The path of relationship is sometimes called the most difficult spiritual practice of all, but these five simple guidelines can go a long way toward helping you to happier, healthier relating of all kinds.
1. Speak your heart. This is the most important guideline hands down, and the most horrendously difficult, especially when we’ve been hurt or triggered by something our partner has said or done. Truth has so many layers that it can be all too easy to say something hurtful with the justification, “Well, it was the truth!” But the deepest layer of truth is usually so self-exposing and scary that if you’re not feeling like that, you probably haven’t dug down deeply enough yet.
This guideline comes with a helpful little rule: make “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Example: not “You’re a thoughtless, selfish jerk for forgetting my birthday,” but “I felt so hurt and not cared for when you forgot my birthday.” And if you’re really brave, digging even deeper and saying “It reminded me of being forgotten when I was little, and it felt really bad. I got scared that you didn’t love me.” Big difference there. And here is a beautiful fact just waiting to be discovered: when we find the courage to speak from that terrifyingly vulnerable, completely exposed place of deep truth, the place of no more hiding, we suddenly find ourselves standing on bedrock, and nothing can dislodge us from it. And it is a healing balm for your own deep self when it hears you speaking your truest truth, even if your partner doesn’t get it.
2. Empathize. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard saying, “If I show empathy, doesn’t that mean I agree with what my partner is saying? And I don’t! They’re wrong!” But empathizing does not mean you agree. It just means you care enough to listen and hear what your partner is saying. If empathizing as a communication skill were taught in every elementary school, our world would be a less violent place, so let world change begin at home. Allow your partner to speak his or her heart. Detach enough from your own feelings about the situation so you can listen without judgment. Mirror back what you think you’ve heard until you get it right. Then try to imagine how they must have felt and feel it, too. Share it. Hearts may open, yours included.
3. Own your stuff. Here is a very tough question to ask yourself: To what am I more committed, the health of my relationship or replaying my old unhappy scenarios so I have an excuse to vent all the miserable feelings that it wasn’t safe to show as a child? Hard as it may be to admit, many of us are really looking for that excuse. But while breaking old patterns is hard as hell, it can be done.
The truth is that most of us choose partners who echo something about a primary caregiver from childhood–usually one who hurt or disappointed us in some way–only THIS time (we hope unconsciously) they won’t hurt us! THIS time we’ll get it right! Trouble is, if you remain unconscious about all this, your chances of success are roughly equivalent to a snowball’s in the hell that your marriage will probably become, where you end up metaphorically stabbing each other in your sorest spots, reliving all your old pain, and co-creating the very worst-case scenarios you were hoping to heal.
We all have emotional baggage and issues; in fact, you and your mate probably chose each other because your issues dovetail neatly and you bring them up in each other. But we can commit to becoming conscious of our old patterns, then work to change them while practicing compassion for ourselves and gaining a deeper level of self-acceptance. And we can be there as a supportive cheerleader while our partner struggles to do the same, doing what we can to encourage and help the process along. If your issues are deep, there is help available to deal with them.
4. Avoid the blame game. Blaming every little glitch in the marriage on your partner is so temptingly easy, but it’s a crock, as well as a brilliant way to avoid looking at your own painful stuff. It might help to keep this little maxim in mind: Where there is judgment, there is fear. If you’re feeling judgmental, take it as a golden opportunity to look more deeply into what’s really eating at you. What triggered you? What old feelings does this situation bring up? Sniping at our partner when we’re triggered is the first line of defense for most of us, but I ask you: is it likely to help the relationship, or widen the rift between you? When something hurts or bothers you in the relationship, see #1 above and speak from the heart about it.
5. Own up when you’ve messed up. Many of us get so caught in the trap of striving for perfection that we can’t even admit to ourselves when we’ve made a mistake. But perfection isn’t the goal: authenticity is. And we can get pretty snippy when we sense a partner is still upset with us after we’ve apologized: after all, we SAID we were sorry, didn’t we? But an apology without empathy is useless.
It’s painful enough to deal with our own hurts, but really allowing ourselves to feel the pain we have caused someone we love is excruciating–which is no doubt why so many of us avoid it at all costs. It takes largeness of heart and spirit to admit when you’ve been in the wrong, to empathize, apologize, and really mean it. But it is the only thing that helps to heal the hurt you have caused. If you can empathize deeply with what your partner is feeling because of something you have done (or have left undone), and can express true sorrow for it, more often than not you will eventually be forgiven.
Most partners simply want to please us and to be loved and appreciated, but we withhold those things because we’re angry, triggered, or unconscious about our old hurts. But if we could find the peace that comes with self-knowledge and self-acceptance, see the true brightness in ourselves and each other, take the terrifying risk of exposing our vulnerabilities, and learn how to empathize, then we will be well on the way toward creating stronger, more loving partnerships.
By Cait Johnson, author of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air (SkyLight Paths, 2003).