One of the difficulties faced in intimate relationships is that opposites attract. We are often fascinated by personal traits or background characteristics in our potential partner that we, ourselves, do not possess. It is not unusual, for example, for an only child to marry someone from a large family because she is attracted to the excitement and seeming closeness of her partner’s large family.
At the same time, he is attracted to her quiet and apparently peaceful family. It may not be long before she is accusing his family of being overwhelming and he is describing her family as too withdrawn. This is the point at which it is important to stop and recall what brought the partners together. With understanding, self-awareness, and a good measure of humor, each is more able to see the advantages and disadvantages of their own as well as their partner’s traits and circumstances.
Women and men also need to be equals in their relationship. A good marriage is not built upon the foundation of one partner feeling like a child and the other feeling like a parent. Only when partners relate as peers is it possible to experience mutual respect, sharing, support for each other, and the ability to disagree without the threat of losing the relationship. With that type of underpinning, the marriage will thrive.
Marriage is, no doubt, hard work, perhaps the most difficult thing some of us will ever do. When the honeymoon phase of our relationship is over, we experience that our partner no longer makes us happy. The romantic ideal we’ve held our partner to crumbles into a real relationship between real people with hopes and fears, wisdom and neuroses, needs and expectations. At this point we have three choices: we can break up; we can live together with resentment and little intimacy; or we can use the relationship as a means of growth and transformation. When we choose growth, we have the opportunity to transform the “garbage” of our relationship into compost. We can learn from the difficulties, keeping ourselves open to possibilities and pain, our partner, and ourselves.
Our intimate relationships are like plants. They need sunshine and rain and good soil. They need work. When pain and difficulties arise we can touch into our commitment and willingly feel our emotional weather. We can remain open to the winds and rains, as well as the sunshine and sweet breezes of the relationship. It takes tremendous courage to stop and simply feel the pain that arises, to let it wash over us like a wave. When we do this, it is not as bad as we anticipated. And like all weather, it passes.
Cultivating this larger awareness of the emotional storm allows us to notice the transient nature of conflict. Through this process we can learn to own and heal our pain, and glean some wisdom from it. It is a courageous and generous endeavor to not blame our partner for our unhappiness or not fulfilling our ideal.
Being present and honest with ourselves will provide space for understanding and growth. There is tremendous reward for stretching ourselves to open, taking responsibility for our side of the story, and transforming our negative habits into acts of integrity. The reward is that our plant begins to flower. Love returns and blossoms. Joy and lightness dawn with a newfound workability.
Boundaries around the individual and the couple sustain the health of a relationship. This means having individual time and couple time. In successful partnerships, boundaries are created to determine when, where, and to what extent other people are a part the life of the individual and of the couple. Boundaries (with negotiated flexibility) are important for establishing and maintaining intimacy in a relationship.
Finally, intimacy is the foundation for the development of lasting bonds in a relationship. While sexual and physical connections are important, they are not the only kind of intimacy in a relationship. Emotional, spiritual, aesthetic, and recreational aspects of life are also areas in which intimacy grows. Without these, sexual intimacy is purely physical and unlikely to sustain a relationship over the long-term.
The following suggestions may help couples to think about the challenges they face within their own relationships and inspire new approaches to old problems thus nurturing your relationship:
- See the reality of your partner (and of yourself), not a fantasy of perfection.
- Treat your partner like a friend. Be considerate and respectful. Laugh at their jokes and listen to their stories. Lighten up together and be kind to one another.
- Stay in the present. Deal with what is happening now; you don’t have to dredge up old baggage.
- The giving and receiving of unconditional love is not to be taken for granted. Certain aspects of love are earned.
- Give what you want. If you want more love, offer love. If you want more affection, offer affection. If you want more intimacy, create an intimate environment.
- Not every attack is personal. Avoid overdramatizing.
- Be more concerned with loving and being loved, caring and being cared about than being right. Many right people are very lonely!
- Sit down with your spouse and each make a list of what makes you feel loved and cared for. Exchange lists. Study your partner’s list and make a commitment to do some of those things.
- See the situation from the other person’s perspective. Forgo blaming or judging.
- Say as much as you can to each other. The more that remains unspoken, the greater the risk for problems.
- Nurture a sense of humor. It is difficult for us to be defensive when we can laugh at ourselves!
- Acknowledge your partner for something every day. This could be something little or significant about what they do, who they are or how they look.
- Spend quality time together. If you have small children and not much alone time, extend yourself and make that time precious.
- Study what “works” between you and do more of that. Do not keep repeating the same negative patterns.
- Apologize. In every conflict you play a part. Be responsible for it.
- Honor your partner’s freedom. Wish them well as they do things separate from you. Celebrate your differences. Chances are, you do not want to be in a relationship with someone exactly like you!
- Do not react. When your partner gives you negative feedback, reply that you will think about it – and do.
See a counselor when you run into difficulties or want more from your relationship. All relationships run into hard times. Counseling is a wonderful way to give your relationship time and nurturing. Even one or two sessions can be a great benefit. Also know that shifts in the relationship can occur with only one person in counseling.