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If it’s working well you simply shift from a me to an us. That’s what relationships are. The couple is an entity unto itself. The mixture has a personality of its own and it routinely exhibits itself throughout the day, whether the couple is together or alone. But most of us get the management of this fact wrong. At least it’s for good reason.
You start as a baby and there isn’t even a world. Then you can see the world but there is no you—babies don’t recognize themselves in mirrors. Then you know you’re a you, after which you learn about property and ownership and then people start marketing to you and for a time you become an increasingly self-centered human being from roughly 13 to 21, and then—if you’re paying attention—you grow increasingly less self-centered in about seven to eight year increments, which is why a lot of people find the quality of their relationships improves as they age.
Your first loves are when you are most self-centered. So you’ll believe all the fairy tales and you’ll think your partner is the other half of your pre-written story. In the wealthy world that’s where she’s loved and seen as beautiful; and he’s envied and seen as strong, but the problems come when you try to turn that into a life because as soon as the other person doesn’t fulfill their part of your personal story, you feel they’ve failed and you break up. That’s why most relationships are so short when we’re younger.
This is due to how we choose to think about each other. When we first meet all we do is focus on all of the traits that are most important to us, plus however well the new person fills the particular holes left by the previous relationships. Any time you think that positively about anything you’ll be flooding your brain with the chemistry for awareness and gratitude and love—and it feels wonderful. But then…
Life is busy, right? So life happens. And we get distracted. It used to be work was hidden at separate places and only fun was had together. Now we’re scheduling time together and there’s laundry and bill-paying and errands rather than all the fun. It’s domestic. It’s real. And it’s disappointing compared to where we were focusing our thoughts previously. And we’ll tend to start blaming the other person for that shift in our chemistry.
So now we’re focusing more on disappointing things and that’s what we’re talking to friends about, which just serves to lengthen the suffering unnecessarily. And eventually others and ourselves come to notice and focus on so many differences that we’ll wonder why we’re even with someone and we’ll leave. And yet the original person with all of their original qualities is still there, just waiting to be noticed. The only thing that makes it survivable is that both parties are variably doing it to each other.
When you’re younger you’re more absolute. If this person gets even one thing wrong then they are not your “soul mate” and so they must go. Then after a few painful losses we’re a bit more mature. We can see potential issues sooner so the drug isn’t such a dizzying high at the start and we stick it through one of those tough goes, have another good run for a while, and then break up on the second or third trouble spot. Which is fine because again for people that are paying attention: we learn from each of these.
Later we’re older and wiser. Plus as we age we know we both have more invested in our lives with each other so there’s more to lose and less time to make up the difference. Sometimes that makes us stay when we shouldn’t. Other times it makes us try a bit harder to make things work and sometimes that’s why it does.
I know a couple that get along stunningly well for about seven weeks and then they’re absolutely certain they need to divorce immediately. That lasts less than a week and they’re back in touch with why they fell in love. In fact, they’re particularly good at noticing each other’s qualities during those other seven weeks. So the wisdom that keeps their relationship healthy is half gratitude and half patience. Because now when the blow-up happens, deep down they both know that it’s a pattern and that it will go away when they change their thinking. They just have to wait. That’s a mature relationship. That’s people who know how to forgive. That’s what love looks like in the trenches.
It’s not easy being loved. Most of us tell stories to ourselves about ourselves that lead us to believe that we can’t possibly deserve to be truly loved and so we fight against it in strange ways. Again, if we’re paying attention and are being introspective we’ll learn over time that everyone is fallible and we too are as deserving of love as anyone else. By genuinely feeling that way we become vulnerable and thereby open ourselves up to the greatest sensations of love we will have ever known.
Go into every relationship knowing that your brain chemistry will naturally shift after seven or eight straight months of thinking wonderful things about the other person. When it changes don’t panic. Don’t think something’s wrong with your relationship when all that’s happened is that there’s been a natural and necessary shift to your thinking. Nothing can stay new and exciting when you see it every day.
Accept that trouble will happen and it’ll only be as meaningful as you make it. Remember that when you’re struggling you’ll want to control your partner’s behaviour—you’ll want to define their role in your life. And as soon as you can see yourself doing that you can consciously shift toward thinking about your partner’s many qualities instead. You’re not stupid. You were attracted to them for a good reason.
Be patient. Be understanding. And be grateful. Do those things as much as possible and that’s as good a recipe for a great relationship as any. And don’t be surprised if it takes a lifetime to learn just that.
Now go create a great day by appreciating the qualities of your partner and everyone else around you. And don’t forget to include you too.
Much love, s
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and nonprofit organisations around the world.