things about you but beneath that I see the beauty and I see the potential of you. You are amazing and it would be wonderful for you to bring forth more of this beauty.”
If you are cultivating the eyes of love you will actively notice the good about your partner and you will let them know. You will want the best for them and want the best to develop within them. You want them to evolve. And you want yourself to evolve.
Interestingly love is not about comfort; love is about evolution. The question to ask is, “How much love can I hold and express within my being. And how much do I block love with my criticism and negative gaze.” And take note, this negative gaze hurts you as much as the other person.
Invitation not criticism
The next step in bringing out the best in your partner is to speak from invitation not criticism or blame. Too often when we want positive change in our relationship we tell the other person what they are doing wrong. Think about it. Things wont go well within you if the first step is that your partner tells you off for something that you are not doing well. You will feel unloved and then get protective and defensive. Knowing this, you wouldn’t want to create those same feelings in your partner.
Fiona and Simon had to learn this when they were talking about finances. Fiona was upset that Simon didn’t take responsibility for putting money in their account for the bills and other expenses. To Fiona, Simon felt a bit like a child, magically thinking that all would be taken care of. Instead of criticising Simon for this attitude she had to find a way to invite him to expand and take more responsibility in this area.
To start such a difficult conversation, if you can, find something you can appreciate about your partner. You might be able to say, “I like the fact that you don’t spend too much, that you aren’t frivolous with money”, or it could be, “you are generous with money” or “you do come forth with the funds quickly when asked”. Only then do you come in with the invitation for your partner to step up more.
So with Fiona for example, an invitation could go something like, “Darling I want us to work together as a team and at present I feel a bit like it’s just me taking responsibility for managing the money. I would love it if you would join me and step up a bit and share some of this responsibility. It could help you to develop financial confidence if you tried this. Is there some way we could work together to help you do this?”
One of the important things in Fiona’s invitation to Simon is that it invited the two of them to work as a team. It’s not one against the other, its teamwork. If one has difficulty in one area it is not cause for criticism. It is cause to shed light on this with compassion and them invite the person to develop this undeveloped capacity within themselves. Then the couple can find a way where they can work together to foster this capacity in the other.
Once an invitation has been made, the other person needs to respond. So with Simon, he would first need to let Fiona know that he understood what she was saying and what she was requesting. Where discussions go wrong is when the partner quickly turns the conversation around to their own agenda and throws in their perspective and subtle criticism or suggestion that they are actually right and the other person is wrong. Disaster. This will go nowhere.
In difficult conversations we need to be generous and put our need to be right to the side for a moment and simply hear what our partner has said and let them know we get it.
Then comes the hard bit. Can you hear it as an invitation to evolve? And can you accept the invitation? To do so means you might need to accept that there is an area where you aren’t doing something so well. Yes, there might be other areas where you shine and you might like to make that known, but in this moment you need to contemplate this lesser area.
See if you are willing to move forward. Don’t hear it as criticism. Stay open and stay committed to growth. Could you evolve? Could you find a way to develop here? And if so, what sort of help would you need? From here you can work together to make this happen.
To make a relationship thrive we do need to be generous. This means that we must ask ourselves, “What’s important to my partner?” How can I contribute to this? What can I give?”
To do this we need to continually engage with our partner; having conversations that go beyond, “What’s for dinner tonight?” And we need to be prepared to work on our self so that we can bring our best self to the relationship, not the uncensored, critical, demanding self.
Fiona and Simon were prepared to be generous and this would hold the relationship in good stead as they worked through their challenges. Miranda on the other hand was going to have to see if Tim would be prepared to open up a little more and have some deeper conversations.
We don’t need to look on in envy at those who seem to cruise through life. Yes it might look good from the outside but it is the inner life that counts. There is nothing like a few life challenges to provoke us into growth. And when you look back in later life you will be glad you had those experiences because you will see how much you grew and the maturity you gained. Then you can look into your partner’s eyes and know you will see the love and compassion reflected there and this makes it all worthwhile.
1 Names have been changed to protect confidentiality
Are you capable of bringing out the best in your relationship? To find out, ask yourself the following questions:
10 questions to bring out our best relationship self
- Are you prepared to confront the parts of yourself that aren’t so nice?
- Can you handle your partner requesting you moderate some difficult character trait or behaviour?
- Are you prepared to work non-critically with your partner on their bad behaviour?
- Do you appreciate and affirm good aspects of your partner regularly?
- Can you moderate your critical comments and find a more inviting way to frame them?
- How recently did you and your partner work together as a team on something?
- Can you drop the need to be right and just listen to your partner?
- Do you know what is important in your partner’s life?
- How do you contribute to your partner’s life?
- Can you recognise the ways you and your partner grew from working with a difficult situation in the past?