Love, Sweet Love
Why taking good care of yourself is good for your relationship.
In honor of Valentine's Day, here are some pointers from a lot of different people I've known or noticed over the years.
Dottie, who had lost her beloved husband on a Christmas morning, said the two most important things in a marriage were courtesy and a sense of humor.
Jim, a businessman, said his father told him he should give 60% — he shouldn't be satisfied with 50-50, because if he felt he was giving more than 50% he was probably just getting close to giving 50%. If both people aimed for 60-40, giving more than they got, they might end up somewhere near 50-50. His marriage was in pretty good shape after many decades.
Elaine told me she believed in marriage, not in her husband Richard. He was just another person; marriage was larger than either of them. So was family. She had a context for whatever irked her about her husband, and her relationship stayed resilient. When he was particularly reactive, she could watch him and smile at the absurdity — which usually brought him around.
It's occurred to me that taking good care of yourself is good for your relationship. Just for yourself, you'll feel better. You'll also be a much better partner, because you're happier and have more to give. Besides, when you take care of yourself you're less likely to burden your partner with whatever ails you when you don't. Maybe this is part of Dottie's "courtesy" in a relationship. Or you could think of it as being responsible for your membership in the couple.
Remember you both are separate people. No matter how closely you and your true love are connected, you're still you, with your temperament, your history, your rhythms, your limitations and quirks, your interests and values. Sure, a relationship is easier and deeper when you and your partner have shared values, but no two people are identical. The differences can make life more interesting.
If you're looking for the perfect "merger," those differences can feel hurtful to you. ("If I'm different, he'll disapprove of me — we should be together in all ways — and maybe there's something wrong with me because I'm not like him, and he'll stop loving me....." is a logic that leads to anguish and resentment.)
But if you can enjoy, be amused by, and respect the differences, you've got fun in store. Variety is the spice of life. Relationships go dull when everything's predictable: Nobody's growing, or is growing secretly because he or she feels a need to mirror the other. Besides, an independent spirit is more attractive. When you're a bit separate, your love won't take you for granted, and you won't take him or her for granted. It's more engaging to wake up next to someone and find out who he or she is today. What's on her mind? What's he thinking about? What's evolving?
Which brings us to a biggie: trust. You have to be a "safe" person for your true love, as he or she does for you. Each has to make sure the other can talk about feelings, worries, confusions, little or big failures, fears and sorrows, as well as all the happiness, the little and big triumphs, the goofy pleasures, the goals and new possibilities.
You each have to be "trust-worthy" — worthy of trust. You listen with acceptance. You don't judge or humiliate. If you think something's a mistake, you listen anyway before you suggest an alternative — and it's still her choice.
For this, you have to make time, you have to be empathetic, and you need emotional discipline — you don't just react with, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. I have to go to work." This might be honest, but he'll think twice about confiding in you again, and you'll grow apart. As one speaker put it during a seminar on couples, "In terms of trust, it takes 20 nice events to make up for one zinger." Too bad those zingers roll so easily off the tongue (toward yourself and your love).
It helps if you don't take things personally. If he's got a wrong-headed idea, it's still his idea. I remember believing that being honest was the highest form of intimacy. Then I read a magazine article suggesting kindness was more important than truth. Really? Yes, really. You can still slip some truth into the conversation (well, your idea of truth).
By not taking things personally, you don't get flooded with your own reactions. You hate it when he doesn't clean up all the dishes before bedtime and you're met by a pile in the sink or on the counter when you go into the morning kitchen. You've told him repeatedly, and he still doesn't do it.
You could tell him again, feeling hurt and resentful. He "knows" it matters to you, and he still doesn't do it. He says, "I'm sorry," but you know he's not. "So," you retort, "if you're that sorry, go clean up the dishes!" The day is off to another good start.
Instead, you could find a good moment to have a conversation with him: "Honey, I'm confused. I know you care about me, and you know it upsets me when you don't clean up the dishes before bed. So what's going on? I'm baffled." Even if he doesn't know the answer, he has to start thinking about it — and now it's on him to figure it out. Every time he leaves the dishes, it's no longer about you. Maybe you decide to leave them for him (for a week?). It's his issue, not personal for you, and not about you. Make him confront it. (And if you can't leave the dishes unwashed, figure out what your issue is.)
This kind of squabble feeds back into the suggestion that you are two separate people. Maybe when he was a kid, his mom repeatedly criticized the way he washed dishes — there was a food fragment on the fork, he'd overloaded the dishwasher, the glasses were streaked, whatever. He truly hates washing dishes. OK, find a way to trade household duties. He can forego dishwashing if he cooks, or vacuums, or does all the laundry, washes both cars, goes to market.... So long as it feels fair to both of you, the content doesn't matter.
And — please note — not washing the dishes wasn't about you at all. Don't take things personally.
You need to speak up about your needs. Sometimes people think that's selfish, but it's quite the opposite. If you don't tell your partner what you need, he won't know. However romantic you both are, he can't read your mind. He isn't you. Play it out: You need to go to bed early; he loves it when you watch late-night TV with him. Once again, you're different people.
If you say nothing, except how glad you are he wants to feel that coziness with you, you'll be increasingly sleep-deprived. You'll become irritable and resentful. You'll even stop enjoying the cozy time, because he "doesn't care" that you need more sleep.
Well, maybe he'd care if you told him. And, once you tell him, even if he cares more about his cozy time than about your sleeping enough, at least it will now be his problem instead of yours. Go to bed. Tell him you love him, you know it's frustrating for him, give him a hug and a kiss, and go to bed. You can wake up refreshed and loving. When he says he missed you, give him another kiss on the forehead, and say, "We need to find another way for you to feel cozy that doesn't wreck my health."
You're taking care of yourself, so you're happier and feeling well; you care about his happiness; being different is blame-free; you're being kind while being your own person. He doesn't need to take your "rejection" of late-night TV personally, because your going to bed isn't a rejection of him at all. You're just being you — and the issue of your health and happiness is important. You have to speak up.
There's a rhythm to love, and we need to figure out how to move from new enchantment to the more complex appreciation of what two people can build together — as separate people no longer sheltered in the soft-focus of romance. Research has shown that infatuation hormones seldom last beyond two years. So what comes next? That's the real challenge: Can you love each other as people, once the flaws and limitations become clear?
The suggestions in this essay can help. Of course, they assume you both can talk to each other, that you're conscious (or can become conscious, to some extent) of your own feelings and needs, and that you can listen. If that isn't the case, well, you can work on it.
Even if you're both pretty evolved, though, you can't live up to all these suggestions. They're ideals, and you're just another struggling human. We all are. But maybe your efforts can help nourish the soil from which renewed love can emerge. Perhaps it's time again for Dottie's "courtesy and a sense of humor." Both of you should give yourselves a break and appreciation for trying.
And if you don't like all this, you can blame Chaucer, who seems to have turned a neglected saint into the "historical" patron of courtly love. Isn't that what we do for those we love every Feb. 14 (the anniversary of St. Valentine's death)? We see the best in them; we elevate them to a position of importance in our lives; we work on keeping the faith.
Happy Valentine's Day!
Bina Breitner is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT)
in private practice at 808 W. 8th St. in Silver City.
She can be reached at (575) 538-4380.
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