I’ve been a therapist for over 30 years, and there’s one topic I hear about far more than any other — relationships are challenging!
It reminds me of that part in Eat, Pray, Love when Elizabeth Gilbert had a friend who worked in a refugee camp, and all that friend wanted to talk about was relationships. Not the horrors and traumas she witnessed, but relationships.
Relationships are the source of so much stress, but they’re also our most powerful teachers and catalysts for growth.
I want to give you an introduction to relationships, how we usually approach relationships, and where we get tripped up.
First, we need to understand that on the spiritual plane, we’re all one, but on the physical plane (where we live our everyday lives) we are separate. We have separate bodies and separate minds.
Most of us live and operate on the physical plane where there’s a separate me and you.
Therefore, the first level of relationships is to manage them on the physical plane and learn to cope with the fact that others won’t always act the way we want them to or the way we would act.
When we start learning relationship skills, we learn that what you want isn’t always what they want.
What you think is a kind action, they don’t receive as kind.
The language you’re using seems okay with you but may not feel so okay with your partner because you both see the world through different lenses.
This is where relationships are challenging
A lot of what I find in relationships is that we think people should behave the way we think they SHOULD behave. If they veer from that, we think they’re bad, wrong, and hurtful.
This is why a relationship is much easier if there are commonalities like religion, interests, areas of origin, philosophical viewpoints, etc.
The more commonalities, the more harmonious a relationship is likely to be because we’re not constantly butting up against differences.
We feel most comfortable with what we know. When we’re with people who aren’t familiar to us, we tend to feel less comfortable.
Think of interacting with someone from a different culture. We don’t know the rules of their culture or why they’re behaving in some ways, and they don’t know our culture and our rules and the background of where we’ve been.
With anyone, we might not understand their culture, family situation, religion, and other factors that shape their viewpoint and personality.
Being able to accept another person and embrace differences is one of the things that makes relationships so challenging.
We say we like differences, but we don’t. We want familiar. We want what’s comfortable and what we know and we get upset if we have to consider something outside of our worldview.
So how do we have a healthy relationship despite differences?
We need to be open to those differences.
2 Steps to a Healthier Relationship
Step 1: Be open
A healthy relationship means acknowledging the other person, having compassionate curiosity about them, and being open to their viewpoint while also maintaining your own identity.
(Side note: Maintaining your identity is important because if we’re too open, we let go of who we are and now we’re no longer showing up for the relationship. We still need to know what we are willing to do and aren’t willing to do in that relationship.)
This doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships, but to ALL relationships.
For example, let’s take relationships between two neighbors.
Say that one neighbor believes that fences make good neighbors. The other neighbor believes that a good neighbor is friendly, helpful, and social.
The social neighbor constantly brings pies, drops by unannounced, and always wants to chat in the driveway as both neighbors go out to get their newspapers, much to the first neighbor’s dismay.
These neighbors have two very different concepts of how to behave.
The person who likes to have very strong boundaries will want to blame the other for being a busybody.
The social one will have negative thoughts about the neighbor who wants the firm boundary and might think they’re anti-social or just not a nice person.
They’ll feel comfortable because “my way is the right way and their way is wrong.”
In our minds, right = comfortable. When we’re “right,” there’s no challenge for growth, and it’s easy. We love easy!
In reality, there is no good person or bad person here. There are only differences. If they can be open to the other’s viewpoint, they can form a healthy relationship.
Step 2: Stretch yourself
Relationships call us to stretch and teach us things we might not otherwise learn IF we’re open to it.
In our neighbor example, in the unhealthy relationship where the more reserved neighbor enforces their strict boundaries, the social neighbor feels they can’t be social at all and feels closed out. There’s no growth there.
One the other hand, if the more reserved neighbor just lets the other person come over whenever they want, the social neighbor doesn’t learn about boundaries.
So what should they do?
If they work with those differences, we might see them grow. Extreme boundaries might loosen. The social person might back off a little. Maybe they learn about both sides and start chatting over the fence sometimes.
It’s like taking one small step towards each other. We don’t to go too fast and force it, because those steps won’t be authentic.
It’s good to feel some discomfort, but don’t go overboard. We don’t change all at once.
You might be thinking “Why even have relationships? They’re so much trouble!”
Historically, we have relationships as a means of survival and because we’re social animals.
Those things are still true, but ultimately, we have them because relationships are the #1 path to growth.
Relationships can be uncomfortable because growth can be uncomfortable.
The trick is to learn the tools you need in order to grow through relationships.