The most important factor in a relationship

Communication, no matter how open, transparent and disciplined, will always break down at some point. Conflicts are ultimately unavoidable, and feelings will always be hurt.

And the only thing that can save you and your partner, that can cushion you both to the hard landing of human fallibility, is an unerring respect for one another, the fact that you hold each other in high esteem, believe in one another — often more than you each believe in yourselves — and trust that your partner is doing his/her best with what they’ve got.

Without that bedrock of respect underneath you, you will doubt each other’s intentions. You will judge their choices and encroach on their independence. You will feel the need to hide things from one another for fear of criticism. And this is when the cracks in the edifice begin to appear.

You must also respect yourself. Because without that self-respect, you will not feel worthy of the respect afforded by your partner. You will be unwilling to accept it and you will find ways to undermine it. You will constantly feel the need to compensate and prove yourself worthy of love, which will just backfire.

Respect for your partner and respect for yourself are intertwined. As a reader named Olov put it, “Respect yourself and your wife. Never talk badly to or about her. If you don’t respect your wife, you don’t respect yourself. You chose her – live up to that choice.”

Mark Manson writing in Business Insider 

Why some Couples Endure

There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many relationships, it’s often a breakdown of kindness. As the normal stresses of a life together pile up—with children, career, friend, in-laws, and other distractions crowding out the time for romance and intimacy—couples may put less effort into their relationship and let the petty grievances they hold against one another tear them apart. In most marriages, levels of satisfaction drop dramatically within the first few years together. But among couples who not only endure, but live happily together for years and years, the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.

Emily Esfahani Smith writing in The Atlantic

Kindness glues couples together

Research has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

There are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.

Emily Esfahani Smith writing in The Atlantic 

We Seek Familiarity

We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite as simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness.

We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating.

As adults, we may then reject certain healthy candidates whom we encounter, not because they are wrong, but precisely because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable), and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien, almost oppressive. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways.

We marry the wrong people because the right ones feel wrong – undeserved; because we have no experience of health, because we don’t ultimately associate being loved with feeling satisfied.

The Philosophers’ Mail

Our Difficult Side

Knowledge of our own neuroses is not at all easy to come by. It can take years and situations we have had no experience of.  Prior to marriage, we’re rarely involved in dynamics that properly hold up a mirror to our disturbances. Whenever more casual relationships threaten to reveal the ‘difficult’ side of our natures, we tend to blame the partner – and call it a day. As for our friends, they predictably don’t care enough about us to have any motive to probe our real selves. They only want a nice evening out. Therefore, we end up blind to the awkward sides of our natures. On our own, when we’re furious, we don’t shout, as there’s no one there to listen – and therefore we overlook the true, worrying strength of our capacity for fury. Or we work all the time without grasping, because there’s no one calling us to come for dinner, how we manically use work to gain a sense of control over life – and how we might cause hell if anyone tried to stop us. At night, all we’re aware of is how sweet it would be to cuddle with someone, but we have no opportunity to face up to the intimacy-avoiding side of us that would start to make us cold and strange if ever it felt we were too deeply committed to someone. One of the greatest privileges of being on one’s own is the flattering illusion that one is, in truth, really quite an easy person to live with.

The Philosophers’ Mail

Figuring out What’s Wrong with our Prospective Mate

Other people are stuck at the same low level of self-knowledge as we are. However well-meaning they might be, they too are in no position to grasp, let alone inform us, of what is wrong with them.

Naturally, we make a stab at trying to know them. We go and visit their families, perhaps the place they first went to school. We look at photos, we meet their friends. All this contributes to a sense we’ve done our homework. But it’s like a novice pilot assuming they can fly after sending a paper plane successfully around the room.

We need to know the intimate functioning of the psyche of the person we’re planning to marry. We need to know their attitudes to, or stance on, authority, humiliation, introspection, sexual intimacy, projection, money, children, aging, fidelity and a hundred things besides. This knowledge won’t be available via a standard chat.

In the absence of all this, we are led – in large part – by what they look like. There seems to be so much information to be gleaned from their eyes, nose, shape of forehead, distribution of freckles, smiles… But this is about as wise as thinking that a photograph of the outside of a power station can tell us everything we need to know about nuclear fission.

The Philosophers’ Mail

Feeling Like Getting Married

Part of the reason we feel like getting married is to interrupt the all-consuming grip that love has over our psyches. We are exhausted by the melodramas and thrills that go nowhere. We are restless for other challenges. We hope that marriage can conclusively end love’s painful rule over our lives.

It can’t and won’t: there is as much doubt, hope, fear, rejection and betrayal in a marriage as there is in single life. It’s only from the outside that a marriage looks peaceful, uneventful and nicely boring.

The Philosophers’ Mail

Embracing Rituals

Rituals help people transition through what would otherwise be a tumultuous period of their lives. And they let people savor the milestone they have just reached.

Creating stability at times of chaos: Though people associate events like graduations and weddings with joy, these moments also represent chaotic, potentially frightening life transitions. A wedding brings together two people to start a new, interdependent life. Graduation marks leaving the familiar world of school for the unknown world of work and grown-up responsibilities. Funerals and birthdays are two more examples.

In all four cases, there is a before and an after, as people leave their old world and enter into a new, uncertain one — and those transitions can breed anxiety.

It's easy to think that rituals like weddings are pointless and overdone. But that big cake, sparkling white dress or bouquet toss are helping us move through life in a positive and healthy way. There's no need to apologize for embracing it.

Emily Esfahani Smith writing in Mic

And how are you mad?

When first looking out for a partner, the requirements we come up with are coloured by a beautiful non-specific sentimental vagueness: we’ll say we really want to find someone who is ‘kind’ or ‘fun to be with’, ‘attractive’ or ‘up for adventure…’

It isn’t that such desires are wrong, they are just not remotely precise enough in their understanding of what we in particular are going to require in order to stand a chance of being happy – or, more accurately, not consistently miserable.

All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature, but don’t know quite the details because no one ever encourages us too hard to find them out. An urgent, primary task of any lover is therefore to get a handle on the specific ways in which they are mad. They have to get up to speed on their individual neuroses. They have to grasp where these have come from, what they make them do – and most importantly, what sort of people either provoke or assuage them. A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.

The very idea that we might not be too difficult as people should set off alarm bells in any prospective partner. The question is just where the problems will lie: perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us, or we can only relax when we are working, or we’re a bit tricky around intimacy after sex, or we’ve never been so good at explaining what’s going on when we’re worried. It’s these sort of issues that – over decades – create catastrophes and that we therefore need to know about way ahead of time, in order to look out for people who are optimally designed to withstand them. A standard question on any early dinner date should be quite simply: ‘And how are you mad?’

The Philosophers’ Mail

 

4 Ways to tell if your Relationship will Survive

John Gottman runs Seattle’s Love Lab. He believes he can accurately predict which couples stay together based on his lab studies, and his guesses largely revolves around supportive/destructive comments. So destructive is the effect of certain behaviors on marital happiness, in fact, that he calls these behaviors The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The first horseman is criticism: "attacking someone's personality or character" rather than making some specific complaint about his or her behavior. The difference between saying, say, "I wish you had taken care of that bill" (a healthy and specific complaint) and "You never get the bills paid on time!" (a generalizing and blaming attack) is very significant to the listener. Criticism often engenders criticism in return and sets the stage for the second horseman: contempt.

"What separates contempt from criticism," explains Gottman, "is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner." Negative thoughts about the other come out in subtle put-downs, hostile jokes, mocking facial expressions, and name-calling ("You are such an idiot around money"). By now the positive qualities that attracted you to this person seem long ago and far away, and instead of trying to build intimacy, you're ushering in the third horseman. Defensiveness comes on the heels of contempt as a seemingly reasonable response to attack -- but it only makes things worse. By denying responsibility, making excuses, whining, tossing back counter-attacks, and other strategies ("How come I'm the one who always pays the bills?!"), you just accelerate your speed down river.

Once stonewalling (the fourth horseman) shows up, things are looking bleak. Stonewallers simply stop communicating, refusing to respond even in self-defense. Of course, all these "horsemen" drop in on couples once in a while. But when a partner habitually shuts down and withdraws, the final rapids of negativity can quickly propel the marriage through whirlpools of hopelessness, isolation, and loneliness. The bottom line is that flooding is physically uncomfortable, and stonewalling becomes an attempt to escape that discomfort. When flooding becomes chronic, stonewalling can become chronic, too. Eighty-five percent of the time the stonewaller (among heterosexual couples) is the man. Though flooding happens to both men and women, it affects men more quickly, more intensely, and for a longer period of time.

Repair attempts are a way of talking about how you're communicating with each other. "Can we please stay on the subject?" "That was a rude thing to say." "We're not talking about your father!" "I don't think you're listening to me." Such statements, even when delivered in a grouchy or complaining tone, are efforts to interrupt the cycle of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling and to bring the conversation back on track.

"In stable relationships," explains Gottman, "the other person will respond favorably: 'Alright, alright. Finish.' The agreement isn't made very nicely. But it does stop the person. They listen, they accept the repair attempt, and they actually change" the way they're relating. Repair attempts are "really critical," says Gottman, because "everybody screws up. Everybody gets irritated, defensive, contemptuous. People insult one another," especially their spouses. Repair attempts are a way of saying "we've got to fix this before it slides any deeper into the morass." Even people in bad marriages make repair attempts; the problem is, they get ignored.

Training people to receive repair attempts favorably -- even in the middle of a heated argument -- is one of the new frontiers in relationship therapy. According to Gottman, "Even when things are going badly, you've got to focus not on the negativity but on the repair attempt. That's what couples do in happy marriages."

Gloria Blanchfield Thomas, Contemplating Marriage: Reader

The Paradox of Emotions

“A desire (or emotion) is turned not to itself but to its object. Not only that, but it owes all its character to its object.. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, coarse or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful.”

Those words were penned by CS Lewis.

In other words, if you want to love your wife then concentrate--not on love--but on her.

If you wish more faith in God, do not concentrate on faith. Focus on God.

Stephen Goforth

the image

As Americans, we're obsessed with images. Who we are isn't as important as how we appear. In fact, we spend so much time and effort on appearances, we lose the ability to recognize the true identity of another person, or even ourselves. We've become more familiar with the image than we are with the real thing.

Dating relationships are especially vulnerable to this problem. A person isn't evaluated on character or individuality, but on how close he or she measures up to the other's image of the ideal mate. Real people take second chair to the ideal; they measure up to the image or they don't.

Have you ever noticed the excitement at the beginning of a romance that later faded with growing familiarity? In the early stages of any new friendship, we're usually seeing more of the image than we are of the real person. We've seen enough of the surface to see similarities between the object of our affections and the ideal we seek, but not enough to show us that our ideal and the new friend are not the same person. In essence, we're falling in love with the image, with the idea that this one person might be "it." Sooner or later the real person is going to start breaking through that image, and disillusionment will set in.

The success of a marriage comes not in finding the "right" person, but in the ability of both partners to adjust to the real person they inevitably realize they married. Some people never make this adjustment, becoming trapped in an endless search for an image that does not exist.

John Fischer, Real Christians Don’t Dance!

Savage Love

It may be objected that marriage must then be simply ‘the grave of love’. It would be more accurate to echo Croce and say that ‘marriage is the grave of savage love’ and more often the grave of sentimentality.

Savage and natural love is manifested in rape. But rape, like polygamy, is also an indication that men are not yet in a stage to apprehend the presence of an actual person in a woman. This is as much as to say that they do not know how to love. Rape and polygamy deprive a woman of her equality by reducing her to sex. Savage love empties human relations of personality.

On the other hand, a man does not control himself owing to lack of ‘passion’ (meaning ‘power of the libido’), but precisely because he loves and, in virtue of his love, will not inflict himself. He refuses to commit an act of violence which would be in the denial and destruction of the person. He thus indicates that his dearest wish is for the other’s good. His egotism goes round via the other. This, it will be granted, is a notable revolution.

And we may now pass beyond that altogether negative and privative statement of Croce’s and at last define marriage as the institution in which passion is ‘contained’, not by morals, but by love.

Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World

Dependency in Marriage

Dependency may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But in actuality it is not love; it is a form of antilove. It has its genesis in a parental failure to love and it perpetuates the failure. It seeks to receive rather than to give. It nourished infantilism rather than growth. It works to trap and constrict rather than to liberate.

For passive dependent people the loss of the other is such a frightening prospect that they cannot face preparing for it or tolerating a process that would diminish the dependency or increase the freedom of the other. Consequently it is one of the behavioral hallmarks of passive dependent people in marriage that their role differentiations is rigid, and they seek to increase rather than diminish mutual dependency so as to make marriage more rather than less of a trap. By so doing, in the name of what they call love but what is really dependency, they diminish their own and each other’s freedom and stature.

M Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

Love is Slow and Difficult

It may be said that fidelity secures itself against unfaithfulness by becoming accustomed not to separate desire from love. For if desire travels swiftly and anywhere, love is slow and difficult; love actually does pledge one for the rest of one’s life, and it exacts nothing less than this pledge in order to disclose its real nature. That is why a man who believes in marriage can no longer believe seriously in ‘love at first sight’, still less in the ‘irresistible’ nature of passion…which is an alibi invoked by the guilty.

Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World

Digital Dating and Divorce

You are three times more likely to divorce if you met online instead of face-to-face, according to researchers at Michigan State University. They also say online daters are nearly 30 percent more likely to break up in the first year. It might have to do with how each person first approaches the relationship. Nearly everyone who uses dating apps and websites immediately begins by looking for false information in their prospective partner’s profile. The researchers believe suspicion damages the relationship at an early stage. You'll find more details in the online journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

What does it mean to be 'in love'?

To be in love is not necessarily to love. To be in love is a state; to love, an act. A state is suffered or undergone; but an act has to be decided upon. Now, the promise which marriage means cannot fairly be made to apply to the future of a state in which I am at the moment, but it can and should mortgage, the future of conscience acts which I take on – to love, to remain faithful, to bring up my children. That shows how different are the meanings of the word ‘to love’ in the world of Eros and the world of Agape.

Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World

We are actors in a play

We play many roles in our lifetime. The hard part is knowing when to play which role. It’s difficult to know when the curtain is falling and another act is beginning. We don't want to become one of those sad actors, playing a role that has already ended, no longer relevant, out of fashion, reciting lines belonging in another act, another time.

Besides the danger of becoming a washed out hack, there is another danger: Playing our role on stage and then running out into the audience, where we take a seat, then heckle ourselves and play critic.

Since it is God's play, we have to allow him to determine the value of our performance. We are only actors, not knowing when the final curtain falls or the outcome of the play or the resolution of its story lines. There are twists that only the author understands.

The thought that "we are all actors in a play" is an old idea that I've favored because it reminds us that do not have enough information to make heads or tails of too much around us. We are forced to ad lib, to improvise, to guess our way through life.

CS Lewis wrote, “We keep on assuming that we know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows.”

And then there's Garrison Keillor's quip: "God writes a lot of comedy... the trouble is, he's stuck with so many bad actors who don't know how to play funny."

Stephen Goforth

finding the "Right One"

Don't just look for someone who will encourage you to "be yourself." Look for someone who will help the process of more clearly defining you. This is not just giving you "space" or room to "do your own thing." There should be a chemistry, a back-and-forth, a give-and-take that produces something you couldn't have come up with by yourself. And it works the other way around as well. You should spur the other's growth as a person. The two of you should be able to look at the apple seed and visualize the fully formed tasty fruit that could emerge.

Stephen Goforth

The Individual Journey

As an adolescent I used to thrill to the words of love the early American poet Ann Bradstreet spoke to her husband: 'If ever two were one, then we.'

As I have grown, however, I have come to realize that it is the separateness of the partners that enriches the union. Great marriages cannot be constructed by individuals who are terrified by their basic aloneness, as so commonly is the case, and seek a merging in marriage. Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other but actually seeks to cultivate it, even at the risk of separation or loss. The ultimate goal of life remains the spiritual growth of the individual, the solitary journey to peaks that can be climbed only alone.

Significant journeys cannot be accomplished without the nurture provided by a successful marriage or a successful society. Marriage and society exist for the basic purpose of nurturing such individual journeys.

But, as is the case with all genuine love, “sacrifices” on behalf of the growth of the other result in equal or greater growth of the self. It is the return of the individual to the nurturing marriage or society from the peaks he or she has traveled alone which serves to elevate that marriage or that society to new heights.

M Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled