In my last blog, I shared why relationships fail, and now we look forward. As a writer, facing the prospect of adding to this already bloated canon always gives me pause. With excited anticipation, we’ve all bought books about relationships. We’ve found them entertaining, and for a few hours we become hopeful, but they’re ultimately ineffective. I call them “Shelf Help.”
So rather than another bulleted list of “how to” aphorisms, here’s a list of what not to do: my 8 Simple Rules for Ruining Your Relationship. Each rule is based on a faulty belief – a mistaken notion of how the world, and relationships, really work. Follow these rules and you’ll be back on an Internet dating site in nothing flat.
1. Infatuation equals love. This one gets me every time, but it’s not my fault. When we unrealistically idealize someone we don’t really know, it’s just our reptilian brain urging us to perpetuate the species. The reptilian brain has no interest in a “spiritual partnership” or “honoring our inner child.” It wants us to like this person enough to have sex with them — now. And this makes us literally act crazy.
See if this textbook description of Brief Psychotic Disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) sounds familiar: Sufferers “typically experience emotional turmoil or overwhelming confusion. They may have rapid shifts from one intense affect to another. Although brief, the level of impairment may be severe, and supervision may be required to ensure that the individual is protected from the consequences of poor judgment, cognitive impairment, or acting on the basis of delusions.”
If you raise your awareness of how your brain is putting one over on you, you can survive until you grow to love the other person.
2. If you loved me, you’d know what I needed. Harville Hendricks, in his wonderful book Getting The Love You Want, tells us that we are hardwired by our very early life experience to pick a partner who is like our parents, in the belief that we can recreate all that was good and heal that which was damaging to us. And the childlike part of us has no sense of the passage of time. “Although we are now adults, capable of keeping ourselves fed and warm and dry,” says Hendricks, “a hidden part of us still expects the outside world (specifically, our partner) to take care of us.” So the “romantic” notion of a knight in shining armor or our dream girl may not be as much a product of choice as of our genes.
In the service of our desire to heal, we instinctively believe that we know what is right for our partner. The unspoken contract we make with each other is this: I’ll give you what I think you need, and in return, I expect you to give me what I need. In about every thousandth relationship, both partners guess right. So are you feeling lucky?
3. Indecent Disclosure. “I don’t know what happened – it was the best first date I’ve ever had – we talked for three hours! Well, mostly me. But now she won’t return my calls. I felt so open with her, I told her everything.” “Um. Everything?” “Yep. I told her about my felony convictions, my intravenous heroin addiction, my dysfunctional relationship with my mom, even about my jealousy issues with Melanie.” In other words, don’t frontload your history in the first date. There will be plenty of time for that. This doesn’t mean you wait a year to let your partner know you’re the parent of triplets, but if you’re feeling an inordinate desire to spill the beans, this is more about your anxiety than theirs.
4. I must find a quick fix. Only people with television shows fix relationships in an hour. (Dr. Phil is to marriage counseling as Tim Allen is to home improvement.) A problem relationship is such an inscrutable gumbo of histories, circumstances, beliefs and feelings that we understandably long for someone to tell us, in concrete terms, exactly what to do. So clients come into therapy wanting a prescriptive list of “techniques” they can use to fix their relationship, like correcting a bad golf swing. When they do, I usually share one of my favorite quotes from H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”
It took you a long time to create your problems, and it’s gonna take some time to solve them. For a while, you’re going to continue to harm your partner, and your partner is going to continue to harm you. This is the time when you ponder the nature of commitment. I’m not asking you to stay in a relationship where the other person has no intention to change, but have hope. See the best in them. Recall why you first loved them. Do the work. Remember that relationships heal from the inside out. Or as Dr. Phil would say, “You don’t need a porcupine to tickle a gypsy.”
In my next blog, we’ll finish the list. Don’t whine – you can wait a day or two. Delaying gratification is a skill you could probably use a little more of anyway.