In healthy relationships partners view their lives together and the energy required to maintain these bonds as a privilege and challenge – not as an obligation or struggle. ~ Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.
I forgot this. I forgot that being in a relationship – especially a romantic partnership, a marriage – is a privilege. That it comes with challenges that are opportunities for growth – not only growth for the relationship but that help me continue to grow up into the adult and whole person I want to be in the process of becoming!
Joseph and I fell in love nineteen years ago. I was thirty-eight, he was fifty-five, and we were both single-again, becoming friends through our participation in a self-growth school. As such we didn’t date our way into our relationship. Rather, in the winter of 1998 we turned around and realized our bodies and hearts had already fallen for each other and that the rest of us might want to get on board! In the years that followed our affection for one another and the chemistry we shared was profound for both of us and apparently on display. Though one person in our life often teased us, looking for the honeymoon to end, the way others noticed our bond was delightful. I felt as though our love was a gift that created a space for love, happiness, and contentment to sort of hum and thrum and thrive. It was as though, without teaching, preaching, or being intentional about it, the space we filled made some kind of difference for those within our sphere of influence. It certainly made a difference for us.
So how did I forget that our relationship is a privilege? How did I lose touch with us? In the last year, bewildering to me, feelings of obligation and struggle seemed to tug at the outer edges of our relationship. It showed up inside me in internal conversations that went something like this, “We sound like some old married couples I’ve seen – me harping on him and him placating me too much of the time. Maybe this is just what happens the longer you’re together and it’ll never get better.” Too many conversations between us felt effortful and I wondered, “Are we falling out of love? Are we falling out of liking each other? How can he maintain his love for me if we keep this my anger/his mollifying thing going?” I did not like this and I did not want to talk about it out loud with him. I didn’t want to admit it. As it turns out that wasn’t Joseph’s experience at all. He knew I was unhappy, doing his best to help, but he felt no sense of threat to our relationship. I appreciate that because, on one hand, it’s an example of the differences between men’s and women’s brains and how they perceive the world differently from one another. For instance, if we don’t judge me for over thinking it and we don’t judge him for being oblivious; our different ways of perceiving our shared life don’t have to become a disagreement to iron out. And, on the other hand, it’s easier to sort out tension if both people in a couple are not afraid the ship is sinking!
I could make a list of all the things I think went into creating this me-harping-and him-placating thing but it would make this essay too long and tedious. More significant than those details is that it happened at the ages we are now. I believed that because of our ages this development was natural and expected, which was an invitation to let it continue. Aging squeezes the juice out of people unless they choose to be intentional about staying juicy. Juicy in all ways: sexually, mentally, physically, socially, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally – all that good stuff that came so easily when we were young and full of hormones that did the work of juiciness for us takes effort when those hormones dissipate. But it is worth the effort!
Getting a grip on griping and deciding I wasn’t having it, I wasn’t going to continue through the years being an easily angered person, gave me the oomph to get in touch with the part of me that still desires the juicy relationship I recently took for granted. I reread books about the differences in the way men’s and women’s brains operate and what that means on a practical level of living, loving, and working together. As a result I began being 100% present to Joseph again whenever he spoke to me. For instance, as the result of a move and lifestyle change a year and a half ago, I’ve had reason enough to often run lists, plans, desires, and needs in my mind while listening to him. It’s a way to multi-task but no way to connect with another person! Simply giving him my full attention does wonderful things for me and good things for him too. My eyes widen at the sound of his voice, my body feels more relaxed and open as I genuinely receive whatever he has to say, and I get to practice listening with no agenda and no interruptions. Listening in this present, receptive way is a lovely way to relax and bathe in my femininity as well as genuinely connect with him. It feeds my soul and nourishes my relationship with my fella. This way of listening serves his masculinity as well. Men tend to be streamlined thinkers. When women give them the kind of active listening women love to give each other, replete with lots of questions and interruptions, men tend to zone out because their brains are not wired that way. Keeping up with a woman’s active listening can be exhausting – especially when active listening leads to hijacking the conversation. When I save the active listening for my girlfriends and, with Joseph, listen receptively to him, I experience myself as a woman in a way that brings pleasure to both of us. It’s juicy!
For the record, I have stopped harping on him and he has stopped mollifying me. For me, we feel like our old selves again, in love and loving each other in a relationship that is a privilege and worth the energy expended when challenges arise. For him, he knows I’m happier and more content and that makes him happy. When I’m OK, he gets to be with me in ways that are more fun and satisfying for both of us. My goodness, the effort to get back to juicy is worth it! I very much recommend it.
If you would like more information on the differences in the way men’s and women’s brains operate for the purpose of living, loving, and working better together, I highly recommend the work of Patricia Love, Ed.D., especially the book that she co-wrote with Steven Stosny, Ph.D., How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. You can find Pat Love online at http://www.patlove.com.
I also recommend the work of Alison Armstrong. She has been studying men for twenty-six years, sharing everything men have taught her about how they relate to themselves, each other, the world, their families, and the women in their lives. You can find Alison online at http://www.understandmen.com.
The quote from Bryan Robinson, Ph.D. with which I began this essay comes from his book Overdoing It. Bryan is a licensed psychotherapist and author of many nonfiction books and is also an award winning novelist. His psychological suspense novel, Limestone Gumption, is now out in paperback. You can find Bryan at http://www.bryanrobinsononline.com.