The love you make

Good re­la­tion­ships re­quire plenty of hard work, writes Katie Byrne

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - BREATHING SPACE -

FORMER World No. 1 ten­nis player An­dre Agassi was re­cently asked about the se­cret of his 17-year mar­riage to fel­low sport­ing great, St­effi Graf. As al­ways, his an­swer was sin­cere, thought­ful and re­fresh­ingly devoid of dull plat­i­tudes. “I think you need two whole peo­ple that truly don’t need each other, re­spect and love each other in a way that has full dis­ci­pline and com­mit­ment,” he told the jour­nal­ist. “We are two in­di­vid­u­als that have lived full lives and we don’t re­act to each other, we re­spond to each other.”

There’s no doubt that Agassi and his wife are hugely com­pat­i­ble, but his mus­ings speak to some­thing else. They sug­gest that th­ese two don’t take a suc­cess­ful mar­riage for granted. On the con­trary, they know they have to work hard to make it work.

Renowned clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and mar­riage re­searcher John M. Gottman com­pares mar­riage to the Se­cond Law of Ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, which says that in closed en­ergy sys­tems things tend to run down and get less or­derly.

“My guess is that if you do noth­ing to make things get bet­ter in your mar­riage but do not do any­thing wrong, the mar­riage will still tend to get worse over time,” he writes. “To main­tain a bal­anced emo­tional ecol­ogy you need to make an ef­fort — think about your spouse dur­ing the day, think about how to make a good thing even bet­ter, and act.”

This makes sense, but we’re not ex­actly bom­barded with in-depth ad­vice on how to keep a good thing go­ing (which is per­haps why we ask celebri­ties for their insight on the sub­ject).

Sure, we all know about the im­por­tance of qual­ity time, date nights and never go­ing to bed an­gry, but we have to dig a lit­tle deeper for the good stuff. Here are some of the best point­ers that I’ve come across.

CHOOSE YOUR BAT­TLES — Every re­la­tion­ship has re­cur­ring ar­gu­ments that never seem to reach an ac­cord. The trick, writes Gottman in The Seven Prin­ci­ples for Mak­ing Mar­riage Work, is to know the ones that are worth fight­ing for. “Once you un­der­stand this, you will be ready to ac­cept one of the most sur­pris­ing truths about mar­riage: Most mar­i­tal ar­gu­ments can­not be re­solved,” he writes. “Cou­ples spend year af­ter year try­ing to change each other’s mind — but it can’t be done. This is be­cause most of their dis­agree­ments are rooted in fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences of life­style, per­son­al­ity, or val­ues. By fight­ing over th­ese dif­fer­ences, all they suc­ceed in do­ing is wast­ing their time and harm­ing their mar­riage.” MIND YOUR LAN­GUAGE — Gottman ad­vises cou­ples to make state­ments that start with ‘I’ rather than ‘You’ dur­ing con­flict. State­ments that start with ‘I’ (“I felt ig­nored”) are less likely to sound crit­i­cal or ac­cusatory when com­pared to state­ments that start with ‘You’ (“You ig­nored me”). This, he adds, should be cou­pled with ‘non-de­fen­sive lis­ten­ing’ — “not re­spond­ing right away, get­ting in touch with the part­ner’s pain” and em­pa­thy — “sum­maris­ing the part­ner’s view and val­i­dat­ing by com­plet­ing a sen­tence like, ‘I can to­tally un­der­stand why you have th­ese feel­ings and needs’.”

CUL­TI­VATE A FRIEND­SHIP — Ni­et­zsche posed a sim­ple ques­tion to those who were con­tem­plat­ing mar­riage. “Do you be­lieve you are go­ing to en­joy talk­ing with this woman up into your old age?

“Every­thing else in mar­riage is tran­si­tory,” he added, “but most of the time you are to­gether will be de­voted to con­ver­sa­tion.” Mod­ern re­la­tion­ship ex­perts are mostly in agree­ment. Harville Hen­drix de­scribes mar­riage as “the prac­tice of be­com­ing pas­sion­ate friends” while Gottman says friend­ship “of­fers the best pro­tec­tion against feel­ing ad­ver­sar­ial to­ward your spouse”.

This won’t be news to the cou­ples who proudly de­clare that they are each other’s best friends, but not all cou­ples have that dy­namic. If you are lovers first and friends se­cond, it might be worth cul­ti­vat­ing an­other side to your re­la­tion­ship. STAY IN­DE­PEN­DENT — It’s hard to main­tain your au­ton­omy when you share a bed, a bath­room and a bank ac­count with an­other per­son. But it’s worth try­ing, writes out­spo­ken sex and re­la­tion­ship ther­a­pist Es­ther Perel in Mat­ing in Cap­tiv­ity. “Love rests on two pil­lars: sur­ren­der and au­ton­omy,” she points out. “Our need for to­geth­er­ness ex­ists along­side our need for sep­a­rate­ness. One does not ex­ist with­out the other. With too much dis­tance, there can be no con­nec­tion. But too much merg­ing erad­i­cates the sep­a­rate­ness of two dis­tinct in­di­vid­u­als. Then there is noth­ing more to tran­scend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other in­ter­nal world to en­ter. When peo­ple be­come fused — when two be­come one — con­nec­tion can no longer hap­pen. There is no one to con­nect with. Thus sep­a­rate­ness is a pre­con­di­tion for con­nec­tion: this is the es­sen­tial para­dox of in­ti­macy and sex.”

DON’T PLAY THE BLAME GAME

It’s easy to point the finger in a re­la­tion­ship. How­ever, when we take a mo­ment to turn our fo­cus in­wards, we of­ten re­alise that our is­sues are more about us than them. Iyanla Van­zant, former re­la­tion­ship ex­pert for The Oprah Show, cuts right to the heart of the mat­ter in In the Mean­time. “Sooner or later, we must all ac­cept the fact that in a re­la­tion­ship, the only per­son you are deal­ing with is your­self,” she writes. “Your part­ner does noth­ing more than re­veal your stuff to you. Your fear! Your anger! Your pat­tern! Your crazi­ness! As long as you in­sist on point­ing the finger out there, at them, you will con­tinue to miss out on the di­vine op­por­tu­nity to clear your stuff. Here is a mean­time tip — we love in oth­ers what we love in our­selves. We de­spise in oth­ers what we can­not see in our­selves.” KNOW ONE AN­OTHER’S TRIG­GERS

Like it or not, we all have unique vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and the bet­ter a part­ner un­der­stands them, the deeper a re­la­tion­ship be­comes. Amir Levine’s At­tached is a good in­tro­duc­tion to the var­i­ous at­tach­ment styles; Mario Martinez’s The MindBody Code has a fas­ci­nat­ing sec­tion of what he calls ‘ar­che­typal wounds’ (aban­don­ment, shame, be­trayal) and Gary Chap­man’s The Five Love Lan­guages will help you un­der­stand the way your part­ner pre­dom­i­nantly demon­strates their love.

It’s hard to main­tain au­ton­omy when you share a bed, bath­room and bank ac­count with

an­other per­son

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