“Love isn’t finding a perfect person. It’s seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”
“So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.”
Jake and Katie were in a somber mood when they arrived for their first meeting with me. As soon as they walked into my office, Jake sauntered straight over to my credenza and plunked down a stack of papers similar to what a lawyer might do in court. I asked him if he would take a seat but he insisted on standing and began hurling invectives and accusations at his wife who was cowering at the far end of my sofa. He launched into a rant about her character and accused her of having an affair. She was aghast and I was speechless. Needless to say, the hour was replete with denial and finger pointing.
Their marriage seemed to swing back and forth from divorce to reconciliation like some bizarre pendulum from hell. This scorched landscape the couple created illuminated the striking difference between personal therapy and couple work. Individual sessions tend to be calm and reflective, but when a couple arrives it’s like plugging 10,000 volts of electricity into the wall. Equal to the intensity in the room are the sensitivity and reactivity to one another that can suddenly spike and in a nano-second careen wildly out of control. Most certainly I needed to make sure that what I said was supportive to both people or I could be watching one of their backsides as they might have leaped up and stalked out of the room at the drop of an errant sentence. Clearly, when it came to love relationships I was tapping into a whole other world. With this couple, most assuredly he knew he was right and he was quite convinced she was wrong. What this and other couples have taught me over the years is that there are definitely dos and don’ts when it comes to maintaining a loving relationship.
There are some classic mistakes that couples make and if they can be avoided they will go a long way toward maintaining a positive and loving relationship. So what are the things that couples should never do? Notwithstanding that rage, drugs, alcoholism, violence and infidelity are givens, here are some of the most important activities to avoid.
1. Refusing to look at your part in a problem or the need to be right. It does take two to tangle and most people would rather hang it on their partner than fall on their sword. Being right is never better than being kind, as the saying goes. Unless people are willing to listen and acknowledge what their partner is telling them, they may not be able to see what they are doing that is not working, thereby prolonging the problem until it ultimately breaks their connection to each other. The most poignant quality about relationships is how blind people can be when they are in conflict. The ability to stop and look at what you are doing is the most critical skill you can ever learn in a relationship. The best way to look at conflict resolution is from the point of view of what’s happening within yourself, what’s happening with the other person and then look at how your mutual states create a problem between one another. Once you can define the problem and consider what each of you can do to make it better, you can take action to put those agreements into practice.
2. Acting on impulse. When people walk out or threaten to end their relationship during an argument, act out, scream or call names, they are acting impulsively. This can mean two things: one, that they are throwing up a smokescreen so they don’t have to look at what they are doing, or two, they donít want to feel embarrassed or humiliated because they are being exposed as weak, worthless or inadequate. When couples can stop, take a beat and calm down during conflicts then come back to the discussion, the outcome is more often positive. Make sure that compassion, understanding, respect and empathy are part of the equation. I ask couples to use the 20 minute rule. Take a time out, calm down, think about what’s going on then come back to the table and do some problem solving. When couples don’t take their emotions into account they will act them out instead.