A typical couple's lament: "We just see things differently." That's certainly true for many couples, but I see a deeper problem that undermines many relationships today. And it won't be fixed by any of the marriage education, relationship improvement or sexual enhancement programs out there. That is, often the problem isn't that you and your partner see things differently; but rather, that you see different things.
Facing what that means can be painful. It may even feel relationship-threatening. But doing so can open the door to strengthening the true foundation of your relationship: Your vision of life. By that I mean what you're really living and working for, both individually and as a couple.
In my view, that's the fundamental core of a relationship, and it's often overlooked or seldom discussed. When you do face it you may discover that you and your partner were never in synch about your vision of life. Or, that you may have gone off on different tracks over time. When either is the case, you end up seeing different things altogether.
That's a crucial problem because your core vision of life will increasingly impact your long-term health and well-being in today's world, whether you're in a relationship or not. We're now living in a totally interconnected, unpredictable, "non-equilibrium" world. My decades as a psychotherapist and business psychologist convince me that our new era requires a new and revised picture of psychological health and positive resiliency -- what it looks like and what helps build it - to support your outward success and internal well-being in the years ahead.
My previous posts about intimate relationships have focused on sustaining or rebuilding building positive connection, emotional intimacy and sexuality in our new era. These are important, but the underlying foundation for long-term vitality and connection is a couple's shared vision of life. But typically, a couple doesn't talk about it much, or may gloss over it and assume they're on the same page. Then, when they get into trouble in their daily relationship, they start looking for answers that don't help.
That is, many couples spend a great deal of time, effort and money trying to improve their communication skills, listening skills, negotiation skills, their problem solving techniques and, in general, trying to learn how to make a marriage "work" for the long run. And yet, despite best intentions, the divorce rate continues to be about 50%. Increasing numbers choose to live together without marriage. And affairs appear to have entered the mainstream (Ashley Madison, the on-line site for people seeking affairs, now advertises on TV and has made a $25 million bid for naming rights to the new Meadowlands stadium).
But the yearning for a relationship that sustains and deepens over time -- even the desire for the elusive "soul mate" -- remains strong. The continuing market for articles, books, blog posts and videos about how to make relationships work better is, in itself, evidence that none of these programs, strategies and techniques help very much. But it's also confirmed by actual research. For example, social psychology researcher Bella DePaulo has documented the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of marriage skills programs.
What's Your Vision of Life?
I think the reason these programs don't contribute much to building or sustaining intimacy and relationship "success" is that most of them focus on tweaking or modifying what I've described as a Functional Relationship. It's what most couples descend into as they grapple with "balancing" work and life issues, raising children, paying bills, and so on. Their interaction becomes increasingly transactional, less energized and less interesting. Conflicts and power struggles begin to become part of daily life. As one spouse said to me, "I can't remember why we got together in the first place."
Couples will begin thinking that they're seeing things differently, and if they can only learn how to adjust those differences -- perhaps some creative compromises or better give-and-take - then they will have a successful future.
Not so. Not when the real problem is that you're operating with different visions of life to begin with. Your vision includes:
• Your overall sense of purpose, of meaning.
• What you're actually living and working for, or towards, in "real time."
• What you're strengthening or diminishing in your personality and values -- knowingly or unknowingly -- individually and as a couple, as you travel through life.
Here are some guides for you and your partner to help identify your life vision. Compare your answers to the questions and discuss what you discover.
Seeing Your Current Life Path
First, set aside a block of time to talk with each other about your deepest desires and aspirations for your lives, individually and together. Listen to each other. Ask questions, but hold off commenting on or judging what you hear. Just learn from each other. Be as honest as you can.
Begin the dialogue with these questions:
• Why do you think you're here, on this planet, at this moment in time?
• How did you come to do the kind of work you now do?
• Why do you continue to do it?
• What are your material goals vs. your spiritual, creative or relationship goals for your lifetime, as an individual and as a couple?
• What do the answers reveal about your desires, values, aspirations or fears?
Then, look at what you and your partner are aiming towards at this moment in your lives, in the context of your careers; your financial situation; your family, if you have growing children or ones already "launched;" or elderly parents who may need care and decision-making. For example:
• Children - Are you on the same page about what you want for your children, regarding education, summer enrichment programs, how you see their personalities, temperaments, interests, cognitive strengths, talents, etc.
• Financial - Describe each of your views of financial "needs" vs. "wants," with respect to your desires for lifestyle, long-term security, use of assets over time, and the role of giving to others in your value system. Discuss where you and your partner mesh, where you don't, and how to bridge the differences. Focus on the long-term, the decades ahead, and not just immediate circumstances.
• Geographic - To what extent are you both compatible with, and have a sense of connection with your geographic location? How important is this dimension to you? Where there are differences, how can you deal with them through compromise or adjustment over time?
Your Life Plan
• Do you serve anything larger than your own personal needs and wants? If not, where do you think that road will take you over time? If you do, what is it? Does what you serve or contribute to feel in synch with your true self, your talents, your values?
• Did you turn away from any passions or interests that pulled you when you were younger, and that you regret not having pursued? If so, how could you try to reclaim them?
• Make a list of any talents, experiences, unfulfilled creative needs, and challenges that you would like to incorporate into the next several years of your life.
• For each item on your list, write down what changes you would need to make in your career, personal life commitments or relationship, to make that occur.
• What are the resources you currently have; and what ones would you need to acquire to make those changes (education, financial, location, life-style, etc.)?
• How do these mesh with those of your partner? What do you do if they don't?
Should Your Relationship Continue?
Now, the big one: Describe why you want to stay together, including the possibility that you don't.
• Be open with each other about whether you want to continue your marriage or relationship as it currently exists. Is this the person you want to stay with the rest of your life? If so, explain why.
• If you have doubts, express them. Consider the possibility that the relationship you entered years ago, and within which you may have raised children, worked for that earlier purpose; but that it may no longer work for you today.
• If it doesn't, how could the two of you reconstitute it to fit who each of you are at this point in your lives? Do you want to try? If not, can you end it respectfully?
Share with your partner what you come up with from the above exercises. Discuss where you're in sync, and how to deal with where you're not. Just asking these questions about your life vision will reveal important information about each other and about yourselves as a couple. That will tell you if you have a good foundation for a self-sustaining relationship -- one that will be resilient in the face of the unknowns and changes that are waiting for you down the road....and we know there will be plenty of them!
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC