A BOOK FOR COUPLES
--By Hugh & Gayle Prather
The Whole of Your Relationship
We do not see the relationship. We see merely the other individual & his or her faults. We stand on top of half the relationship to look at the other half, & our perspective determines our opinion of the whole.
So what is the alternative? The vital question is not, "How is married life treating you?" but "How are you & your partner treating your relationship?" The relationship was created by two people. Before they came together, it did not exist. It is shaped & sustained by their love, or lack of it. It is like a candle they hold between them, lighting their way through the world. They must walk gently & side by side or the winds will extinguish it, & in their hands will be a thing that merely smokes & smells & then grows cold.
In a real relationship, we lift our gaze from our little self to the part of us that is capable of becoming a true friend to another. When the desire to help, to make another feel happy & safe, begins to surface, it is as if we are transmuted--gradually, slowly & with much reinforced effort--from one person into another remarkably incomparable to the first. Fear finally gives way to strength, smallness to love. We find a new set of pleasures far more durable than the old: The pleasure of removing another's anxieties, of bringing comfort & peace, of making home & offering rest.
So what can you expect from a relationship? Nothing at all separately, but together everything that is worth having. The desire for oneness in the home, for happiness, for love can be fulfilled by any two who come together in a state of openness & with a serious willingness to let go of the conflicting & loveless values of our times. A steady resolve to work together, to join hearts, to have no separate pains, no unshared weaknesses, can sweep away the years of troubled times & make the days fresh & new again.
Emotions True & False
If some emotion is obviously disrupting your relationship, take the time to sit down & sort out your true feelings. Guilt is not a practical emotion. While it occupies the mind there is no room for love, & this is true whether the attack is self-assumed or projected. Blame in any form is highly dividing. So if magazines suggest that honeymoon feelings can last, if talk shows encourage one to be angry & right, if TV dramas show that revenge & betrayal are justified, if newspapers picture breakups & attack as the normal course, if books tout the advantages of being single, & if songs romanticise sadness & loneliness, in what way are the modern couple to blame for undermining their own relationship? They are simply walking to the deafening beat they hear on all sides, & only in the sanctuary of their hearts will they find a little stillness & sanity. (Editor: In closeness to the Lord.)
The Fiction of the Well-matched Pair
Please take it straight from two marriage counsellors: There are no well-fitted couples, at least not in the early stages of a relationship. This isn't to say that some do not clash less than others, for of course there are degrees of incompatibility. The kind of relationship you yearn for--& have a right to--is not the one you begin with but the one you will end up with.
Because the chronic unhappiness of the World is now being felt by many people, there is indeed a widespread yearning for the contentment & peace that come from love. Yet so many of those who are willing to do the necessary work still believe that a particular body is needed, one with an appearance or personality other than those found in their present partner. It must be an interesting body, not dull & unsuccessful, of a certain age & weight. It must be open to speaking of important matters & it must enjoy doing so. It must be willing to attend the right events & read the right books & have heart-to-heart talks on cue.--Or whatever other list of characteristics might be contained in the picture of what it would take to make love possible.
Seek not a special spouse! The ordinary spouse you have will do. Seek not a slim, nice-looking, passionate, well-informed lover. The reluctant, bumbling lover you have will do. Seek not even a loyal friend. You need only a typical friend, & typical is what you've got. So don't be fooled by the outside packages. The heart of everyone is the same.
And if it turns out that your spouse is extremely attractive, inordinately wealthy, has great knowledge of the ancient Visigoths or especially long feet, accept this in good grace & look not down on the short-footed & unhistorical. Specialness is not to be sought or shunned; it is merely irrelevant to beginning a truly loving & peaceful relationship. Such a beginning starts today. And today you have been given.
Giving or Getting?
Most people long for an effect rather than a real relationship. They want to be overwhelmed with some vague set of sensations which the other person is magically supposed to supply. They want romance & exciting common pursuits, or a certain infusing quality to life, or a feeling of support from which to launch their high-minded quests, or a sense of safety & a strong shoulder to lean on. They want everything except to give.
Begin at the Ending Point
So many people are not going to leave their partner but they are going to wonder if they should for the rest of their lives. Consequently, they will have no real life together.
You have nothing to lose but your feeling of meaninglessness, this impression of a life that is scattered & directionless, this sense of things never having come together. What must come together is the heart. Do not be half-hearted, only half in your relationship, only half in your house, your job, your body, your car, your children. Commit yourself to what you have & where you are. Commitment has nothing to do with tomorrow. It is no more than walking through today with purpose & clarity. Remember that the World has forever waited for the right circumstances in which to begin. Do you want to be a loving, gentle, kind person? Then your partner is your work. Do you truly want to learn forgiveness? Then whom can you forgive more completely than your partner?
It is an all too old & sad story that in their last days most people turn to look back on their lives & with profound regret see all the opportunities they missed to show kindness & to make loved ones happier. Suddenly it is obvious what their priorities should have been, & they are bewildered that they could have spent so many years in blind pursuit of trivial & wholly meaningless accomplishments, that they touched so many lives & added not one thing of value to any of them.
This need not be your story. For you will look back. And you will see honestly what you may be quite confused about now. Instead of waiting until it is truly too late, you could have such a moment now. Stand back from your life & see it as it is at present. Picture yourself on your deathbed with nothing else to do but look. Continue this long enough to consider & receive one simple idea: That you know precisely how to balance your life. You know how to hold a job & be fair to the people you work with, how to be a good friend to old friends & new, how to be a real parent, & at the same time how to let your partner see that you are present, you are there, one who accepts & appreciates, one who does not judge, & especially one who has no notion of what it could possibly mean to be too devoted.
You will not magically have an increase in intelligence when your time of dying draws near. Whatever you will see then, you can see now. You have made the decision to join with one other living being, & so naturally love must begin at the starting point you have chosen. You have said, & you truly meant it, that you take this person's hand to walk through life, through all it brings, together, that together your strength is great. And there can be no doubt that the World needs your example of love. So give it freely, because herein lies your personal happiness also.
Love begins with your chosen partner & then flows gently outward to your children, your parents, your friends, & all other living things. Conflict & competition are no more a part of love than they are of sunlight or rain. Like a fountain, love must begin; like a waterfall, it must continue. So of course you put your partner's happiness first--there is only one happiness. How could your children know love if their mother & father have none? There is only one love, one kindness. How could you touch the lives of your employer or colleagues in the gentle way you wish if your very house & resting place contains no peace?
And this is what you will see in your final days, or now, whichever you choose. During this holy instant you will confuse yourself no longer with concepts of one love for parent, another for spouse, one for the oldest child, another for the youngest, one for your work, & one for your marriage. As you look in quiet release of all the future's clamouring, you will know that love is love, & either you put love first or you fail to do so.
The Parts of Your Relationship
Love allows us to forgive, to let go of the past. But it does not reform. It will not make our partner into the idol of our fantasies or home us in on the individual we deserve instead. Love is felt in our heart & it treats the heart of our partner benevolently. It seeks no external evidence for its existence, no confirmation in another body's behaviour.
What is thought of as love, what is described in the lyrics of songs & displayed on the quivering lips of soap opera stars, is a very misty & immature view & has little to do with "being good at relationships." Such an expertise does exist, but it is learned. It begins with an effort, because the mind must choose to turn from selfishness in each of its specific allures. No battle is required, but concentration is needed to see the decision through.
Love--to the degree we are capable of it--is not enough. People who truly love each other break up all the time. The population as a whole is remarkably unimpressed with the skills of relating. In learning to ski, one does not fling oneself wishfully down the mountain. But in forming relationships people do fling themselves & are always surprised at where they land.
Now we will center on the specific strengths that no one is born with, the ones that must be acquired, & also on the state of mind that begins to develop when a couple has made a sustained effort.
Once you learn to be of help specifically, you gradually become one who could not do otherwise. Then the means & devices of concentration will be redundant. Once you have learned to take each other seriously, you will see no difference between you, & help & happiness will be given & received without decision. Then will it be true that "all you need is love," because to need any other attitude will have become unthinkable.
Feeling the Relationship from its Past
Unless you have chosen a saint, your partner is going to change. It is not realistic to expect that any human will remain the same in the course of a permanent relationship. You too will change. And this will cause differences between you. Issues will arise & possibly there will be some long unhappy periods that must be weathered. But if you persist, there also will come discernible progress toward real friendship & love. Outward changes in tastes, interests & pursuits can become as unaffecting as shifting cloud cover or the cycles of leaves. What is different in you cannot join & will always change, but what is alike in you can join with what is alike in your companion, for the heart reaches Heaven & cannot separate from Love.
The decision for a permanent relationship is the decision to see the storms through that will arise. Of course one can think of extreme situations that should not be endured, but even children perceive that most separations need not occur. There is no deep reason for it other than a couple's belief that they could do better & have a right to do better, that the World should be different for them. But of course the World rarely ends up being different.
Most couples begin their relationship with genuine goodwill & see quite well the goodness that the other has at heart. As time passes, disagreements come but do not entirely go, & to these are added a periodic act or neglect that takes on the dimensions of an outrage in the mind of one of the partners. This person cannot forget what has happened, & his or her unwillingness to forgive becomes an issue in the mind of the other partner equally as grave & may even seem to provide justification for a repeated offense. Thus the grievances, large & small, slowly mount, the partners grow further apart, until at last they seem to have almost nothing in common & no real reason to try to come back together. What they had in the beginning is looked back on as mutual deception, or the mere perceptions of immaturity, & what they see in each other now as reality. They find the thought of a deep union with this person repulsive & would rather keep their means of staying at a distance intact or end the relationship altogether than try to understand. They think that if they forgive they will have to spend more time together & it is already bad enough. Can this marriage be saved?
But regardless of what changes were made, forgiveness is essential to the healing of emotional damage, & this is equally true of the accumulated anger & discouragement in any long-term relationship.
How Many Alterations Does Your Partner Need?
The most common approach to solving issues permanently is to "learn to live with it" or, if referring to the matter does not cause too great a flare-up, to make periodic bitter little asides. Neither tactic ends the mental skirmishing, nor does it usually stop the behaviour that has been singled out. The toothpaste is not squeezed from the bottom, one spouse still exaggerates when telling others what something cost, socks continue to be put in the laundry wrong side out, one partner constantly interrupts, or the first of every month toenail clippings are found in the bed.
More than once we have heard individuals cite one of the foregoing as the primary reason they walked out, walking out supposedly being the ultimate permanent solution. Although they may have believed this was the cause, obviously no one would be so narrow-minded as to focus on the location of a clipped toenail & discount everything else. Nevertheless, these kinds of issues can grow to surprising dimensions because they become symbols of each other's lack of concern. At first one partner notices that the other eats with his or her mouth open but thinks little of it; a few years later that person is bolting from the table whenever it happens. The offending party believes the issue so petty as to be undeserving of attention & therefore frequently "forgets."
In everyone's journey, the time must come when the searching stops & happiness begins. This starting point is reached with the realisation, or the suspicion, at least, that our mind is more powerful than circumstances. It is true that we allow ourselves to be made miserable by the most amazingly insignificant happenings, but when we "put our mind to it," even in the grossly undisciplined states that most minds are in, we can remain ourselves under remarkably trying circumstances.
Very few burst into tears or slip into a murderous rage while in the dentist's chair. And yet the melodrama of the mouth will never end. You didn't like having your teeth brushed when you were two & you won't like having dentures when you are 82, & in between are more years of dental appointments than years of marriage. You have been in this chair before, you are in it now, & you will be in it again. You have merely "set your mind" to getting through the appointment, & you do, with surprising equanimity & politeness.
This is the outcome because (1) it was your decision to go & so you climbed onto the chair with relatively little conflict, (2) you concentrated on remaining calm, & (3) you forgave the situation & people involved & did not carry any deep grudges with you when you left. Is the way your spouse slurps soup truly worse than having a needle jabbed into your cheek or a drill descend into your nerve tissue?
If you "have a mind to", you can endure whatever your spouse does with the same equanimity & politeness & afterward allow what happened in the past to remain in the past. But you will not do this unless you "enter with a will."
Rather than letting one or more of these outrages continue to be outrageous, if your partner is not agreeable, then sit down by yourself & decide what kind of person you are & how you will remain yourself during any future episodes of your partner's behaviour. Perhaps picture in detail the way your spouse might act & imagine equally as vividly your ability to be one who is understanding, one who is a friend, one who has a mind & is not just a set of trite reactions.
If there is a great deal of unhappiness in your relationship, you must decide whether you wish to go down with the ship--even if you are angry. Be aware of the urge to sacrifice what you can have in the name of what you cannot. It may be necessary for you to carry this relationship by yourself for a very long time. This was Gayle's role in the early years of our marriage because of the lack of respect for one's partner I was taught by virtually every member of my family, step-relatives as well as relatives, most of whom have been married at least 3 times. Gayle did not leave; neither did she sink to the level of my conditioning. She knew that waiting for me was as good as searching for another, & so she waited & worked on herself.
Nothing is accomplished by living under one roof with the same body year after year. Neither is there gain in switching bodies. Nor in living alone. Appearances are not as important as your mental state, which remains unchanged for as long as any external circumstance preoccupies you.
How Does Your Partner Work to Torment You?
Perhaps you begin most days in a fairly good state of mind but then something happens & a slight downward spiral begins. More often than not it may seem to you that your partner is the cause of the problem & that if it were not for how this person usually behaves, you would be more consistently happy.
It is unlikely that your partner's goal in life is to sabotage your happiness. He or she may be quite inventive, but except in horror stories, most people are simply too selfish to take the time to torture another individual every day. Yet you may feel as if this person goes out of the way to make life hard for you. As a first step, please see that no one is that consistently perverse. There must be some other factor besides the utter iniquity of your partner.
The mistake most individuals make is to reason backward from their bad mood to the bad motivation of their spouse. The mind thinks that unhappiness is always externally produced, & since one's spouse is the most convenient external, he or she is assumed to be the cause. But in relationships the problem does not stop there. If a cloud rains on our picnic, we have no animosity toward the cloud, but if our spirits are dampened because our mate is not exciting enough, we conclude that this person could be more exciting if he or she would only try. We see the lack of effort as an attack on us & never stop to question if this is even the cause of our unhappiness.
You will not know love & oneness as long as you attribute your partner's behaviour to shabby motives. There are two intents for every act & you must learn to overlook the first in preference of the second. Honor the gesture of heart behind the behaviour. This is not a complicated task.
How Poison Enters the Mind
Anger, fear & judgement are protected by the belief that they are externally produced, & yet once your experience begins to cast doubt on this assumption, the power to be happy can develop quite rapidly.
At some point in the day, & perhaps earlier than might be expected, you accept as fact a little thought that wanders into the mind. Instead of passing through uneventfully like most of the others, this idea is held on to & its meaning is accepted & believed. Now it becomes like a slow-acting poison taken into the mouth. While it remains in your system it infects every aspect of you & your relationship. It sets a mood & then you react from that mood, & your partner reacts back. You are dealing here with a very normal human pattern & one that is almost unconscious.
The tipoff that you have taken an unnatural thought to heart is that you will eventually feel anxious, irritated or judgmental over something that happens. Whenever any of these 3 basic components is present, you can be sure that no matter when you accepted it, the generating thought is in the background & can still be detected.
Alerting Yourself to the Blocks to Happiness
To this end we would like to suggest a procedure we have used ourselves & found quite effective.--An imagery in which you picture an alarm system, lightweight & comfortable, placed on your head. It monitors your thoughts & when it detects any that are fearful, judgmental or angry, an alarm of your choice (bell, siren, police whistle, flashing red light, etc.) will come on. To turn it off all you need do is interrupt the idea. If later, even only a few seconds later, you begin thinking along the same lines, the bell (or whatever other signal you have set it to give) will sound again, & again your only function is to not complete the thought. (Editor: 2Cor.10:4,5)
A great deal of work must be done before you can see with complete honesty that your partner cannot make you unhappy. Yet, as you may already know, your thoughts about your partner can become the most punishing of hells. The aim of your efforts is not to prevent breakup. Neither is it to start a war with your mind. Rather it is to begin looking for solutions where most people never think to look--in one's personal commitment to peace & love. Nothing your friend does can thwart such a commitment because it is not based on behaviour or circumstances. Love does not have to be honoured or even received to continue being love. You can be the kind of person you wish because your state of mind, & therefore your happiness & your power to bless, is within your control. But good intentions will continue to slip from your grasp until you see the link between idle thoughts & how you feel.
How to Resolve Issues
Unfinished Arguments Accumulate: It's not the issues that don't get resolved. Indeed they are settled but settled like ketchup settles into the carpet. An uncleaned carpet can triple in weight within five years, & most relationships get so laden with undigested arguments that they collapse into a dull, angry stupor & cease to move toward their original goal.
It's important to purge the relationship of its accumulated ill will. If, however, a new wake of resentments & failings continues to be laid, very soon the couple will find themselves in identical straits. Hence the need to have some means of arguing in peace & leaving behind an encouraging history of real friendship.
To resolve issues in the usual way is as damaging to a relationship as not resolving them at all, because the gap is not truly bridged & the unsuccessful attempt merely adds more weight to the couple's doubts about each other.
The past that drives so many relationships into the ground is built piece by piece, smallness fitted to smallness, selfishness answered with selfishness. Yet the process is largely unconscious. Each couple quickly settles into a few sad methods of conducting arguments, but seldom is the means they use thought through or the results closely examined. One person nags, the other relents. One person reasons, the other becomes silent. One person flares, the other backs down. One person cajoles, the other gives in. But where are the joy & grandeur, where is the friendship that was supposed to flourish, the companionship that through the years was to fuse an invulnerable bond, a solace & a blessing at the close of life? Instead there is a bitter & widening wedge between the two, & even the briefest of discussions contains a hundred dark echoes from the past.
No matter how entrenched are our patterns of problem solving, they can be stepped away from easily once we see that they do not serve our interests. The only interest served in most discussions is to be right. But, truly, how deep is this? Do we actually want to make our partner wrong, to defeat a friend, & slowly to defeat a friendship? It certainly may feel that way. Caught up once again in the emotions of a disagreement, we stride doggedly toward our usual means of concluding every argument: Adamant silence, crushing logic, patronising practicality, collapsed crying, quelling anger, martyred acquiescence, loveless humour, sulking retreat.
These postures & a thousand more are attempts to prove a point other than love, & as with all endeavors to show up one's partner, the friendship itself is the victim, because the friendship becomes a mere tool, a means of making the other person feel guilty. The love our partner has for us is now seen as leverage, & in our quiet or noisy way we set about making the relationship a shambles, not realising that we ourselves are part of the wreckage.
To Agree is not the Purpose
The aim of most arguments is to reach outward agreement. Until that is replaced with a desire for friendship, varying degrees of alienation will be the only lasting outcome. Couples quickly develop a sense of helplessness over the pattern that their discussions have fallen into. They believe they are sincerely attempting to break out of it & are simply failing. They try different responses, going from shouting to silence, from interminable talking to walking out of the room, from considering each point raised to sticking tenaciously to one point, but nothing they do seems to alter the usual unhappy ending.
There is no behavioral formula to reversing the habitual course of an argument. It requires a shift in attitude, not in actions, even though actions will modify in the process. No more is needed than one partner's absolute clarity about the purpose of the argument. This is not easy but it is simple. Therefore let us look again at what the aim should be.
Certainly it would make no sense to have a purpose for an argument that is opposed to the purpose of the relationship, & yet for each to try to be right or to get his or her way is not a relationship, it is a separation, & there is a limit to how many of these can be sustained before friendship is turned into a mere alliance between enemies. In a real relationship, broad areas of communication are not kept outside the desires of the heart, & the percentage of any couple's life taken up in mutually affecting decision making is not only broad but pervasive. It cannot remain an exception if there is to be any hope of dependable ease & comfort.
The only allowable purpose for a discussion is to bring you & your partner closer. Minds must come together to decide instead of backing away in order to apply pressure. How is this possible, given the fact that you & your partner are selfish by nature? Fortunately, you need not eliminate it; merely bypass it because you recognise that it is not in your interests to be selfish. To the natural mind, this concept is insane because it sees no value in love. But love is in your interests because love is the bonding force, the glue, that makes two people become one in a relationship.
An issue could be said to pass through five stages in reaching resolution. First, it must be thought of by at least one of the partners as an issue. Second, a moment is chosen to bring the matter up. Third, a decision is made as to the manner in which it will be presented. Fourth, there is an exchange of thoughts & feelings. And fifth, the discussion is concluded.
Most couples give very little thought to the first 3 stages. They simply find themselves in the thick of a so-called spontaneous argument & no one is certain at which point it began.
Five Steps in Preparing to Argue
First, you might ask yourself if the issue you are thinking of is actually a present issue or merely one you have been reminded of. Many people habitually rake over their marriage for signs of imperfection & naturally they find a great many, but it can be far more disrupting to friendship to be constantly questioning & comparing than to wait to see if the problem continues in any severe way.
The next step is to consider if this is the time. If you feel an urge to bring it up quickly, be very alert to anger. If your partner has just done something & this is the issue, clearly he or she is likely to be more defensive if instantly asked about it. If your partner is not in a particularly happy frame of mind, is hostile, worried or depressed, a more receptive state will surely come & nothing is lost by waiting.
The next step is to be certain that communication is your aim. Trying to get someone to change is not communication because you have already decided the change is needed. Your partner is therefore left with nothing to say & will definitely feel your unwillingness to consider, to listen, to appreciate. So before you speak, take time to consider things from your partner's viewpoint.
The final point to consider is whether you are clear that the problem is the relationship's & not your partner's. One person's jealousy, appetite, hypersensitivity, frigidity, fear or any other characteristic that has become an issue cannot successfully be viewed as more one's responsibility than the other's because friendship is always a mutual sharing of all burdens.
Rules of Arguing
Have peace & concentration. Before you begin, eliminate as many distractions as possible, Sit down if you can, unplug the phone, & perhaps close your eyes for a moment & bring your minds to rest. (Editor: Pray!)
State your position. Both of you must take a stand before there can be a disagreement. You now wish to lay it out where it is accessible to you both. The first step is to describe the stand you have taken without trying to sound right. Be open & honest, but as much as is possible avoid building a case & implying that what you say is well founded, just, proper, reasonable or fair. Simply give your position without embellishment.
Listen. Allow your partner to be at ease while he or she is talking. Do not wait tensely for your turn, because this will be felt. Certainly do not interrupt, for don't you already know what you have to say? What you do not know is what your partner is saying. You may think you have heard it all before, but if you had heard any of it before, this discussion would be unnecessary. Many honestly believe they are listening when in fact they are merely thinking defensively, watching the other for signs of aggression & positioning themselves for another attack. Listen with the heart, not the intellect or the memory.
Remember Love. In an argument that burdens the relationship rather than lightens it, each partner takes a stand & in effect says, "You must come to my side, you must bow to me," & any concession made feels like giving in. After you have each stated your positions, close your eyes & make an all-out attempt to take your attention off your partner's weaknesses--selfishness, obstinacy, anger, whatever it may be--& turn your gaze to what you saw, & is still there to see, of this person's goodness. To remember that you love someone with whom you are angry can require a great effort.
Consider once again the issue that is between you & your partner. What can you do to dissolve this one barrier? What are you willing to do? If the issue is financial, are you willing to modify your spending habits & in what ways specifically would you do that?
The major block to being open to new alternatives is the desire to continue being right. Solution literally is not wanted because as long as the issue stays alive, each partner can be virtuous, logical, martyred, vindictive or whatever other form being right takes. See through this insanity quickly & know how much better you like the feeling of closeness.
Protect Your Gains. Let the entire argument end in peace & ease. And when it is over, protect your gains by not gnawing on every word spoken, every decision made. You did your best, as did your partner, & now honour the peace you gained & resist the urge to dive back into loveless reassessment & second-guessing.
Expect very little from your first few planned arguments. You do not have in your hands a magic wand. But each effort will help somewhat, & even one success can help immeasurably.
For most couples, "to work at" means to be willing to endure the misery. It does not mean to study & to repeatedly start over until what has not been learned is finally learned. Marriage is not a candy store where we are waited on & can concern ourselves merely with what we get. And yet isn't this how most people talk about their relationships, citing all they are not getting, never citing all they are not giving? If you believe nothing else in this book please believe this: There is not one real relationship on this Earth that came into being without study, humility & concentration.
Avoid the Past
The thought, "This is not the way my mother cooked hash browns" is the same in its effect as, "He's just like my father, he's never quite pleased." Our absorption with any aspect of our past prevents us from seeing accurately what our mate does. It is very important that you accept this idea as a working hypothesis even if you do not yet see the extent to which you are reacting from your past. If you can merely assume some degree of distortion in all your perceptions you will not be as quick to judge, as quick to take stands & be right, as quick to turn away & be discouraged, & this will provide a little space in which healing can begin.
Unlearning the Roles of Husband & Wife
Children do not learn the husband & wife roles in some abstract form. They see how this wife & this husband are treated, & to the children this is simply the way it is & therefore the way it should be.
As a child, I learned how to break up, not how to stay together, because this is essentially what my mother & father were in the process of doing for the 8 years that I saw them relating to each other. I learned the words & tone of voice one uses to inflict pain & on what occasions one does this. I learned over what issues one becomes silently angry, how one goes about staying away & how to withdraw while still in the house. God forbid that your children should learn such things from you!
Insight: A Gift or a Weapon
After the initial period of romantic euphoria is over & a little time has passed in relative clear-mindedness, most couples quickly develop a fairly accurate picture of each other. Although this spells the beginning of more open conflict, as each partner observes the other, they move into a position where they can now be of enormous help to one another.
Yet as you know, this is seldom the outcome, because instead of using their knowledge to help & comfort, it is usually employed as a weapon. During disagreements great & small, surprising skill is exhibited by both in going straight to the other's weakness. Over & over the blind areas are hit, & through the months & years a friend is gradually turned into a stranger.
We are all familiar with the many passing comments couples make in public about each other's sexual ineptitudes, lack of cooking skills, stinginess, tardiness, physical deficiencies, & other areas of sensitivity. Couples kid, complain, interrupt, & correct each other in a sad attempt to vent old angers & redress grievances, but please note that these attacks are not at random. Each knows well the weaknesses that the other does not wish exposed, & those of course are the ones most joked about.
If only we could experience pleasure of another sort--that which comes from protecting our partner's happiness in vulnerable situations, & then using only in private our good intuitions for good ends. Revenge, no matter how mild or humorously disguised, is not satisfying.
Neither Bait nor Rise to the Bait
Our tired & bloodied ideal that every perceived attack must be met with counter-attack needs to be reappraised. Defensiveness is not practical. Why attempt to protect a part of yourself you do not want anyway? Therefore receive willingly any insight your partner brings you. Listen to it profoundly. Be not quick to close your mind merely because you discover some flaw in what is said. And do not brood on it later. All this will be harder at first than you may anticipate, but if you persist you will surely grow.
On the other side, the one who wishes to share what he or she has observed should follow certain common sense guidelines similar to those used in resolving issues.
1) Do not make references to your partner's behaviour when either of you is irritated. The hand must be open to receive. So wait for a mood between you that is somewhat supportive of such efforts.
2) Treat the subject with respect & importance. Do not refer to his or her problems flippantly.
3) Be very gentle in your approach. Your friend is doing the best he or she can.
Blame & criticism do not inspire someone to be more financially responsible. Being criticised by the one whose affections he or she is afraid of losing will not make a jealous spouse less apprehensive. A husband who is impotent cannot be set free by becoming an object of pity or disgust in his wife's eyes. A wife's urge to chase after other men is not weakened by being met with anger at home. And to stop giving support to one's spouse does not make him or her a more caring parent.
These facts must become obvious if love is to extend throughout a relationship. The couple who wish to have real friendship view the difficulty as their joint responsibility & set forth together to calm the troubled area.
What you & your partner wish to do is to become like two scientists looking at an unfamiliar germ. Assume nothing about it except that it is smaller than the two of you. Discuss it & look at it as outside the bond between you, for truly it is. Make the problem the stranger & not each other. "What are we going to do about this little intruder? I am willing to try these things. What might you do & can you think of anything else I could try?" Thus the difficulty becomes a way of coming together still further.
How's Your Sex Life?
No one ever knows what "good sex" is. There is no trace of agreement on how frequently it ought to occur, what percentage of the activity should be devoted to foreplay, whether it should be planned or spontaneous, whether climaxes are necessary, if it is best if they are simultaneous, or from what part of the body they should arise.
The little picture of ideal sex that is now in most people's minds--& therefore the level of sex they think they personally deserve--comes mostly from movies & adult TV. And these scenes are faked!
There are countless ways for two people to share & be together. Sex is just one of them. It is not, as it has been made out to be, an intrinsically better or more meaningful way. Talking together, walking together, eating together, going out together, playing with the baby together, sleeping together, driving together, entertaining together, having sexual intercourse together, & any of a thousand other ways of joining can at any time be singled out, burdened with expectations, & made into a little hell--but this is never necessary.
Be fair to your partner & to yourself about this. So convinced are most people that they know exactly what they are due sexually that if they note their partner deviating in the least, they throw up their hands & say, "You are impossible."
In many long-term relationships, the core problem is simply that lovemaking has become such an unhappy & conflicted event that it takes place very rarely if at all, & this seeming failure weighs heavily on the couple. They cannot talk peacefully about the subject & feel they must be either dishonest or joke quite cruelly about it to others. Confessions are made to friends & time & again the partner is betrayed in these conversations.
When this problem is present it is sometimes easiest simply to start your sexual life over. Pretend you are living in the sixties & have just met. Or imagine you know absolutely nothing about sex, your own body, or the bodies of those of the opposite sex.
An affair does not leave a scar on a relationship, but a scar can definitely be maintained in the mind. Like a jailer keeping guard over his prisoner, we cannot hold our partner in the past without remaining there also.
Would you not rather turn from the past & teach innocence? Ask the Lord to help you so you may show your partner that you are willing to forgive & forget. If the circumstances were reversed, would not such a friend be easier to walk forward with, one who teaches that the answer is more important than the mistake?
Whenever a list of the most common marital problems is published, issues over money often head the list. Yet how could this be? Isn't money just strips of paper with funny faces? Like sex, physical appearance, romance & other possessions, money is closely linked in people's minds with happiness. If we could have anything in the World we wanted we would be happy--or so it is believed by most. But since no one ever has or could find himself in that position, the corollary belief is that the more we have, the happier we are.
The fact that there is not one atom of evidence to support this has not deterred the human race from believing it ardently for thousands of years. "Money buys things. More money buys more & better things. You are the reason I have less money. You are the cause of my unhappiness." And indeed this insane logic keeps a very large percentage of long-term relationships in turmoil.
Row your financial boat gently down the stream. Nothing is proved by struggling against earning, saving, & budgeting. Be prudent as well as generous, because the two are not in conflict.
Many are the ways that couples use children to make themselves unhappy. The essence of these problems, as with all others, is that a new range of excuses is found for the couple to turn against each other. Very often, because of the baby's need to be with its mother, to be held by her, breast-fed & so forth, a pattern develops of the woman being left with all the responsibilities & chores that childcare entails.
The woman no longer has time to do any of the things that make her happy, she & her husband are apart much of the time, she is tired, her appearance may not be what she would like, & the baby, not yet much of a companion, cannot make up for it.
If it is at all possible, time should be regularly scheduled for the two of you to be alone together in ways that are relaxing & pleasurable so that the separation of bodies that an infant often causes does not take on an unhealthy pattern that in the years to come is never quite shaken.
Another pattern that you should be alert to is the woman, because she is the mother, coming to believe that she knows better than her husband about all things concerning childcare. There is no one way to do anything, & both partners must learn to trust & to let the other do it his or her own way during that person's time to be with the child. Unless you believe that it will truly damage the child in some long-term way, remember that love between its mother & father is more important to it than whether its chin is clean, it sleeps on its stomach or back, or is tossed in the air 3 days before the childcare experts recommend.
Becoming as a Child
Most older couples do not realise how influenced they have been by the values of our time & how absolutely they turn against each other. Instead of being a friend & helping one another age happily, they shut off the gestures that are most needed. Perhaps this is why the elderly frequently turn to children with such ardor. A young child will not recoil. They are not afraid to touch old people, to kiss them on the mouth, to say they like their hat, or to ask if their swollen fingers hurt & to discuss it all with them.
Very often small children recognise the priceless gifts that older people have to offer: Time & full attention. Most younger adults never give their children absolute time. They talk or play while partly engaged in some other task or they good-naturedly endure the wasted minutes until they can get to things of greater interest or concern. As they age, many people become increasingly aware that one thing the World has plenty of is time. Before, it seemed to be always running out. But this was an illusion created by running people.
If the older couple could take what they have learned & give it to each other, these truly could be "golden years." But each waits for the other to make the first gesture or shuts down if the initial efforts are not honoured with sufficient thanks & efforts in return. There is an alternative: To start in little quiet ways, & to yield not to depression & discouragement. Just a little touching, with great sensitivity to what is wanted; a few appreciations shown more warmly, more genuinely; an offer perhaps to take over a task not traditionally your own & then carried out easily & with the pleasure that comes of helping. Naturally these attempts will feel strained & insincere at first. But kindness is more important than a moment's awkwardness.
The elderly couple have lived a real life. They have tried out many ideals & know that the unworkable does not work. Consequently they have great potential for perspective. Do not lose this opportunity.
Now is the occasion for friendship. Look softly at one another, see the burden, & lightly brush it from your companion's shoulders. There are places only you know how to reach. Be each other's healer & saint. Your hands can still touch, your words can bring comfort, your eyes can smile away the fears.