Three Things for Maintaining a Good Relationship

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My husband and I celebrated 10 years of married life last week.

For both of us, this is our second marriage. We were both mostly-happily single when we met and were both looking for something occasional but monogamous. It was Graham that decided we should get married. When he asked me, my response was ‘Why?’. He said, ‘Lately when I talk about you to other people I find myself wanting to refer to you as my wife.’

Good answer.

He’s very good at using very few words to say a great deal. As you can see.

I think second marriages are either an exercise in making all the same mistakes that you made the first time around, usually because you attributed everything that went wrong with your first marriage to your ex-spouse and didn’t take any responsibility yourself, or they’re an exercise in figuring our what you did wrong the first time and making sure you improve on the past.  Fortunately for us, we chose option two.

To celebrate, we decided to get a ferry to a local restaurant. We share a fondness for ferries and a love of fine food so this was the perfect choice. We arrived at the ferry wharf with plenty of time for a stroll and a coffee. We sat on a bench at the beach in the sun watching a pair of eagles steal fish from the seagulls and pelicans. It was a glorious day.

Until two people decided to have an argument about three metres from where we were sitting.

Oh come on! There’s a whole beach! A whole suburb! And no other vacant seats for us to move to. We couldn’t hear what they were saying. Just his hushed tones and her increasingly distressed, emphatic staccato. I looked over to see the woman get a drink bottle out of the boot of the large Audi people mover and hand it to a child in the back seat. She closed the door and went back to fighting with her partner on the footpath. It didn’t sound like they were going to finish any time soon so we decided to go for a stroll to the local art gallery.

As we walked past the couple, the woman said, “Excuse me. Can I ask you something? What three things would you say are important to maintaining a good relationship?”

How odd.

I was tempted to say ‘Never fight in front of your children.’ or ‘Never fight in public.’ Probably not useful.

Graham says his response would have been ‘Don’t own an Audi.’ That might sound like he’s being flippant, but when I asked him about it later, his point was that anyone spending that much money on a car (or going into that much debt to buy one) needs to re-examine their values and their priorities. Saying that you buy this kind of car for the technical excellence is a bit like saying you read Playboy for the articles. Everyone knows that a big part of the appeal of a luxury car is the nose thumbing you give to anyone that can’t afford one.  Either that or you’ve actually believed the marketing hype. Every dollar we spend casts a vote for something. Every dollar we spend says something about our values and our priorities.

He’s very good at using a few words to say a great deal.

There was a time when I would have quoted the golden rule to this couple; treat other people the way you want to be treated. It’s one of those ideas that’s become so well accepted that we no longer question it. Then I heard A. C. Grayling say this: ‘Don’t treat people the way you want to be treated. They might not like it! If you really want to be compassionate, take the time to find out how THEY want to be treated.’ Good advice. But a roadside request for help in the middle of a distressing argument is not the time for redefining a truism.

Here’s a game. Take a moment away from the computer and think about what three bits of advice you would have given this woman. It’s an interesting exercise.

Hands up anyone that put ‘Never go to bed on an argument.’ I think this one is great advice although I’ll admit that there are times when we’ve just been too tired and too distressed to resolve anything. Graham and I could count on our fingers the number of times we’ve had a distressing argument, and we wouldn’t need our thumbs to do it, but when it does happen the dynamic is familiar to most couples. One of us gets very distressed and emotional and wonders why they can’t make their partner understand the depth of their feelings and the other becomes quiet, offended and frustrated and wonders what they can possibly say to end the argument and to stop feeling like, somehow, the whole situation appears to be all their fault.

The distressed one continues to explain the source of their distress. The quiet one attempts to explain to them why they have no reason to feel that way.  And around and around we go.  This couple were caught in the same dynamic. It was clear from the body language and the sound of their voices.

When our arguments are over, it’s easy for me to make observations about this dynamic. The emotional one needs to recognise that nobody ’causes’ us to feel anything. We own our own emotions. It’s dysfunctional and incorrect to blame anyone else for how we are feeling. It’s also offensive to our partner to accuse them of deliberately trying to annoy us when, if we stop and think about it, that’s highly unlikely. People that love us don’t usually sit around planning to annoy us, unless there is something sociopathic about them. Our partner is perfectly entitled to take offence when we (from their point of view) suddenly start hurling accusations at them.

I think it’s often the case that the emotional one has something else going on, apart from whatever it is they’re saying. Sometimes the problem is an accumulation of small things, all of which, to be fair, should have been discussed at the time. Sometimes it’s an unresolved hurt from the past, or something that’s triggered an old memory. Sometimes it’s an expression of a completely unrelated frustration that even the accuser can’t articulate.

For the quiet one, it’s often the case that their first reaction to the emotional one is, ‘That’s unfair. How is this my fault?’. Not unreasonable. Unfortunately their next move is usually to explain to the emotional one why, logically, they should not be feeling the way they are feeling. This is, of course, guaranteed to send them into an emotional frenzy. The last thing you need when you’re feeling irrational and emotional is to have someone explain to you that you shouldn’t be feeling emotional and irrational. Our partner is perfectly entitled to take offence when we (from their point of view) fail to act compassionately when they are clearly distressed.

I think the quiet one usually has something else going on. Sometimes the problem is a difficulty in expressing their own emotions, or a sense of being overwhelmed by the emotions of others. Sometimes they have difficulty putting their feelings into words and are unfairly characterised as ‘unemotional’ because of it. We are all emotional. Some people struggle to express it.

When you start deconstructing the typical argument there are some bits of advice that might have been useful to this couple, or to anyone familiar with this type of fight;

If you’re feeling really emotional about something then calm yourself down first before talking to your partner, and don’t blame them for how you’re feeling. Check what else is going on in your life and try to decide what the real issues are. Before you talk to your partner about anything, think about how you can do that in a way that helps them to understand you rather than to feel as if they’re being attacked. Accept that all of us do things that annoy other people and that it’s okay to let most of that just float on by. Give yourself 48 hours to decide if something is worth bringing up and then let it go forever. Forever! No digging up the past and hurling it at your partner. Resolve it within 48 hours or let it go.

Or;

If your partner is upset, don’t try to explain to them why they shouldn’t be. They already are. Put your arms around them and tell them you’re sorry they’re feeling upset. That’s not admitting responsibility. That’s caring for someone you love. Tell them you really want to talk about what’s wrong but you want to do it when neither of you are feeling upset. Tell them that, for now, you just want to hold them until they are feeling better. Make sure that when both of you are calm you remember to ask about what was upsetting them. Be patient. Listen.

If I’d had time to think about it, that’s probably what I would have said to this couple. You’ll notice I haven’t told you which one of us is the emotional one and which one is the quiet one. You can probably figure that out. I’m trying to be fair to both sides here.

Hands up anyone that put ‘Choose the right person.’ It seems to me this is great advice. A large part of our happy relationship can be attributed to us having  elegantly aligned values. We care about the same things. We don’t care about the same things. We have the same attitudes to money, religion, politics, life and Audis. I like the phrase ‘to strike a chord’. To a musician, a chord is two or more notes played together to create a sound. If it’s an awful sound it’s discordant. I think we all resonate in response to other people. When I’m with Graham I’m a calmer, kinder, happier person. It’s easy. I think if you’re in a relationship that always feels like hard work you probably need to end it. A good relationship is easy most of the time.

There are some that think the key to a good relationship is to find your soul mate. I don’t believe in soul mates. I think it’s possible to have a relationship with lots of other people, assuming you’re reasonably mentally healthy and capable of kindness and compassion. I think it’s much easier to have a relationship with some people rather than others and that sharing common values is the key to that being easy. I worry that the whole ‘soul mate’ mentality leaves some people single because they never felt anyone met that standard, and some people grieving the loss of their ‘one right person’ for the rest of their lives.

I know at least some of my regular readers will have quoted Buddhism. Practice loving kindness. Always good advice. I also like this simple guide to saying anything; Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? It’s an excellent filter.

Thanks to the couple having a fight on the side of the road, we had a great afternoon talking about relationships and thinking about what we could have said to them if we’d had time to talk about it and think about it. Of course, when someone stops you in the middle of the street and asks you to name three things that will help them to maintain a relationship it’s probably not helpful to say, ‘Can I have some time to think about it.’

The comedian in me wanted to day ‘Don’t ask random strangers for relationship advice.’ but they were both very upset. One outwardly, the other inwardly. I resisted my desire to be funny. Not kind or useful.  Instead, I said this:

1. Get cancer. If you get cancer you’ll realise that most of the things you’re fighting about aren’t important at all. You’ll realise how short life really is and you’ll pay more attention to what really matters.

2. Don’t try to fix your partner. Decide what you think is a perfect relationship and then concentrate on being your half of that. Work on being a better version of you.

3. Finally, love your partner exactly as they are right now, today. We’re all changing, all the time. Today’s version of them will never exist again, so love that person. Let go of who they were in the past. That person doesn’t exist anymore.

Some of this must have been useful, because the woman put her arms around me, thanked me three times and then sobbed. She turned to her partner and said, ‘Did you hear that?’ and then said, ‘Can you say that again?’ So I did.

We wished them well and walked on to the art gallery. They were gone when we came back. I hope they’re okay.

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