A collection of wisdom on making relationships work over the decades. You’ve heard me say often “Love is wanting to be a better person for your partner.” So partnerships grow us into better versions of ourselves. There is purpose to being in relationships & it’s not about having an audience to applaud you. It’s about having faith that you need to listen to hard truths about yourself from someone you love. It’s not about taking the easy way out to stay comfortable. To be uncomfortable is the only path to growing up. Facing painful truths is the only way to truly grow up.

The Art & Work of Relationships

A collection of wisdom on making relationships work over the decades. You’ve heard me say often “Love is wanting to be a better person for your partner.” So partnerships grow us into better versions of ourselves. There is purpose to being in relationships & it’s not about having an audience to applaud you.

This is why authentic dialogue is crucial & avoiding conflict is dangerous. If you, as a partner avoid sharing hard truths then you are leaving the person you love the most to be alone in a false reality. (Melania are you listening?) A false reality is stagnant. Life is really not very interesting when you don’t choose to grow. That’s why so many books & good television shows are about characters changing & transforming. Take Mare of East Towne where characters change vs. American Rust filmed around my own Pittsburgh. Sadly American Rust nobody really evolves & the story is flat, like your own life unless you invest in facing hard truths about yourself.

In Episode #87 the therapist I interviewed shared his view of love: “I’m a big believer that to be understood is to be loved.” That made me think a lot about the importance of understanding cultural differences, class differences, racial differences and values differences just to name a few & then being able to communicate & be understood about those differences in depth. 

This takes a lot of work by both people; the work of sharing instead of being silent & the work of understanding instead of ignoring. I’m currently reading Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong which is an extraordinary collection of essays on “An Asian American Reckoning” & it blows holes in “positive asian racism” that so many of us engage in. 

Research has proven reading books helps increase empathy. Imagining yourself in other unique situations & practicing that imagination by reading more books is a wonderful gift. One of my favorite books in 2021 was The Matrix by Lauren Groff. I delighted in imagining the life of an out of wedlock princess in 1088 who is banished to be a nun in a poverty stricken, plague ridden nunnery & she evolves to become a warrior woman. She inspired me to have more courage.

Recognize that it may take 25 to 75 conversations to sort out something important. It is only through the process of conversations that you can soften the hard edges of differences. Relationships require more than 

“You Hurt Me.” & “I’m sorry.” I’ve always encouraged my clients in AA in the 8th step of making amends that they ask the other person what was the worst part for you about my alcoholism? & then listen. 

I also encourage parents to ask their kids how can I be a better mother/father? When I used to do a family session when the parents were a mess, I’d ask the kids to tell their parents how they each could improve. It was amazing how often the kids would be saying things I had said to the parents. Kids are often very capable of telling truth & hearing truth. 

Truth is about trust & trust is a tricky business. Dr. Garfinkle tells me I’m good with difficult people. I think it is because of saying hard truths while caring at the same time. Many years ago in New Mexico I was in a workshop with a Lakota name who gave me a Lakota name that meant “She who walks with truth.” I was trying to remember an old customer & she said “You told my husband he was just going up in the plane on the divorce ride but she had landed.” & I do remember saying that truth.

What else can help anyone with being better at the work of understanding?  Stop Insisting Your Top Dog version of reality is the only one that matters! This includes being able to apologize & not need to be right. It’s easier to be angry & hide in the power & self-righteousness than to be vulnerable by apologizing.

If you are someone who takes up too much space in the relationship then you need to recognize that. Self-awareness is key to growing into a better person. People who take up too much of the power in the relationship are Top Dogs, they want to win. Top Dogs don’t want to be vulnerable. 

If you are a people pleaser who doesn’t take up enough space & you hide out in smiles instead of truth then you are also required to have self awareness in order to grow up. You make a better “appearance” but really you are too ready to be nice rather than authentic. Trust builds on truth, which means saying things you are afraid to say because you want to be liked.

Both people pleasers & Top Dogs often link up with each other & this is not a bad thing because Top Dogs teach people pleasers to step up to take up more space & to be more genuine. People pleasers teach Top Dogs to back up, be more considerate of others & how to appreciate the differences. I will repeat this because it is important:  Partnerships offer us the possibility of growing us into better versions of ourselves. You just have to be willing to do the work.

The status quo is just way too comfortable and it is also boring if you are honest with yourself. It’s scary to step into change & the challenge of living in greater authenticity with your partner. Just remember fear & excitement always travel together. The price of maintaining the status quo is allowing your fears to squelch the excitement that greater truth offers. The more practice the two of you get, at honest conversation the more likely the relationship will endure.

Let’s talk about our sex life, Let’s talk about having more fun….Let’s talk about needing more individual, separate time to pursue my own interests….Let’s talk about how we are different in our values, in what’s important on vacations or raising kids…..Let’s talk about how your obsessiveness is exhausting to live with…Let’s talk about HARD things!!

Reducing expectations is another key to relationship longevity. If this person REALLY loved me they would know what to do is extremely ridiculous. Nobody gets it right all the time. Everybody makes mistakes.

It’s important to ask for what you want. It’s your responsibility to let people know instead of building up a silent pile of resentments that creates distance.

Complacency is an ordinary sin that creates longevity but not intimacy. Going along for the ride, taking the easy way out & avoiding hard conversations all contribute to a lack of depth & substance. Wrestling with your value collisions, taking the time to learn more about them instead of just pretending the differences don’t matter.

Excuses for avoiding are all too plentiful: “I don’t want to hurt them” is only true until the unspoken resentments have piled up enough that it’s ok to explode & dump them out. 

I remember my distaste for one of my children’s teachers who wore Laura Ashley flowery print dresses with big white collars who had a poster up on the wall in middle school of a basket of kittens & it said “Don’t rock the boat”. All I could think was what a terrible message for kids exploring who they want to be. Every couple can use a little boat rocking in order to keep growing & exploring who they want to be together. Perhaps complacency is why the Boomers now have the highest divorce rate of any age group.

I say to my clients the more authentic you can be, which does not mean an angry dump but truly sharing who you are & what you want & what you don’t want; the better life you will have. For those who are afraid to begin to walk this path I can say; begin with the small stuff. When you feel a pinch of annoyance or irritation or disagreement it is usually a clue that you want something. You might want more alone time, you might want more fun, you might want an improved sex life, you may want a recent sacrifice to be acknowledged, you may want more togetherness, you may want an apology, you may want recognition that you have put more work into the relationship;   the more you practice saying what you want the more you make yourself understood & the more you will be better off. Only YOU can decide it’s worth the work.

When there is more authenticity by both people then together the two of you are able to create a shared reality. Many of the problems of polarization in the USA is about having 2 separate realities. A shared reality that respects 2 points of view is complicated work, which is why relationships require work even when we just wish they’d be easy. 

This brings me to how crucial respect is to have a long haul relationship. People get divorced because they’ve lost respect for each other. Love is not enough to hold things together. Respect provides plenty of room not to like the difference. We all love to imagine that we are so alike, it’s a perfect relationship. When there are two people involved then there are always going to be differences. 

I think having a generosity of spirit helps when accepting that the relationship is in trouble. You need to have faith that your partner can change. Everyone needs to find the courage to speak their truth & then offer your partner the opportunity to grow. When someone goes outside the relationship to get their needs met it’s often because important stuff is missing. I consider it a second betrayal when my clients are not given the opportunity to grow & change to be a better partner.

Acceptance is the other side of anger. Anger insists why aren’t you more like me. As a parent with adult children it’s surprising when you imagine that the value of being vaccinated is shared & surprised when it isn’t. Acceptance of someone choosing a different path can be hard work. You need to be able to accept things you don’t like which also takes generosity of spirit.

Grandparents with a first grandchild don’t get to visit because they are not vaccinated is accepting the consequences of that choice & not insisting that’s unfair. This is a great example of how hard it can be to share the same space in reality. OK don’t get vaccinated & we don’t feel our brand new baby is safe, Accept both of these points of view have to sit quietly next to each other or Explode the relationships & refuse to put the two points of view together.

I’m going to quote Nicolas Cage who plays a once famous chef, in the wonderful movie from 2021 called PIG.(Quote) “You aren’t real….They don’t even know you because you haven’t shown them. Each day you wake up & there will be less of you. You live your life for them & they don’t even see you. You don’t even see yourself. We don’t get a lot of things to really care about.”(unquote) The work of relationships is worth it because we don’t get a lot of people to really care about by learning to have respect for the differences.

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About the Rhoda Mills Sommer

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