I love you, you’re perfect, now change
It’s that time of year when that rosy-cheeked, potbellied, bow strung Valentine’s cherub reappears. As you weave your way through heaving Hallmark stands I invite you to consider the question raised by the old tunesmith: ‘what is that thing called love?’ There are few things harder to prove than what love is but we sure know what it is when we feel it… or do we?
The title of this opinion piece is taken from a play that ran about 15 years ago in the now defunct Andrews Lane theatre. My wife Ruth and I went to see this comedy and the one thing that remained with us was the title. It has become a get-out-of-jail card in our relationship when we hit a speed bump. Some of you may find, like we have (and others whom I have shared this idea with in my work as a family therapist) that this can be quite a life saver. It helps to offer relief when you are dangerously digging a bigger hole through saying or doing something which you may regret when the dust settles.
In these moments of relationship ‘farce’, Ruth or I will often play our ace. One of us will operatically sing with exaggerated feeling ‘I love you your perfect now change!’ The person being serenaded usually starts to laugh and certainly begins to take themselves a little less seriously. Once humour starts to flow the issue begins to shrink.
I would like to offer some ideas which have the capacity to turn your relationship world upside down. Henning Mankell said that ‘sometimes the truth needs to be turned on its head to see its correct structure’. Surrounded by so many half baked notions is it any wonder (like the band Foreigner) we struggle to know what love is?
The first idea I would like to describe is the ‘compatibility myth’. Oh if I had a penny… when as a therapist I heard someone say ‘the problem is we are just not compatible anymore’. To those who have entertained this notion I reply: ‘Hallelujah and welcome to my world… the good news is that no couple is compatible’. This is greeted with relief as I describe how every couple has to find a way to manage incompatibility and explain that the ones who make their relationship look easy have usually put in the most work.
So if it’s a given that you will not agree on everything (or anything!) with your partner, you can take the ‘compatibility’ pressure off yourself. Freed from the performance anxiety to always get along with each other, you will ironically find yourself more capable of getting on. Where did the idea come from that you must agree on everything with each other anyway? Instead of taking offence, why not give grace? Who cares if there were seventy people at the party or merely fifty? Does it matter if the wallpaper is more orange than yellow? What’s at stake is far more than who’s right or wrong – what’s at stake is the perception we start to shape in our imagination that we can manage our incompatibility.
The second idea I’d like to share is the ‘arrival fallacy’. This is the belief that when you get that home, car, promotion or have children then and only then, can you really start living. It has been well said that ‘it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive’. Couples are often so busy building a future for themselves that they steal away the joy of the present, which is actually all you really have. How can you say with confidence that when you arrive at a point in time in your life you will know for certain how you will react? Do any of us know ourselves that well?
Why not challenge the perceived wisdom that external things should govern your internal state? How can you start to invest in your relationship today, not tomorrow? Remember, small differences create great change. Acts of kindness expressed to each other along with taking the time for perhaps 15 minutes per day to talk to each other about how you are doing, can go a huge way in conveying the importance of the relationship in a meaningful practical way.
We all know what it’s like to feel that we are living off the scraps in a relationship. If everything else gets the steak and the relationship is asked to survive on what’s left, the relationship will either limp along or collapse. If as a couple you place all your eggs into any external basket, don’t be surprised when you arrive at your destination to find you built pyrite foundations.
The third idea for your consideration is to imagine what it would be like if you were married to you? How much fun would that be? Perish the thought! Even the vainest egotist will, concede that ‘it can’t be easy being married to me’. Relationships are full of contradictions. This is why the one we love can hurt us the most and why best friends can become sworn enemies. You may remember the Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas starred movie the War of the Roses? This movie highlights how a loved up couple go from walking down the aisle to literally trying to kill each other. Here we see, beautifully enacted, where the pursuit of heaven ends up in hell.
You might believe that ‘if I could only iron out my partners creases then all would be well’. However not a single one of us has a monopoly on the truth or can see through every issue clearly. Many couples avoid trying to resolve issues because when they tried previously they ended up going round in circles. The art of compromise involves reaching a joint decision which both partners fully support, often in spite of neither person getting everything they desire.
What about the old chestnut which we often hold on to and rarely express directly, ‘Why can’t you just be more like me?’ Consider for a moment, when as part of a couple relationship, you feel you are not getting what you want. Is it not invariably so that your partner feels the same? How often have you thought ‘Oh if only s/he could see things my way, then all would be well’.
From this perspective of righteous indignation you can feel like the guy, who having broken through one wall with his head asked himself ‘what do I do now in the neighbouring cell?’ Of course you can choose to rally against the injustice of it all or emphasise how misunderstood you feel, yet all the while love will feel even more elusive. Or instead you can remind yourself that no one sees the full picture and your partner’s viewpoint matters to them as much as yours does to you. In relationships an issue for one party is an issue for both, wise is the man or woman who acts on this basis.
I would now like to offer a brief thought on the role of managing emotions in relationships. As emotional beings sometimes when we get what we want we feel that it’s not what we want anymore.Our emotions change like Irish weather. You have a choice: you either allow emotion to control you or learn to control your emotion. If emotion is the tail that wags the dog in your relationship then strap yourself in for a rollercoaster ride. Love is not a feeling it is an act of the will. Emotional maturity involves choosing to act lovingly even (or particularly) when you don’t feel like it. If that sounds trite, try it on for size to experience how much you control your emotion or how much it controls you.
Intimate relationships can be fantastically invigorating and at times extremely hard work. Think of how you can shift between these two states in a heartbeat. In relationships you can use each issue as an opportunity to confirm your belief that you are just not compatible and pull that parachute cord. Alternatively, you can inject some imagination into proceedings. Simply accept the invitation to creatively manage the inevitable incompatibilities which will arise. Resist the temptation to defer hope until you arrive, remember it’s the journey not the arrival. What’s the point of a relationship if we don’t pause en route to smell the roses? Lastly, if even you can admit it would be little fun if you were married to you, spare a thought for your long suffering partner. Rest assured the thought has crossed their mind too!
DON BOARDMAN: Don is a Senior Family Therapist/Supervisor. He has worked in Hesed House Psychotherapy service since June 2009 as a Family Therapist. Since becoming a supervisor in 2011. Don has continued to supervise individuals and groups of both systemically trained and non-systemic professionals.
At the start of 2011 Don began to collaborate with Padraic Gibson, Director of Hesed House in researching the efficacy of an Advanced Brief Strategic Therapy model. This research on OCD has been published in the British Medical Journal. Don and Padraic were invited by Imelda McCarthy and Gail Simon to contribute a chapter to their 2016 book ‘Systemic Therapy as Transformative Practice’.
Don is particularly inspired by the early pioneers in the systemic field and feels a particular affinity to the work of Paul Watzlawick. Through his research and practice Don endeavours to channel the same spirit of creativity and adventure which early systemic practice was immersed in. He also seeks to ground his systemic practice within a scientific method, namely looking for what works in helping clients to resolve their difficulties as quickly as possible.