Nobody pisses me off more than this guy. Nobody drives me crazier both in the yummy good and fuck off bad ways. No one has consistently made me feel more loved and cherished. Eric is a deeply kind and sweet human at heart. Ultimately, we play well together. A yin and yang of nerdy goodness. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of play in life and relationships. I also cannot emphasize enough the need to learn to do conflict well.
Romantic relationships are complicated. They are hard because they ask us to show up and grow in ways our friends and even family can’t. They show us all our facets and edges in real time when we are tired, sick, overwhelmed and humbly human. They ask us to check our expectations and to accept, forgive, and love unconditionally the flaws both we and our partners bring to the table. We’ve all got a long list of those, especially in midlife with an accumulation of patterns and baggage. Healthy relationships ask us to change, to evolve, to repair and shift those habits and hurts that hold us back from true connection and intimacy.
It’s easy to fall in love, to celebrate and have joy in the fun stuff with our best foot forward in the beginning. It helps that we are completely high on natural endorphins for the first six to nine months, giving us an immense amount of tolerance. This is why we have the expression “rosy glasses.” It’s not as easy to stay in love, the day by day patience it takes to say “I choose you” again and again sans major endorphins. Three years in and I still choose this dude. And it isn’t just because he has a nice butt, although that greatly helps.
Research says that everyone is challenging to live with and that we have to choose the person who’s issues we can handle. We generally choose issues that are familiar from our childhoods, which is good and hard depending on your childhood. It also says that there are no perfect relationships, only good enough ones. Ones where your partner meets your emotional needs around 60-80% of the time. The numbers report 63% of the time we will not agree with one another. The trick is to find understanding and connection, not agreement. Some people are shocked by these stats. Current societal expectations are that your person meets your everything. This is complete bullshit and will doom a relationship with the pressure. Our isolated American culture makes matters worse with nuclear families and a loss of intimate community. We need to learn to resource our many different kinds of connections and maintain them for health.
To complicate matters, the way relationships are done is changing a lot. It’s only in recent history that we married for love and not contract or social obligation. People have increasing freedom to choose HOW they do relationship. There is the obvious template of get married, live together, have a family, stay together. That’s great if it’s what you want, or it works out. Not everyone wants that and not every couple is able to make it work. Some people want multiple partners at once, some are serial monogamous and unmarried, some people don’t want to live together but be together. Some people want co-parents, some companions, some lovers, some partners, some spouses. Some want lots of sex, some none, some want financial aid and support, some none. Some require sailing. It’s all good as long as you are open about it. It can be confusing and empowering these days as we try to figure out our own rubric. It can also change with partner and life context.
Self-awareness and communication are key. Being honest with your experience and truth creates connection. Mutual consent on the ground rules and expectations are important. I was clear from the beginning with Eric that I wanted a companion, not a partner. That for now I have no interest in living with someone or combining the logistics of our lives. That our relationship was for fun, growth and support but not marriage or a traditional path. I love it that as a modern woman who makes her own living, I have the freedom to request that. Eric was open to it and has adapted from a more traditional way of relationship. Research also says that accepting your partners influence creates health and stability. In heterosexual relationships specifically men who accept influence from their partners fair better. This is in part because of restrictive masculinity and men learning to connect on a more emotional level. Connecting is also about conflict, which has a bad reputation as commonly defined by fighting. It is actually a daily mundane venture. We have conflict even in small moments such as what to have for dinner: you want a burger, they want pizza.
In this way, conflict is unavoidable. It is HOW we do the conflict that makes it or breaks it. Besides the mild conflict collaboration of dinner, some conflicts are intense and painful. They create rupture in connection as we disagree and fight to be heard. Even the mundane burger vs pizza can reach a crescendo if not engaged well. Although take note: it’s never about the burger or pizza and always about a lack of connection. Each rupture is an opportunity for repair, each repair creates more trust. Repair is about understanding and compassion, not always agreement and resolution. It is about safety and helping your partner feel they are important through empathy. “I know you had a really hard day and were craving pizza as a reward and comfort.”
One of the hardest questions in conflict is: are you relating to your partner in the moment or your partner with ghosts of the past projected onto them? Or both? Sometimes when I am completely losing my shit on Eric I realize that while he may have triggered this cascade of rage within me, I am really fighting with my parents, with past lovers, with my rapist, sometimes with the whole system of white male supremacy. Ummmmm…..that’s excruciatingly painful and not fair. It’s also human. We are habitual creatures with deep neuropathways of relating that go back to day one. The good news is that our brains are plastic and we can create new ones as we learn to engage differently and heal. This is where the work comes in. Both partners need skills and understanding to grow. Therapy can be super helpful.
My favorite modalities of couples work are Gottman, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and PACT therapy. All three have the best current research and interventions to help a couple grow. All also focus on resiliency and the strengths in a relationship in order to address the challenges. Humans have a negativity bias inherent to our perception of the world. As a survival mechanism we focus on the challenge or scary bits as we did poisonous berries or tigers back in the cave days of our prefrontal cortex development. We needed to remember that shit, so we don’t die. We also evolved as pack animals, wired for connection to survive. We need one another so we don’t die. You can see putting these two mechanisms together how the people closest to us are critical to health, and also can be a huge survival trigger. The body responds unconsciously and viscerally to safe/unsafe. Those of us with anxiety or trauma tend to focus on unsafe more, our poor scared brains constantly scanning for protection. One way I cope with my own triggers is to not only practice soothing skills and mindfulness of coming into the moment, but also focusing on the positives of Eric and our relationship.
I have a photo album dedicated to Eric for when I need a reminder. I have a list on my phone of sweet and funny things he’s done for a reminder. I look at these not only when I’m mad, but also when I’m feeling loving towards him. Sometimes I write a blog. I practice emphasizing the good moments when we have them by scanning my body and taking a snapshot in my mind of what is happening and what it feels like. I do all of this because it helps me feel more joy in the moment and also because I can access it easier when I feel like I might kill him. So I can remember when I am no longer relating to Eric but to my own wounds from the past. Eric is Eric, not other men who have assaulted or hurt me. Sometimes I also need the reminder from wounds in our own relationship. There certainly there have been hurts caused by both of us in three years and it’s easy to have a chain reaction back to “remember when you did this?!” Eric is Eric now, not Eric from three years ago. Breathe. Mantra: Eric is a deeply kind and sweet human. Remember: We are on the same team.
Since this is a sailing blog I want to note that all of this is true in any configuration and context, and that sailing together heightens all of it. The good and the bad. You are two people in close quarters, depending on one another for your life, problem solving ever changing conditions and trouble shooting never ending systems issues. Often you are away from community and resources and relying on one another in ways that most couples do not. It takes immense trust and patience, so all of the foundation work you do outside of intense situations is critical. Communicate dear sailors, communicate often, authentically and about everything. Learn to communicate well. In conclusion I am going to state what is the best practice, policy and expectation in relationship that makes it last: Kindness. If you have compassion and curiosity for when you are unkind and a willingness to engage to get back to it…you can make it work. If you have someone who has an intention and practice of kindness with you, you’ve got a winner. The good news is the research says that too.
May we all sail in peace.