The author of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and the American Dream and founder of The Chopra Foundation helps us understand how to revitalize our lifelong unions.
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By Deepak Chopra
Relationships are hard work, and the idea that you can be in a miraculous relationship needs explaining. What is a miraculous relationship? It's one where both partners grow spiritually, increasing in love, personal evolution and shared experience of the soul.
Three major obstacles keep this from happening, and you can watch them operating in your own relationship if you look closely, with open eyes and honest intent: control (the need for one person to coerce the other into doing things "My way"), competition (the need to turn every situation into win or lose) and lack of communication (the refusal to share how you feel and to hear how your partner feels).
1. Working on Control
Controlling people can be identified by a few primary characteristics: (1) their way is best; (2) they find ways to excuse themselves while at the same time finding fault with others; (3) they are perfectionists -- other people's work is never good enough to meet their standards; (4) they think they know what's best for other people; and (5) they sound reasonable on the surface but are tightly wound underneath, leading to an irrational need to have every detail be perfect -- anything less than perfect just isn't "right," as defined by them, of course.
If you are in a relationship where these ingredients dominate, either in your partner or yourself, change will be very difficult. Control freaks are too afraid to change, and whenever change appears, they become agitated inside, causing them to double up on their control.
Fortunately, control is rarely so extreme. It exists as an obstacle mostly when two people start arguing over "my way" versus "your way." Telltale signs of controlling behavior can be found in typical statements that come up time and again, such as: (1) "You know I'm right."; (2) "I have this covered, leave everything to me."; (3) "I only have your best interests at heart."; (4) "You didn't do it right, how often do I have to remind you?"; (5) "Why do I always have to clean up your mess?"; (6) "You left a dirty dish in the sink again."
If you recognize yourself as the taskmaster, perfectionist, neat freak or the possessive one in your relationship, pause and confront this obstacle. What you need to work on is to remove the underlying tension that always exists if another person feels controlled -- they are being slowly suffocated. Your good intentions don't matter, because no matter how neat the house is, how perfectly you raise the children, how skillfully you manage every detail, if your partner is being suffocated, your controlling behavior is leading to trouble. If you do, your partner will see changes that will help him or her start to soften their resistance.
2. Working on Competition
Everyone likes to win, but when winning becomes your chief tactic for boosting your ego, it becomes an obstacle. Highly competitive people constantly need the feedback of winning because there is an underlying fear of losing. The chief reason this trait surfaces is that winners get a lot of approval. They achieve success, and on that basis they forget that winning has a downside, especially in relationships.
When you win, the following may occur far too often: (1) you make your partner wrong; (2) winning turns into a put down—your partner feels belittled and demeaned; (3) you play unfair but won't admit it; (4) you aren't supporting your partner, whose interests and viewpoint don't matter as much as yours; (5) your partner feels pushed away; (6) you imply a threat if you lose. The threat can be withdrawal of affection, attention, approval, sex or emotional closeness.
The key is to offer rational reasons for change, and these reasons must sidestep the whole issue of winning and losing. Winners are forced to stand on a pedestal. It's lonely up there, your partner wants to step down, but he (or she) can't do it alone. Your role is to offer a reasonable way to promote change. The initiative has to be his (or hers), and in the end, a person must be allowed at least one victory a day. But it doesn't have to be at your expense. You aren't the follower, the admiring spectator, the loser, the victim or the second banana. Work on making that clear to yourself first and then to your partner. Deep down, every winner wants to be paired with someone who doesn't demand them to perform all the time. From that little seed a close bonding can grow.
3. Working on Lack of Communication
Compared to the first two obstacles, lack of communication has become a well-worn theme. Couples are constantly urged, by therapists, self-help books and magazine articles. The stereotype is that men are the problem. They won't open up. They hate to express their emotions or show vulnerability. They think it's girly to show feelings, so why not leave it to the girls? This stereotype isn't as rigid as it seems, for many men do confide in the privacy of their relationship, and women well know the vulnerability that is being hidden when a man goes back out into the workaday world with his public mask firmly in place.
Still, psychologists find a gap between the sexes when it comes to communicating, and we can't summarize the subject in the short space we have here. Lack of communication is a snake biting its tail: the more you tell someone they need to communicate, the harder they will clamp down. As with many complex personal issues, it helps to break this one down to simpler components. Then you can address the parts instead of the whole, which is almost always the easier way to find a solution. Also, you will be leaving the level of the problem, which is never where solutions lie.
What is the level of the problem? An emotional impasse. One person wants more emotion, the other refuses. At bottom, all relationships must have an emotional core, and by nature, emotions are transient—they come and go, rise and fall, moving the way they want to move, no matter what the rational mind may say. People fail to communicate because there is an emotional mismatch. Instead of trying to pry your partner open like an oyster, you need to make him or her feel that it's safe to open up on their own. This can't be done by attack, blame, nagging or guilt-tripping.
In order to open new lines communication, you need to develop a new attitude toward communication. When you really communicate: (1) your partner's emotions are as valid as yours; (2) you don't use your relationship to vent or dump your stuff; (3) you sympathize, you feel where your partner is coming from; (4) you deal with your negative emotions as your responsibility; (5) you don't project them through guilt-tripping and blame; (6) you make intimacy an open space between the two of you, you are sensitive to any sign that the space is closing; (7) you show appreciation for what your partner feels; (8) the one who gets to talk the most is the one with the greatest need or the most to share. But this doesn't mean that one person is always the designated listener.
As before, you should sit down with your partner to discuss how these new attitudes can be fostered between you. Choose a relaxed, calm moment. Have the list written down and presented beforehand so that your partner has time to consider each thing without feeling ambushed. One of the most important things to avoid is depicting one person as being open while the other is closed. Communication isn't about me versus you. It's about building this separate, valuable thing known as "our relationship." Communication is the air that relationship breathes. It's not relevant that one partner might talk a lot while the other doesn't. Talking a lot isn't communication, it's holding forth. Your goal isn't to make your partner more like you, or vice versa. What you are aiming for is mutual growth, which means that you share what's going on inside, and you do it regularly, with enjoyment and in the spirit of mutual support. I realize that in most relationships there is a lot of venting, complaining, negotiating, disagreement and other forms of emotional mismatch. This will be true in the best relationships, but there will also be times when you share life as if soul to soul. It's those moments that need to grow and become your focus in being together.
A soul-to-soul relationship is incredibly fulfilling. Going into the light together can be uplifting in a way that two people could never anticipate, even though falling in love gives a very vivid glimpse of it. If you sincerely work on the three obstacles that cast a shadow over too many relationships, your willingness to find the light will certainly draw you into it—there is no greater promise.
Deepak Chopra, MD, is the author of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and the American Dream and more than 75 books translated into over 35 languages, including 21 New York Times best-sellers. He is founder and chairman of The Chopra Foundation.