The Culture of Relationships

Our society, culture, families, and friends preach a certain narrative about how to love. Who do we listen to? And why does it matter?

“I don’t want to seem needy” she laments.

“All my friends have relationships, I don’t. I must be screwed up.” Says another.

“I try to play it off like his actions don’t matter,” she adds, “because I want to be cool.”

“A lot of my friends cheat or have a wandering eye,” he says. “I don’t, I love my wife, and I want to be with her. I can’t tell her that, though.”

As a therapist I deal in relationships. Most aches and pains are the pangs of hurt hearts. And most people I know would readily trade those deep hurts for flesh wounds because those would hurt less. This is love. It sucks.

Week after week I see amazing, talented, kind couples in my office. They are smart and successful in their own right. They know how to do things. They know how to talk and explain and articulate themselves. But they all hit the same roadblock no matter who they are or where they’re from: they can’t communicate with the love of their lives. Don’t get me wrong, they struggle mightily: they speak, gesticulate, they yell, they write letters, poems, even songs. Why is it so hard?

These couples aren’t broken, nor are they unusual. These are mindful, professional people — often with no actual flesh wounds. Except that along the way, they have realized they don’t know how to actually express their feelings to their partner and, in return, listen to their partner’s feelings.

Is it really that hard? Is it supposed to be hard if it’s right? Yes. A relationship — even with your soulmate — is the hardest, most worthwhile thing you will ever do in your life.

A relationship is a living, breathing entity. Our culture suggests that it is static. Our media suggests that you “get” the girl, that you “find” Mr. Right, and that’s where the movie ends. In fact, that’s where all the good stories actually start. And they don’t actually get to the great part until a few years later. No one talks about the grind, the struggle that two people need to have in order to MAKE their relationship.

Your love story is made, it is not suddenly inhabited as our culture would have you believe.

There are books on leadership and team-building, I see people reading them on the train. Our culture values understanding team dynamics and theories about motivation. It’s a folly to approach human interaction from the outside in. The real hard-wiring of a communicative person occurs in the bosom of a beautiful, relevant bond: for young people this is a parent, and for older people this is usually a romantic partner. If you feel safe and honored at home, then your other interactions are not so fraught, they have their place and you don’t expect or demand from others what you might have gotten out of that one bond.

That’s why communication is hard for people. Because no one taught you that relationships require brutal honesty about your feelings and that in order to make it good there will be hours and nights and weekends filled with teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing. Going through this process with a person will change both of you into spectacular beings if you do it properly.

And that’s why we hone communication skills in counseling. It is not to point out your flaws — we are all deeply flawed (don’t date someone who thinks they are flawless), but rather, to help you inhabit your kindest, highest self so that you can speak to someone else’s kindest, highest self in the effort to live a great, fruitful life together that benefits mankind. They ought to teach this stuff in elementary school, but they don’t (yet).

Relationships are misunderstood. They are portrayed as brief moments of ecstasy or they are painful breakups waiting to happen. They are never slow, steady, deepening bonds over a lifetime. Alas, this narrative doesn’t sell tickets. But it should. There is nothing more incredibly satisfying than to hear a man say to his love, “you get me. I feel like I have a place in the world now. I want to keep talking like this.”

Committing to the conversation, the project, the team, the pain, the joy. Being open to transformation, self-betterment, ego-less love.

Day after day.

That’s a relationship.