As a practitioner of family law who oversees, manages and bears witness to the breakdown and failure of spousal and family relationships, as someone who has been through a divorce and remarried, and as someone who reflects and reads about those issues, I’d like to think I have some insight into the genesis, longevity and breakdown of spousal relationships.
Starting a relationship is easy. Getting into a new relationship is an exciting, thrilling and delightful proposition. Becoming addicted to falling in love is an easy thing. Each graze is electric. That desire of wanting and feeling the rush of fresh love’s excitement is a powerful one.
The euphoria of falling in love makes the first part of the relationship feel natural if not inevitable. But staying in love is a different proposition from falling in love.
The word ‘falling’ gives the sense of it being out of our control. And to a certain extent that is true – when we discover our love for someone, we are at that same moment also swept up by its passions, we are powerless in its gravity.
‘Staying’ however suggests intentionality; staying is something within our control; staying is a decision that we make. Staying is also something we have to preserve and protect. Staying means we have to do things that make and help us stay in a relationship.
In that respect, I have some suggestions for general consideration. They are not unique, original or fresh. If you read enough books about relationships, you would have picked these up. I offer these suggestions in this configuration because I have thought about them, lived them and think if we keep these ideas close, we are likelier to sustain a relationship.
All my suggestions have a common theme to them: open, frank and respectful communication and intentional commitment are key to cultivating and sustaining a relationship.
These are not hard and fast rules guaranteed to ensure a solid and stable relationship. Each relationship is different because each of us is different, but I believe there are some suggestions that hold true regardless. These suggestions become particularly relevant after the first flush of passion has faded into the reality of a relationship.
First, communication. Without communication, there is no relationship. What we say, confide, whisper and gasp to each other are the building blocks of a relationship. Every day, there must be a conversation. Some days, secrets may be shared that we tell no one else.
We got into a relationship because there was a point when we delighted in communicating with each other; when we couldn’t help but text, email and speak to each other; when we were each other’s favourite person to communicate with. We must remember this, cherish this and reaffirm this.
When I say communicate, I do not simply mean speaking to each other. I also mean listening to each other. Listening not just to know what is said but to hear what is meant. Communication includes both. Now, too often, too many talk and too few listen. Too often, we listen only enough to know when the other person stops speaking so we can speak.
We have to listen not only for the exciting, novel or flattering but more importantly, we have to listen to the boring, tedious and uninteresting. Not every moment in a relationship is a highlight. In fact, there are many moments of mundanity in a long-term relationship. It is up to our creativity and commitment to transform as many of those into memorable or delightful ones.
Second, being together. We must spend time together. Being in or near each other’s physical presence, existing together, doing things together, being together with others, sharing things. Even better, constantly think of ways to delight each other. Each moment, occasion or feeling builds upon the last.
If we are not together, don’t do things together, don’t think about how to make our partner happy, and don’t communicate with each other, there is no ‘us’. We do not have a relationship, just an aspiration or illusion of it.
Third, intimacy and affection. If we used the Motion Picture Association of America’s Ratings for movies, affection would be PG-rated material (handholding, hugs, kiss on the cheek, coy glances at each other) and intimacy would be R-rated material and up (if I had to give examples of that, you shouldn’t be reading this).
Affection and intimacy are bodily communications. It should be daily, often and habitual. It also implies closeness of proximity. Touch tethers; touches bind; caresses forge; kisses seal. Ironically, with media and marketing steeped with sex, we have become fearful of intimacy or affection because these days it implies leading towards a relationship breakdown, pain and loneliness. It is typified in these two lines in a popular song below.
I’d rather be lonely, yeahLeave Before You Love Me by Marshmellow and the Jonas Brothers:
Than wrapped around your body too tight
For that, I primarily blame the media’s use of sex to sell. Modern marketing has hollowed out and debased intimacy and affection by conflating the sexual with the sensual. It has turned sensual acts into a narrow path to sex instead of ends to be savoured in and of themselves.
In such an environment, it is difficult to appreciate and discern others’ affection for affection’s sake and intimacy for intimacy’s sake, without the spectre of sex. Sex without intimacy and affection will never be a sufficient enough basis for a relationship.
Fourth, gratitude. We should be grateful for each other, for the relationship we share, the beauty and blessings that flow from our relationship. We should be grateful for even just the opportunity of it. We are grateful when we speak of our partner’s goodness to others and reserve the bad only for them, instead of the other way around.
We should remind ourselves we are fortunate to be able to direct our love to someone and to have someone to love us in return. Never mind if it is imperfect. No one is perfect, anyway. Never mind if it is not all we want. To have all we want is a curse, anyway.
It is easy to forget, overlook and take for granted what is there. But when we appreciate what we already have, we instantly become wealthier for it. Nowhere is this more relevant than when it comes to our relationships.
Fifth, resolve relationship issues with each other. If there is something not working or we are unhappy about the relationship, raise it. Of course, not every complaint or grievance warrants this. A relationship is a compromise between at least two people. There has to be a great deal of giving and taking and letting things slide. This is crucial to maintaining trust. Pedantry and pettiness are harmful to a relationship.
Complaining to someone else does not solve the situation. It merely brings some measure of relief in its ventilation. A solution or resolution can only come between the couple. Seeking a solution or temporary relief from the misery of the situation with someone or somewhere else will deepen and complicate the initial issue. Unless we’re talking about therapy. That’s different.
An anatomy of an affair goes like this: One-half of the relationship is unhappy with the relationship for some reason. The unhappy half fears telling their partner would cause them great pain, shock and grief such that it may end the relationship. They don’t know how to explain it to others or are too embarrassed to do so. So they avoid bringing it up and try to live with the situation.
To a certain extent they can live with it but it will eventually be an unhappy, miserable and growingly intolerable compromise. Since they hide away their unhappiness from their other half, they are forced to seek solace, comfort and what they lack elsewhere, such as pathologies, an affair, and fetishes, for example. By then, they would have found more things to be unhappy about with their other half and the relationship.
The greater the pain, the more there is to hide. The more to hide the less opportunity is there to communicate. Less communication leaves more room for miscommunication. And miscommunication leads to greater relationship complications.
If there is an issue with the relationship, we are under a duty to speak to our partners about it, no matter how upsetting or painful it may be for them. Although we want to spare them grief and misery and keep them happy and content, we owe our partners a higher duty of honesty.
When I speak about honesty, I mean only those issues important for the flourishing of the relationship or may lead to its destruction. Not every little bit of truth or issue needs to be raised and resolved for a romantic relationship to work. Having a relationship with complete honesty is like living in a very bright fluorescent-light-lit room; it’s ugly.
There needs to be a certain degree of ambiguity and deception in a relationship for it to work. The qualification is it should be reserved mainly on matters of opinion, not fact. For example, if I am ever asked by my wife (or any woman) if I think she looks fat, the answer is always, always, always, no. There is less of a need for truths in matters of pure subjective opinion.
I hope you find some use for the suggestions above and wish you a wonderful relationship with your significant other or others.
1 thought on “A Divorce Lawyer’s Suggestions on Sustaining a Relationship”
Insightful and constructive words in the midst of my collapsing marriage. As always eloquently written.