"Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not, nor would it be possessed, for love is sufficient unto love." ~ Kahlil Gibran
My life has been turbulent lately. On top of feeling the collective angst occurring in the world right now, I've been experiencing, both, negative stresses, such as multiple losses and an erratic work schedule, and positive changes, such as coming closer to completion of my book. All of these can be a source of increased tension.
During times like these it's too easy to take out such tension on those closest to us or to set unrealistic expectations on friends, family, and/or our partner to take away our discomfort. But, this only creates increased strain in our relationships, leading the way to more pain and separation. As the saying goes, "what you resist, persists"-- and possibly grows stronger, so I've decided, instead, to stop struggling in my own relationships-- which ultimately means first that I have to stop struggling with myself.
On the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, I had a discussion on my radio program with Austin yoga teacher, Jonathan Troen, about the anxiety and anger all around us that was palpable on that day, as well as throughout this election cycle. "Peacefulness starts from inside of us and then spreads. It's contagious, just like anxiety," said Troen. The solution, he told us, is to find a way to create tranquility within ourselves, such as through practices like meditation, yoga, or Tai-chi, in order to create peacefulness in the world. Coming from a place of stillness within helps us to make better decisions about how to overcome any obstacles in our environment and our interactions.
And despite wanting instant relief, we may not be able to change the world or completely heal our relationships all at once. As the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu once said, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."
And, so, I have set out on this journey of a thousand miles to increase joyfulness in my relationships. While looking for tools to take along on my journey, I came across a mantra put forth by Dr. Chopra, "Today I will oppose nothing that occurs. I will resist nothing." I'm now experimenting with this mantra. I use it, if I remember in time, when I have the desire to react. This works best in my close relationships because the price of ruining these relationships is so high. Using this mantra has led me to take a breath, rather than immediately reacting when I don't like something. If I then decide that further action is warranted, pausing gives me the time, the calmness, and the clarity to ask myself, "What can I do that will bring the most value to this situation?" The experiment has been going fairly well, even when I don't always remember the mantra, immediately, and use it after I've already started to react. It short-circuits my first reaction and keeps me from causing further damage.
I, like many, often feel the pressure to discuss what seems like an important issue in my relationship as soon as it comes to my awareness. However, this is the time when we usually feel our worst, and the result is often disastrous. When we're angry or upset, we tend to blame our partner and are defensive when they point out our part in the problem. In addition, if we're angry when we speak, our partner is likely to react with anger and defensiveness. This will frequently escalate to an argument that resolves no issues and, again, leads to more pain and isolation. Dr. George Pransky, professor and marriage counselor, wrote in his book, The Relationship Handbook, "When your spirits are low is when you are most compelled to 'talk about things' and least advised to do so. Many of the statements you make then will seem false or damaging from the perspective of a higher mood....Notice your inner feeling, your state of mind, before you deliver a sensitive message. If you have a chip on your shoulder, get your heart in the right place....When your heart is back in the right place, you will bring out the best in others."
In addition to our distorted perceptions caused by our own mood changes, it's also often the case that, those things that we found exciting about our partner when it was a new relationship, now turn out to be the very things that we find most annoying. "Remember that today's incompatibilities were yesterday's refreshing differences," wrote Dr. Pransky. "Those differences represent opportunities to learn from each other. If you take the role of the student, the respect you show your mate will raise the level of the relationship."
About three years ago, on the eve of my parents' 61st wedding anniversary, I videotaped an interview with them about how they met. At the end, I asked each of them how they made their marriage last for so many years. My dad's answer was quick and concise: "Compromise," he said. Although we have been taught the virtue of compromising as children, as adults, we often tend to want everything to be exactly as we think it should be, especially in relationships. Reality is frequently quite different from that. When there are two people choosing to spend time together, sharing the ups and downs of life, it's likely that there will be contrasting styles, at least in some areas of life. If we're lucky, we have some of the more important values in common with each other. However, it's those smaller, less important, dissimilarities that can be the most annoying. Our differences often complement each other and are what makes life interesting. But, they can also cause relationships to end, if we don't find a way to meet each other halfway. Let's take some advice from my dad and from the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, who said, "If you want to bring an end to long-standing conflict, you have to be prepared to compromise."
And sometimes compromise just isn't enough. We all know couples that have suddenly split up after being together for almost their whole lives, even when they appeared to have the best relationships. Dr. Dave Richo addressed this in his book, The Five Things You Cannot Change, "The first given of life is that changes and endings are inevitable for any person, relationship, enthusiasm, or thing... Our relationships pass through phases, from romance through struggle to commitment. Then they end with death or separation." I'm sad for those couples, but such surprising break-ups serve as a reminder that it makes little sense to compare our own relationship to someone else's, nor do we need to have a "perfect" relationship because there are none. Perhaps, just the willingness to grow and change in order to create better and better relationships is what's most important. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. There are never guarantees in life. And, even when we create what seems perfect, everything changes, as Dr. Richo wrote, and sometimes those changes bring us closer while, at other times, they cause us to drift apart.
Perhaps the biggest cause of dissension in our relationships is that many of us have come to believe if we can change those annoying habits of our partner, it will "cure" our relationship woes. On the other hand, it's a tremendous relief to realize that we can't change another person's behavior. Instead, we can focus on our only responsibility, that of our selves and our own behaviors. "In every relationship there are two halves of that relationship... Of those halves, you are only responsible for your half; you are not responsible for the other half," wrote don Miguel Ruiz in his book, The Mastery of Love. "It doesn't matter how close you think you are, or how strongly you think you love, there is no way you can be responsible for what is inside another's head." Ironically, when we change our own behaviors, our partner, family members, friends, co-workers, often respond by making behavioral changes, as well.
The world-renowned psychologist and founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, Dr. Albert Ellis, wrote in his book, Dating, Mating, and Relating, "There is no such thing as a mystical couple merged into one being. Therefore, you have to make efforts at changing a relationship first within yourself... Know that you can only directly change yourself... If you think you can change [your partner] or that s/he automatically should change, trouble will likely ensue!"
Finally, when we're with someone for a long time, we're bound to go through cycles. Sometimes we feel closer to each other than at other times. Jumping to the conclusion that things are "bad" when in the ebb of a relationship is a mistake. Perhaps it's a sign that the relationship needs more attention, more loving care, less taking things for granted, or more trying new things together as a couple. But, it can also be a sign that each partner is having their own issues that need to be addressed in order to make themselves happy or to follow their dreams. Given patience, compassion, and time, the relationship will likely begin to flow again.
Thich Nhat Hanh, author of Peace is Every Step, says, "Every morning, when we wake up, we have 24 brand new hours to live. What a precious gift! We have the capacity to live in a way that these 24 hours will bring peace, joy, and happiness to ourselves and others... Peace and happiness are available in every moment. Peace is every step."
So the answer to making relationships work seems to be peaceful within ourselves. This will not only create peace in the world and in our relationships, but it increases our own emotional and physical well-being...no matter what's happening outside of us. We could view this as a win-win situation and one worth continuing to take steps toward, even if this expedition sometimes consists of taking two steps forward and one step back.