Problems in our relationships are exclusively the result of our partner's hang-ups.
That's how the Dr. Jekyll within us sees it.
But fortunately, there's a Mr. Hyde side to us as well.
The problem might not be our partner at all. It might be our own inability to "rise to the occasion."
A relationship is a mirror where you see a reflection of yourself -- the good and the bad. Sometimes you wince at what you see. But before you end a promising relationship, understand that the source of your pain doesn't always stem from your partner. You just might be out of relationship-shape, and not ready to look into that mirror and see yourself for what you are.
In "You Just Don't Understand," Deborah Tannen describes a complaint wives have about their husbands. Wives often say that their husbands clam-up at home and don't communicate. Then the husband who has almost nothing to talk about with his wife goes to a party and is transformed into a spellbinding conversationalist! The wife wonders, "Is this the same man? He's almost mute with me. Now at the party he's Larry King Live!"
Is this the same man? At the party he's Larry King Live!"
Tannen explains this behavior by noting two types of talk -- private talk and public talk. Private talk is about your private inner world, feelings, fears, joys and thoughts. Public talk is about the outside world, business, sports, politics and film. Women are better with private talk and want to share private talk with their husbands. Men typically have a harder time opening up about their inner-most thoughts. But when men are in a social environment, their public talk flows easily.
Did the man whose wife complains there's not enough communication between them ever think of himself as not being a good communicator? I bet the thought never crossed his mind before he got married! He probably never imagined he had poor communication skills. Ever since his junior high school days he knew he could "shoot the breeze" with his friends. But now that he's in a relationship that demands a level of intimacy beyond anything he's ever known, his communication abilities appear in a whole new light.
When you live alone, you're never fully aware of how you present yourself to the world. No one is there to "call you" on your behavior. When you're married and your spouse sees you for all that you are, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid facing up to the real you.
BAD HABITS DIE HARD
I became a rabbi three years before I married. My training included many hours of studying Talmudic and rabbinical texts on married life. So I thought married life wouldn't surprise me too much. Wrong.
Married life has been -- and continues to be -- my greatest on-going revelation about myself. What I knew about myself when I was single and what I know about myself after 10 years of marriage is literally night and day! When I lived alone, I got along very well with myself. Since I'm married, I've seen many habits that I'm not so proud of.
Could I blame my wife for my bad habits? I never had them when I was single! We become blind to our shortcomings. We even find some of these shortcomings delightful!
We become blind to our shortcomings -- and may even find them delightful!
Yet as painful as it might be to admit, I always had the bad habits. I just never noticed them.
WATCH OUT FOR KRYPTONITE
Recently I saw a comic strip that portrayed an older, pot-bellied Superman holding a can of beer and sitting in front of the TV. Standing over him is his wife who says: "You can change the course of mighty rivers, but you can't remember to put your dirty socks in the laundry!"
The comic is saying that you can be a superman to the outside world, yet fall short in your own home. Do you think Superman had a problem leaving his dirty sock around when he was single? I bet those socks never became an issue until he got married and this bad habit bothered his wife.
Do you think Superman had a problem with dirty socks when he was single?
This reality check is an essential part of a healthy relationship. It's a blessing to finally discover more of who you really are -- especially to discover aspects of self that you made allowances for before, or perhaps never even noticed. You might want to run away from this self-discovery. It's scary to face up to yourself!
When you weigh the pros and cons of any relationship, don't just look at your partner's shortcomings. Look at your own. And at the very least, consider that it may be you who's keeping the relationship from working as well as it could.
PERSONAL TRAINER WORKOUT
To really absorb these lessons, commit 5-10 minutes a day over the next month to write down the following. Trust me, there is nothing like doing this with pen and paper.
1. Make a list of the people you've dated. Answer the following three questions:
- What was working well in the relationship?
- What was not working well?
- Why did the relationship eventually end?
2. Looking over your answers, ask yourself three additional questions:
- What character strengths and weaknesses were at play?
- Who, and to what degree, was responsible for the good and the bad in the relationship?
- Would she/he agree with your assessment? If not, how do you know you're right?
3. Do the above exercise with each of the relationships you listed in question one. Pay attention to the "deal-breaker" -- is it always the same? Do your relationships end over the same issue?
4. Based on all your observations, if you could script a new character strength into your personality that would help you overcome the trouble spots, what would you wish for?
5. Make a plan to acquire your wish. Be specific.