'All has to do with loving and not loving,' observed the mystic Rumi several centuries ago. More recently, it's been said that relationships are the yoga of the West. Our obsession with them certainly seems to bear this out.
Whenever I've been doing career counseling - sometimes more sexily called 'performance counseling' - by the third meeting the real concern emerges. It's usually to do with relationships. It seems that jobs may be tough but manageable, the children frustrating but worth it. What throws a shadow over it all is so often the question of the prime relationship, or new relationships that seem to be offering themselves.
We're told that all families are dysfunctional - whatever that means - and the divorce rate is more than 1 in 3 in the UK, higher among younger couples. It's nearly 50 per cent in the USA. The emotional and economic costs are at almost epidemic level, though not all of this is bad. In the past, people would stay in unsatisfactory relationships for social - 'no one in my family has been divorced!'- or economic reasons, or 'for the sake of the children'.
Today we have a different problem, the subtle but powerful pressure of choice - choice of partners, freedom to travel and meet new people, choice of same sex partners, relative wealth for many (though not for all) to cope with starting a new family and managing the complexities of a 'blended family' with children from past relationships. Choice is a two-edged sword, particularly as most of us aren't mature enough to handle it well.
Here are some essential principles to start re-thinking:
You are the expert
Only you are the expert on your own relationship. You may get advice, but only you are the one living it who knows its unique meaning, twists and turns, joys and annoyances. You alone can create the circumstances you need to thrive.
Your relationship is unique - you make the rules. No one can fully understand another's relationship from the outside. That's why the onus is on you. Both of you, of course.
There's no ideal
There are as many different relationships as there are couples (or threesomes!). Some work very well living in separate houses or spending time apart (a friend tells me this is the secret of his mostly happy long-term marriage). Others are inseparable: Paul McCartney and his late wife Linda spent only seven nights apart in their long and much-traveled marriage. Don't try to fit your unique view of a good partnership into someone else's.
Relationships need refreshing
Relationships need maintenance, refreshing, reaffirming, honest acknowledgment of changes - her new career, the arrival of children, the demands of different stages of life, and so on. We've lost many of these rituals, so we need to rediscover these or create new ones.
A deeper purpose
There are spiritual reasons for being a couple that we seem to have been forgotten. For instance, the principle of giving of ourselves fully has been diminished, partly by the psychology of self-assertion (Getting What You Need From Your Marriage-type self-help books), and by our high expectations of what we will gain from the set-up.
Real giving doesn't look for its reward. Conditional giving can quickly turn into a calculation about 'what's my return on the investment here?' It can lead to self-pity, moving in the direction of martyrdom. If you feel unappreciated and as if your partner - or indeed life - owes you a lot, you're on the martyr's path. It's not very attractive - to you or your companion.
I've often been put off the idea of 'working on a relationship' simply because of associations with the word 'work'. Shouldn't a marriage be a respite, a safe haven from the tribulations of work? There may be work involved, but I'd like to add the companion concept of playing in a relationship. Not, of course, in the sense of toying with it or 'playing around' (it's surprising how many negative associations come with the word play), but by rediscovering or remembering that a sense of joy, of playfulness together is what probably attracted you in the first place. Couples who play together are more likely to stay together.
These concepts are woven into the six re-thinks that follow.
1. Appreciating yourself
Go and spend whatever is a large amount of money for you - £50, £500, or more - on clothes you both feel and look good in.
Remember, it's style not fashion; style that suits you, not some stereotypical idea, and not something you're just doing for best. Take along a friend whose dress sense you admire.
Work out from who you would like to gain positive feedback (about your personal qualities, not just your clothes!). Put your embarrassment in the drawer for an hour and afterwards write down for your eyes only a list of your positive attributes. Do not allow yourself to censor or qualify this by writing, 'I'm quite good at ...' or 'I'm rather successful at ...' Take it out occasionally and read it over your morning coffee.
2. Appreciating another
Possibly our greatest craving as a human being is to be appreciated, and ironically this may happen least in our most intimate relationship. So make time to do this - soon. It may require rehearsal - not too much or you'll lose spontaneity, but enough so you can start the discussion confidently.
If you're too daunted by this, you might be the sort of person who prefers putting things in writing. Remember - appreciation should be untouched by any qualification or deviation on to other topics. It's important enough to stand alone.
3. Have that difficult conversation
Too much 'small talk' and not enough 'big talk'? You already know intuitively what you need to talk about and what is holding your relationship back. To be successful you have to find both the time and place. Too many of these important discussions start when one party is tired or the other is pressed for time.
Find a space and environment when it can be concluded without interruption from the children or others. and make sure you start and end with a declaration of your positive hopes for the relationship: people remember, emotionally as well as cerebrally, first and last impressions.
4. Refreshing love
Here your imagination's the limit! Harold Pinter's play the over gives us a great idea. The husband leaves for work in the morning, comes back disguised as his wife's lover to enjoy passionate dalliances in the afternoon, and later returns again as the dutiful husband.
It might mean revisiting places where you had great times together in the past. Or something as elaborate like a surprise This Is Your Life event where you bring together many people from your partner's past and present.
Most of all, you want to create something that uniquely suits your partner. But even more important than the event is the way you demonstrate attention to the other's needs.
Too often, the woman is left in charge of social engagements. The biggest gift of all might just be to do the whole thing with the same professionalism that you would apply to your job.
Refreshing love can start with the trivial and mundane. Have you noticed that if a man clears up, he has to bring it to your attention? How refreshing if he just does it!
5. Say 'yes'!
Try for a week making your reflex response to your partner's suggestion a 'yes'. It's harder than it sounds, but the more you can do it, the more you are affirming their essential nature. It's a form of saying yes to love. Practice on small things first. Otherwise your partner will think, 'He/she just read a book on this or has been to a workshop!' Domestic arrangements and shared chores are good places to start.
If you're having trouble with this, try forming the word several times in front of a mirror while checking that your body is also saying 'yes'.
6. Embrace the difference
Unisex thinking hasn't been good for the love between men and women. Appreciating the essential difference of your partner is best done in three ways. First, by realizing that you are different, and not spending time regretting that the other cannot be more like you.
Second, by allowing for the mystery between the sexes to be respected. There's a great emphasis today on the talking cure, in other words, the verbalizing of feelings. This is all well and good, as we do need to become more articulate about our feelings. But we also need to acknowledge that we're always keeping part of ourselves to ourselves.
J M Barrie describes this beautifully in Peter Pan when he says that there was always a smile in the corner of Mrs Darling's mouth that Mr Darling could not reach. There's much psychological insight in Peter Pan, the loss of which I mourn in its Disneyfied form, however entertaining.
Finally, assuming there is some depth to your relationship, the personality of your partner was no doubt a strong attractor in the first place. Re-think personality in its true sense: per means through, sonare means to sound. So it's not surprising that we use the language of sound when describing relationships - being in harmony, in tune, finding the right rhythm of life together.
What sounds through you when you speak to your loved one? Is it a sweet sound, or staccato and harsh? The differences can combine to produce a small symphony, or harsh discordance. Being in tune comes from spending enough downtime together. I would rather all this 'uptime' or the musical meaning of being 'in time'!
After his second divorce a friend of mine lost all his hair. When he came home from work and sat slumped reading the newspaper oblivious to the world, his three-year-old daughter would knock on his head and say, 'mummy - is daddy in?' How much are we really 'in' and present for the others we claim to love?
Originally published: Thu 27 Jul 2006