There’s no such thing as a ‘relationship problem’. A romantic relationship, and even a marriage, at its most fundamental and technical, represents the agreement of two people with common goals. Two individuals agreeing informally or formally to ‘do life’ together. But that arrangement isn’t organic; it doesn’t get sick, suffer PMS, or endure mood swings. A relationship won’t argue when you leave the toilet seat up or throw a fit for spending too much at ULTA. Relationships aren’t alive; the people in them are. So why do we insist otherwise?
I’ve purchased several homes in my life. Many fell through before closing. The contract was never to blame. It was merely a piece of paper explaining how much I would pay and the conditions under which I would do so. The sale fell through because one or both parties were unable to abide by or re-negotiate on terms. We didn’t have a ‘contract problem’. We had a ‘buyer/seller problem’. Relationships are no different.
The older I get the more I come to understand how important language really is. For someone to say they are having ‘relationship problems’ is like saying I had a ‘contract problem’ when I didn’t close on the 3 BR/ 2 BA. Or believing I have a ‘rake problem’ because the leaves aren’t cleared. The relationship, like the rake or a contract, is only a means. We’re on the hook for the work. To have ‘relationship problems’ distracts us from the reality that we have ‘we problems’.
I believe most of us genuinely know this yet find it easy to complain we’re having ‘relationship problems’. Maybe that phrase is just welded into our vernacular and we don’t realize what we’re saying, besides, everyone knows what we really mean and I’m just being dramatic. Or maybe, at an unconscious level, there’s something more to it, revealing one of our most debilitating beliefs and greatest causes of relationship unhappiness.
There is a basic human desire, this side of Eden, to blame anyone or anything, other than ourselves, when something goes wrong. Just ask a parent, or marriage critic. There’s a belief that high divorce rates and generally perceived martial unhappiness, isn’t the fault of the people who are married, but this ludicrous idea of marriage itself. They claim the high expectations of monogamy, specifically in the confines of matrimony, are unreasonable and unnecessary in our socially evolved civilization. That after five millennia of precedent, marriage is now the basis for many of our social ills and if we just stopped this cultural, and particularly Christian, insanity of expecting people to marry, we’d all be happier and have better sex.
Thinking this way is flawed.
Much like believing that marriage is the real issue instead of the people marrying wrong or for the wrong reasons; saying that we have ‘relationship problems’ distracts us from painful reality. It gives us a false sense of our own innocence, that we aren’t to blame for our relationship chaos. When I can blame a thing, I don’t have to blame me.
If there were just one silver bullet that would make our marriages last and our relationships more fulfilling, it wouldn’t be wives and husbands having more sex or reading the latest marriage repair book. Though both do help. It wouldn’t require more couple’s counseling or bigger bank accounts. The single very best way to make our relationships and marriages better is by each partner taking responsibility for the relationship. Notwithstanding the collective eye roll and ‘tell us something we didn’t know’, I’m not sure any of us, including myself, understand what this looks like in real life.
In almost six years together, the Queen and I have gotten rather good at sensing conflict and friction between us. Living apart does make it difficult, but just like the blind whose other senses are enhanced; our extended bouts of separation mean we’re more sensitive in other ways when something isn’t right. This usually shows itself as greater emotional distance as our physical separation continues. During those times apart, we lose focus on each other, because we don’t see each other, and we put it towards others, namely our kids. Phone calls become less frequent and Facetime chats a bit more formal and obligatory.
During these times, I want to gravitate towards, ‘What’s wrong with HER?’ ‘Why is SHE acting this way? By mistakenly assuming the problem is on her and she’s just acting selfish and withdrawn, I start to pull farther away in response, worsening the emotional gulf already between us.
But what if, instead of looking to her as the source, I looked at myself first? What would happen, in those moments when I want to assume she has the problem, I consider how I might be contributing to it? What have I been doing to stay connected to her and focused on her? To paraphrase the biblical edict, am I considering the log in my eye before criticizing the speck in hers? But isn’t this is part of the human condition? Amid turmoil, isn’t our natural reaction to focus on the impact on us and the fault of another? ‘He doesn’t communicate with Me’, ‘She doesn’t want to have sex with ME’. Our narcissism, and hypocrisy, blinds us.
Instead of asking why he doesn’t talk to you, would it be better to consider what you might be doing that would keep him from wanting to? Just because she doesn’t want sex anymore, does this mean you are right to automatically assume she isn’t living up to her end of the relationship bargain? Instead of jumping to some selfish conclusion would it help if you start by asking what you are doing that may be turning her off?
Over time I’ve gotten lots of emails from readers talking about the problems in their relationships. Each note ends in a similar tone, ‘How can I get ______ to do ______?’ It’s a bad question reflective of that same dangerous thinking.
Our first responsibility should be to look at ourselves first and how we may be contributing to the general conflict, in other words taking responsibility for the relationship. What we can’t do, if we want our relationships to thrive, is immediately assume any problem, disagreement, or conflict is the fault of the other person, or to sound less arrogant and whiny, call it a ‘relationship problem’. There are no ‘relationship problems’ there are only ‘people problems’, and if we want to make our relationships and marriages better, the first people to look to for the solution should always be ourselves.