When it comes to the health of our bodies or it comes to the health of our relationships, many of us are hopeless optimists. We ignore the warning signs that something isn’t right, figuring it will just go away. We embrace the “why fix it if it isn’t broken” approach, rather than prevention, and we wait until we are in dire pain—physically or emotionally—before seeking help. Just like health is often much more difficult to fix if the ailment has gone too far, relationships are much more difficult to repair when years and years of anger and resentment have built up.
Dr. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute reports that the average couple waits six years before seeking help for marital problems, and half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years. This means the average couple lives with unhappiness for far too long and waits until it is on the verge of too late. For many of us, the number is far greater than six years.
We typically enter relationships (or marriages) with a fantasy of what “true love” looks like, or what a marriage is supposed to be, or with expectations of what “happily ever after” is. Somewhere along the line, the veil of the fantasy begins to wear thin and we, sometimes suddenly, wake up from the fairy tale and realize that we are in a relationship that doesn’t match our dream, our fantasy—our illusion. At this point, what most of us do is begin a campaign to try to get the other person to change, to try to get them to fit the fantasy image we are holding. Whenever we think about “working on the relationship,” what we are really thinking is about “working on getting the other person in the relationship to change.” This campaign includes disappointment, arguments, judgment, frustration, anger, being controlling—none of which serve to make a healthier relationship. When that doesn’t work, we begin to get withdrawn and depressed. It is hard to feel optimistic that things will get better because, we discover relatively quickly that, try as we might, we have no control over how the other person behaves. We are ultimately powerless over changing the other person.
How do we break this cycle?
1. Seek help early. This does not translate to “get him or her to go to counseling at the first sign of trouble.” It means get coaching or counseling yourself, if you are unhappy. It means get a book on the topic by someone you respect, read it and do the work. Learn new skills and tools for returning to a state of happiness—sometimes because of your partner, sometimes in spite of your partner.
2. Pretend, just for the sake of the exercise, that you are 100 percent responsible for what you are experiencing. Examine your thoughts, your choices, your actions, your beliefs, your fantasies, and focus only on self-improvement. Allow your spouse his or her own journey in awareness and consciousness. You are here to transform yourself, no one else.
3. Practice acceptance of the other person. Often when we are no longer the force pushing someone else to change, they become their own force and do their own work. Acceptance doesn’t mean to no longer care or withdraw your energy, it means to change the focus on your energy into love, rather than judgment. When you truly reach a state of acceptance of how the other person is, you will likely begin to see what it is there to teach you.
4. Focus on what you love, both in yourself and in your partner. It is only a habit to focus on what makes you unhappy. It is only a choice.
Relationships are the perfect arena to show us where we need to work on self-expression, acceptance, compassion, and forgiveness. Relationships are the perfect arena for learning to “love what is,” to learn to love reality rather than the fantasy. Even if the relationship doesn’t continue, these skills will continue to serve you.
Love Tip: Gratitude is the secret key in relationships.
Intellectual Foreplay Question: What do you love, like, admire, and appreciate about your partner?