Suppose you took a few hours on some idle Tuesday to ask the tough question, "How do people feel about their relationships?" There is hardly a person alive who hasn’t been heard saying, “You’re driving me crazy," "You make me so mad," or "That really upsets me." Regardless of how much we choose to shift blame to someone else, it simply doesn’t work that way. No one can “make us mad” – we choose to get mad when we notice others doing something that doesn’t feel right. Other people can neither make us miserable nor make us happy, we simply choose to react to the only thing people are capable of giving – information. In other words, it’s best described as, “I’m not liking the information that I’m seeing or hearing.” By itself information cannot make us do anything. Information goes into our brains where we process it, and when we think about the specific information we tend to feel emotional, which creates the physical desire to act or react. Have you ever felt someone trying to force you to do what they know is right?
The challenge of satisfying relationships can be described as feeling free to live your life the way you choose, and still get along well with the people you need. Unlike lovers, or even many family members, good friends can keep their friendship alive for a lifetime because they do not indulge in the fantasy of ownership. For a loving relationship to last, it helps to balance our own individual interests, hobbies, and friends that each pursues separately. Do you feel safe enough in your relationship to indulge healthy interests without fear of criticism or complaint? We do so easily and naturally with good friends and among members of a caring family. Many of us can benefit from learning to do so as easily within the marriage. Trying to stop a partner from enjoying healthy interests is destructive to the relationship. Depending on your partner for everything is asking more than what most relationships can support.
Loving relationships flourish in an atmosphere of mutuality and equality. We seek to know our partner, to keep them near, to minimize the perceived distance between us. In keeping with the theme of separate interests and hobbies, my belief is that in the course of establishing security, many couples confuse love with rigidity and merging. This mix-up can be a bad omen for a satisfying relationship. To sustain flair toward the other, there must be a synapse to cross. Excitement requires spontaneity, and spontaneity in relationships doesn’t just happen. It happens most when we set aside time for spontaneous activities to occur. I see that more contemporary couples lack spontaneity more than ever before. Yet in a cruel twist of fate, this lack of spontaneity is behind the exponential rise in the divorce rates.
Can traditional marital structures meet the modern mandate of today, especially when “till death do us part” entails a life span longer than ever seen before? Every day in my work schedule I am confronted with the graphic realities that hide behind statistics. I see people who are currently married that are such good friends that they cannot sustain being anything more than roommates. I see new parents whose relationship has been sapped by caring for an infant – so consumed by their child that they don’t remember to take time and nurture each other. I see others who believe that intimacy means knowing everything about what each other has done or will ever do. They abdicate any sense of healthy separateness, and then are left wondering where the mystery and fun has gone. I see people so desperate to beat back a feeling of deadness in their relationship that they’re willing to risk everything for a few moments of forbidden excitement with someone else.
In any first conversation with a couple, I typically ask how they met and what attracted them to each other. Since we associate therapy with problems, people don’t usually come to me when they are still in the initial thrall of love. Sometimes they need a gentle reminder of what once was. It’s difficult for estranged or distressed couples to let go of the flood of emotions during conflict and focus on what drew them together. In every troubled relationship lies a “creation myth” that holds the key to understanding the unfolding events of what happened to their relationship. There’s always a place you haven’t gone yet, and always something about relationships yet to be discovered. Eventually, most come to recognize themselves again, and start sleeping better, finishing a magazine before the next issue arrives in the mail, and creating some space to enjoy connecting with others.