The iconic image is of G.I. and Girlfriend in Hyde Park, London, by Morse, 1944
"Love is the burning point of life." Joseph Campbell
In love relationships we heal the world one partnership at a time. As a psychotherapist for many years, I have the privilege of witnessing the transformation of relationships which have lost their way somewhere between initial attraction and the pressures of everyday life. Successful relationship therapy returns the couple to their initial feelings of attraction, but more than love, mutual respect is the curative factor for a troubled relationship. When respect is strong, a couple is capable of falling in love over and over again.
Through the years I’ve learned that commitment is a loaded word, best used at the conclusion of therapeutic work, rather than a necessary condition for beginning. Usually couples come to me in varying stages of hungry, angry, lonely and tired. The relationship is out of balance and one or more of the partners are unhappy, so commitment at this stage feels like commitment to unhappiness! Why would any self-respecting human being want that?
A modern-day therapist acts as a wise tribal elder who has been there, done that, and knows the way home. When a couple is embroiled in conflict, both of the partners lose their objectivity. Power plays -“We need to talk and me first!”- are the natural result of feeling out of control in the relationship. The therapeutic encounter mirrors back to the couple the out-of-balance dynamics of their relationship, and with luck, restores harmony. Think of the couples who have what you call a good partnership and you will find these positive ingredients. They...
~ Respect each other. Keep their relationship sacred. Don’t gossip to friends about the intimate details of the relationship. Treat their partner as a truest and best friend whose trust and confidence they would never violate. (This is especially needed even when you don’t feel like best friends right now! Take the high road, act as if you were best friends, and trust the healing process.)
~ Invest time and energy into the partnership. Don’t live so much “me first” as “us first” and negotiate everyday concerns instead of acting independently. (What we love is what we give time to. More than an adjective that amplifies feelings, in long-term relationships, love is a verb.)
~ Listen when the other talks, responding first to their partner’s words and focus on really hearing them out, instead of interrupting and launching into their own agenda. (Don’t panic, this is not helpful. There are two master emotions, Fear and Love. Love waits. Fear pushes. Take a breath. Open your ears. Fully listen and, trust that you will have your turn to make your opinions known.)
~ Are flexible and understand that everyone has an opinion and a way of doing things.
(Might does not make right. Application of force may win the immediate skirmish, but does not facilitate a negotiated and peaceful outcome. Open to possibilities. Become a willow. You can bend and still remain rooted.)
~ Are kind. Cruel words launched in anger create festering sores that poison the relationship. Wounding the other person will take you farther from the possibility of making your point.
(Without blame, focus on your own feelings, wants and needs. Neither caving in nor backing up, honor your truth and work through it. Remember your common ground and trust the strengths of the relationship to see you through.)
~ Say “I’m sorry” when they are wrong. We all are from time to time. This is the human condition.
(Neither being unduly hard on yourself or your partner, acknowledge your humanity. Conflict in inevitable when two separate human beings do the ongoing work of living as one.)
~ Continue to grow as human beings, even though developmentally, one may seem to grow faster or slower than the other. This is a function of focus.(In traditional relationships, because of her ticking biological clock, a woman may feel the hormonal nudge towards nesting during her child-bearing years — rather she is also working or not. Excitement for manifesting and fulfilling her life work usually increases for a woman during her later years. Conversely, young men embody warrior energy for the first few decades of their life. In later years - world weary with sore muscles from wielding his sword through many campaigns — a man envisions home as the promised land, a place of rest and much needed replenishment. What a dilemma...when a woman longs to get out in the world, a man needs to escape from it! Beyond mind, emotions and soul, as long as we exist in a human body, the function of estrogen and testosterone cannot be dismissed. Alternative relationships with stay-at-home dads and working mothers is a whole other discussion. But many of the same principles apply!)
~ Forgive. This is not a religious construct which requires that we take the spiritual high road. A sanctimonious attitude of better-than is not true forgiveness. Forgiveness is all about talking it through, stating our truth, and then letting it go. When we hang on to resentment, the main person that is wounded is us. (No forgiveness is possible without humility. Only when we are capable of acknowledging and admitting our own human failings, can we compassionately walk in someone else’s shoes. Many joys, many sorrows, many life lessons are usually required before we mortal human beings are humble enough to feel true compassion for another.
Once upon a time, the counsel of a weathered-wise and twinkle-y eyed Irishman taught me this lesson. As with many clients who now seek my counsel, I was young in life experience and knee-deep in a world of hurt. Balled-up and overflowing with anger and resentment, I harangued this kind man for the better part of an hour about the perceived faults of my husband. His sparkling eyes danced as he heard me out. When at last I ran out of steam, this sage and seasoned soul regarded me with a bemused expression on his face, and then said with great compassion, “You ain’t no rose yourself.”)
~ Begin again. Every day is a new day. Yesterday is behind, tomorrow has not yet come. Our relationships live in what is - this present moment. Only in the here-and-now can healing occur.
(Keep it simple. Stay in the present. Don’t scare yourself with what if, but generate as much faith as you can and go on.)
Inspiration for this article came to me in a recent couple session where the best course to take was utilization of the 2-chair Gestalt technique - one chair is one part of a person, a chair seated opposite is the other. The client actually moves from one chair to another as the dialogue goes forward. I knew the husband was ready for this particular work when he admitted that he did tend to be a bit rigid. But he then defended himself by saying he had a creative and loving side too. This was my clue to set up the 2-chair process of working out the conflict with both parts expressing their very real fears and anger toward the other side!
First the rigid - and usually withdrawing in cold anger - side gave the creative side a very large and angry piece of his mind. Then the creative side took on that angry and threatened guy and said very honest and unflattering things. Until after a lengthy debate between these two conflicting parts of his personality, both sides finally began to see the other's point of view...and actually be grateful for the role the opposite part played in their lives.
His wife sat beside me as I guided his work. For comfort I patted her occasionally. She was obviously pained to witness the frustrating struggle that brought them to therapy in the first place. At the culmination of his work, the husband’s eyes filled with tears, and he said with amazement, “I never realized what I was doing to myself!”
I said, “I think someone wants to be close to you right now,” and his wife moved to sit beside him on the sofa. They melted into each other, while I diverted my gaze and allowed them time to feel close.
When they were able to talk, the wife looked at her husband with love in her eyes and said, “It’s you. I haven’t seen you like this in so long.”
Do you think they were able to work out the crisis they faced? Of course. They were no longer two people, they had become one. Will they face conflict again? Of course. But for that moment, on that day, they had begun again.