Winner: 2015’s Blog of the Year #9
I used to do a very popular couples group that some people asked me to get going again. It was a fun weekend of lively, positive discussion where I would guide the attendees through a conversation that would inevitably provoke various insights about their partner, themselves and their relationship. Sometimes those insights were actually gentle, even comfortable realizations that maybe the relationship should actually end. However in the vast majority of cases the reaction to the sessions was a particularly tender re-connection.
To teach someone how to behave in a relationship would be like teaching a dog to shake your hand. Yeah the dog is making the motion of shaking your hand but because they don’t get the real meaning behind that motion it’s useless. It’s faux. It’s not like them licking you. It’s not a real connection. I can’t create a set of rules for a good relationship. I have to wake people up to what the happy couples are paying attention to and what they do not pay attention to.
What you pay attention to—that is your life. I mean that completely literally. As Aristotle said, “To be conscious of what we are perceiving, or thinking, is to be conscious of our own existence.” That’s why I can’t reignite relationships by giving advice or lists of things to do. But the insights I provoke do lead to an increased awareness of each other and of the relationship. And that increased awareness very naturally leads to the same sorts of warmer and more romantic expressions that were evident when people first met. They are reminded of the core qualities that attracted them in the first place. Qualities that are easy to take for granted.
That blush of emotion we feel when we first meet cannot be sustained of course, because without being juxtaposed to something else we would never even know we were experiencing that bliss. But it can be regularly resurrected in any reasonably healthy relationship. That’s what relationships do. They undulate like that. They’re like sailing.
A relationship is like two sailboats. They can start off from vastly different harbours and they can be different sizes and types of sailboats. People can be from very different places and backgrounds and can have very different experiences throughout their life. Sometimes the differences are the cultures you grew up in. Or disparities like extreme fame or wealth or ability. If two boats come from vastly different places they will often meet at very perpendicular angles. That might result in an awesome crash together, but after that you’re often left picking up the pieces in an ocean of doubt. And yes, if someone’s super famous or rich or powerful and their partner is not, that can make sailing together more difficult too. But you know what? It doesn’t matter who you are or what it is, problems like that are just barnacles.
Yeah, they’re always hidden below the water line but everyone’s got barnacles on their hull. Everyone pushes through life with the weight of these past experiences that just seem to cling to our individual psyches. In fact our only escape is to not have an individual psyche. And you can start by trading just yours for one that includes you and your partner. That is to say, the point of me generating the insights is to try to get each partner to consider each other’s position and personality more completely before reacting to any given words or behaviour. Essentially they learn to listen better.
So while it may be true that two boats from very different places are less likely to sail together, and that different shaped boats make for different sailing experiences, it is nevertheless true that any boat can choose to sail next to any other boat. (Yes, even if the two boats are both shes.) So boats are people and our course represents who will be in our key relationships, because no one can truly sail beside us unless they are genuinely going the same way.
At its best these two boats are rubbing gently against their soft bumpers as they nuzzle together in some safe harbour. This level of calm and warmth allows the two souls on board to intermingle, treating their separate worlds as one vessel. At their worst one or both boats are taking on water and are tacking for the wind using different strategies, leaving them both floundering and alone. Nevertheless this is all sailing.
You can sit on the shore and not live life at all, but if you’re going to go out to sea and venture forth into life and into a relationship then you absolutely have to be prepared for very rough seas. In fact your relationship is only as good as your performance through those challenging times,. And you can rest assured that even the greatest relationships included those periods of terrible sailing, be that from being knocked around by storms or being tortured by the boredom of a dead calm.
It is also possible for other variables to impact one boat or both. Maybe you strike an obstacle. A death in family, some serious financial crises, cheating, a health issue. This kind of experience can require an immediate restart from scratch in a whole new direction. Or, maybe one person is doing particularly well and they’re leaving their partner to struggle behind them. This increases the distance between the boats and the only way to fix it is to either wait for the wind to change, or for one of the two boats to tack a new direction. Even then, this is still all just sailing. Every relationship that’s made it 20 years would have faced these kinds of rough seas at one point or another.
There are no relationships where the boats rubbed up against each other in perfect seas with the wind at their back from coast to coast. And we don’t even want the boats that are so distant they are meaningless, nor do we want ones filled with too much conflict. The boats rubbing, yes. The boats smashing, no. So a good partner is still their own boat. They are choosing to sail alongside you because it’s worth it. It’s that simple. And pretty much everyone is worth it if they’re with a reasonably matched person. In the sessions all I had to do was make sure that each person knew how to see the value in their partner.
So remember, if you’re ever feeling lost and you’re wondering if there’s even a point of staying together, keep in mind that you may just have had to tack for a very good reason and that your fundamental course is still true and together.
I suspect I will do those couples courses again. As I’ve thought about them to write this I remembered how much laughing we used to do and how wonderful and warm the insights were. It was very easy and enjoyable to witness people reconnecting. In the end I just acted like a lighthouse. I simply shone a light on who people truly were and that was enough to bring them back on course and sailing again side by side.
May the boats in your life have the wind at their back.
Scott McPherson is a writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and nonprofit organizations around the world.