Whether it’s just another Hallmark Holiday to you, or if it’s as good an excuse as any to open a nice bottle and slip into something a little less comfortable, Valentine’s Day has us thinking about love and romance. Here are three pieces of relationship advice that depart from the norm a little. I hope they help you and your sweetheart get a little cozier this winter.
Fix the roof while the sun is shining
This is a metaphor I use all the time in couples therapy. And though my wife is surely sick of hearing it, it’s something I say at home too. Fixing the roof while the sun is shining is a reminder to mend and maintain things before it starts raining. The single biggest mistake that I see in couples counselling is simply waiting too long to start working diligently on one’s relationship. It’s not that things are doomed if we wait until the rains begin, but it’s certainly harder work from that point on. When people are already suffering from the consequences of their problem, there is less optimism to fuel the work with a bigger deficit to repair.
When times are hard in strong and mature relationships, it can be a call to action to “work on the problem.” If this is another flare up in a chronic problem that has plagued the couple, then getting notified by consequences that more work is required can be helpful. But it takes genuine conscientiousness and forethought to work on anything when the sun is shining. Who wants to get on the roof on a midsummer day, just to fix something that ain’t broke? Who wants to have one of those vulnerable conversations in the middle of a brilliant week of togetherness? And even more importantly, as my father-in-law once told me when I mentioned this little metaphor, how do you know the roof needs repairing if no water is coming through?
Something I try to cultivate in my own relationship and in the couples that I counsel—once we’ve moved through the initial crisis phase which ordinarily kicks off a counselling relationship—is to make a mental note when times are really good. Usually we just want to enjoy the moment, and, so, we lose perspective. But I’ve taught myself and others to maintain the observer’s position and notice when things are going well… for an hour, or a day, or a week, or whatever. And it’s in those moments when both partners are on the same page that we actually have the best opportunity to steer the relationship forward. Sure, you risk sullying the moment to dredge up the tough stuff, but it’s better than the stuff getting dredged when you’re already up to your knees in rainwater.
Everyone is incompatible
Well that sounds awfully pessimistic when I see it in writing like that. But, honest(!), I see this as one of the most helpful concepts towards understanding human relationships. To say “everyone is incompatible” is not to say that real lasting intimacy is impossible. Rather, it’s said in an effort to combat those ideas about pristine relationships, about couples who never fight, about people being just a perfect fit for each other, and everything being easy all the time.For me personally, and as I hear it from my clients, this is a particularly thorny myth. The worst thing that can happen for a relationship’s durability is for the members to believe that whatever problem they are having is somehow entirely caused by the nature of this particular relationship. This is an easy thought to have. In the middle of a tough time we want to say to our partner, “the reason we fight is because you are like x or y!” This is called “particularizing” a problem. We are engaging in the myth that problems only happen to bad people and bad relationships. (Now, obviously, sometimes we are also correct when we make those claims, and there are bad actors in the relationship! But this article is about healthy relationships that are struggling nevertheless.)
The problem with this way of thinking is that it leads us to conclude that we’d be better off outside the relationship, better off in the next relationship. If we believe our partner or our fit together is the problem, then this “grass is greener on the other side” mentality becomes much more likely.
It can change your perspective radically by recognizing the following: all the beauty of intimacy and connection that has ever existed in human history has occurred between people who are fundamentally incompatible. This opens us up to acknowledging that hard times are just an ordinary part of human entanglements. This allows us to tolerate much more without undue worry and pessimism. It allows us to generalize rather than particularize, knowing that regardless of who I am, some degree of friction will always be present, and often whatever makes this moment so hard is less meaningful. There is a kind of existential detachment that allows us, paradoxically, to get even closer to our loved ones, to take more joy in the profound luck of good times and have less fear in the absolute ordinariness of hard times.
It’s not about communication
It is commonly said that the success of relationships is based on communication. It’s not that I think this is wrong… it’s just not as helpful as it seems. Yes, sometimes, I meet couples who appear to know each other and themselves perfectly well, and the only problem is that there is some stickiness that occurs when they present that to their partner in words. More often than not, the sticky communication on the surface of the relationship is indicative of the couple just not really quite knowing what to say in the first place. What I mean is that good communication is just the words that express something. And it’s this something that needs to be really clear if we are going to communicate well.
Much of the work I do in couples counselling I might call “pre-communication.” There is work for both the speaker and the listener in any given interaction—and of course, those roles will quickly be reversed. Speakers need to take some time to come to terms with whatever it is they might be feeling, might be needing, or might be desiring. When there is internal clarity, the words themselves are usually relatively easy to produce. This is what I mean when I observe that it’s not strictly about communication. Communication is essential, but in my experience, it is not itself the real source of the problem.
For listeners, the challenge is almost the opposite. Listeners can struggle to hear well articulated good quality communications when they don’t want to hear what’s being said. The listening partner might be defensive before they’ve heard word one. They might be easily confused because what they hear doesn’t match what’s expected. Listeners need “pre-communication” help just as speakers do, and if this part if done well, then the communication part becomes remarkably easy.
Good communication rests on self awareness and relational safety. In couples counselling, I help people by slowing down conversation and first working with the speaker one-on-one (in front of the soon-to-be-listener) to develop their self-awareness and to help them shape their coherent and considered thoughts and feelings into words. I then demonstrate what safe and active listening looks like, before shifting my attention to the listener. I help them notice and set aside the various fears and worries that are almost inevitable in intimate conversation with our partners, so that they can establish inside themselves the safety to listen truly. I help listeners cultivate the meanings that they make from what they’ve heard and then help them transition from listener back to speaker, sharing in a way that successfully articulates what they have discovered in themselves through self awareness.
Worrying about communication typically looks like people blaming the tone and vocabulary and timing of their partners’ words. These are just red herrings that are unfortunately amplified by popular mental health writing. Communication is easy if the building blocks of good conversation have been established. If these are established, the inevitable and constant “mistakes in delivery” are rendered almost meaningless. With strong self awareness and sufficient safety to experiment with difficult, uncertain, and vulnerable shares, it is truly remarkable the kind of life changing conversations that can occur.