I’ve been reading a book lately about relationships, specifically about making relationships work. It’s called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (affiliate link). I’m not married, no, and my relationship is working just fine, but it seems to me that everywhere I turn, relationships are failing and it makes me nervous. One of my good friends here is in a marriage that on the outside seems lovely, but it turns out is on the brink of collapse. A couple that ML and I are good friends with and who were living together broke up. My parents are moving forward with divorce procedures. It’s enough to make me start to withdraw into the safe dark hole I keep for myself as a last resort, a hole that makes me feel safe and guarded from exposure, but a hole that isn’t particularly good for ML to be able to find me. And so, I’m reading this book.
Part of it is that apparently one of my values is order (surprise!) and another of my values is mastery. (This I have learned from exercises I’ve done with the help of my career coach.) Reading about things and preparing for things helps me feel in control of things; creating a working system for dealing with problems helps me feel productive and confident and content. Plus, a book of seven principles? A list of ways to have a good relationship? Based on research? That produces results? Count me in. I love shit like that. It’s like a problem-solving triage. In a fight? Let’s go through our seven principles to make sure we’re not getting in a nasty shouting match flooding gridlock.
Thing is, ML gets sort of skeeved by my reading relationship self-help books. “We’re fine,” she said, “why do you need to read that?” Because I want to, because it helps me feel secure. With relationships failing all the time, I like to be sure I’m doing everything I can to keep ours on solid footing. And I want to be intentional about it, rather than one day years from now waking up and realizing that we’ve let it slide. “Ok then,” she said, “but you don’t expect me to read it, right?” No, I don’t. I don’t expect her to read it.
But then I realized I was fighting some voice in my head that was all she doesn’t want to work for this relationship as much as you do. She’s not as invested in it as you are. She just wants it to be easy, which means that when it’s not she’s going to run. And I let that little voice in my head kick around for a day or two, feeling a bit uneasy. And yet, as I was reading the book, I was learning that we already adhere to all the principles, just by accident, just because we’re awesome. And then I came to the principle about how to solve problems, and how to recognize which problems are perpetual because they’re grounded in something other than the surface problem, because they’re grounded in clashes that run much deeper… and I read how when you find a problem like that, it’s going to be one that strikes a nerve, and what you have to do is figure out what the actual problem is and relate to each other and be willing to understand what that actual problem is in order to get anywhere. And I realized that the actual problem in the whole little-voice-in-my-head-saying-she’s-not-working-as-hard situation is really this: I like to know, I like to have solutions, I like to be prepared, I like to have a system for things, I like to plan ahead. So reading a relationship book is a way for me to have all that, to appease my want for a personal sense of security. As for her? She doesn’t care for any of that, she doesn’t try to always be prepared, she certainly doesn’t have systems in place for things, and she’s not much of one for planning ahead. She just takes things as they come. In fact, for her, seeing me reading this book made her feel a little uneasy, because it looked to her like I thought there already were problems that I needed to turn to a book to fix. For her, it triggered an insecurity that she was doing something wrong that I wasn’t communicating to her.
And once I understood that that’s what was going on, I was flooded with … something. Not relief, really. Just calm. This is just the two of us, it’s the way we work. We have different values, different stuff going on in the backdrops of our minds, different perceptions of the same scenario. And with that understanding of what’s actually going on in our minds, beyond the surface tension of why-don’t-you-value-our-relationship vs. why-do-you-think-our-relationship-has-problems, it’s so much easier to value and respect our differences, and to accept them without being critical, defensive, or insecure. So, for me, the book has already been helpful. It’s already helped me see that every relationship has those kinds of differences, and the point is to handle them graciously and with a willingness to learn about each other, rather than a desire to force one another to change.
So now I can continue reading the book without her being suspicious, and I’m completely okay with her not ever reading it. And in fact? We had a really good conversation about one of the concepts I’ve picked up in it (an argument will end in the same tone in which it started, or worse, which means if an argument starts out harshly and defensively, we can’t expect it to end gently and respectfully!), and she was receptive to talking about it, and it was helpful for both of us.
I’m continually in awe of our capacity for loving and understanding each other.