Relationships have changed dramatically over the decades. Back in the day most people simply got married. Few of us got any skills training, roles were more clearly defined, divorce was rare and expectations were radically different. Where did you learn from, did you just model your parents’ behaviour? Were you influenced by the movies we watched and Hollywood’s idea of romance?
Today authentic communication is what is needed, but are we fully prepared for that? Mutual understanding seems to be a rare gift in a modern relationship. Over 20 years ago, Psychotherapist Malcolm Stern realised the deep need people have for learning how to be together. Since then, he wrote his book Falling In Love/Staying in Love and his experience working with groups and individuals led him to be the co-presenter of Channel 4’s prime time relationship series Made For Each Other in 2003-2004. We invited London-based Malcolm to join us at Conscious Cafe Skipton in March to talk about how we can develop the necessary skills to transform our relationships.
Relationships are where we learn about ourselves
Malcolm opened the evening with a sharing about his own personal relationships journey and how he came to specialise in this area. He said that being in a relationship is one of the greatest tools we have in our lives because you can’t hide in a relationship. This is where we are most exposed -there really is nowhere to hide. You have to be willing to grow, whatever age you are, because life is always about learning who we are and how we are being. If you want to develop yourself then you need to be in a relationship.
It’s all about LOVE
A relationship is really an opportunity to practice the skills of loving. We only have one task in life that is to learn to love. As much as we need to look after ourselves, we can’t really do this in isolation. Few of us ever fly alone in this world. In quoting from ‘The Prophet’ (Kahlil Gibran) Malcolm said “Relationships will strip us to the bone, they will show us where the shadow is in play”.
The skills that we need to survive relationships, and for life in general, are kindness, thoughtfulness, listening and companionability.
Relationships are rarely problem-free
To create learning for our evening, Malcolm offered the opportunity for an attendee to step forward into the centre of our circle and present their relationship problems for insights. Malcolm pointed out that the group dynamic has enormous power in creating a safe space for opening up and sharing our wisdom, and the most powerful thing that can be offered is our presence and our ability for intentional listening. This depth of sharing would educate us all beyond anything that Malcolm alone could offer. If we can find out what the learning is in the relationship challenges we have, or have had, that is a true gift for all.
- Newsflash: Relationships are complex. We can learn from other people’s stories. Don’t fall in to the trap of creating something that fulfils the expectations of others. Social conditioning can run deep so keep in mind what it is you want in the relationship.
- So far there is no training school for marriage, we simply do our best. In the end children are the witnesses to the relationship. They carry forward what they learn from you then they take their own trajectory, as we did from our parents.
- You have to be strong for yourself inside a relationship as it does take strength and resilience to decide and then act on what you want for yourself. You cannot be in a sustainable relationship and let it stop you doing what you want or being who you need to be.
- We can’t let the other in a relationship hold us back. A core feature of being human is the need for us to be able to live our lives in our fullness. Without this we would be poorer. There comes a time when we might need to leave a relationship because of this holding back and when we do, the ending has to be done with compassion. But it must be done.
- Never hurt anyone more than you have to. Learn how to say difficult things.
- Be aware of new boundaries that you might need to draw around yourself. Saying a definite “No” to someone actually helps create a boundary for you. As hard as it is for some people to do this, and not be mealy-mouthed or wishy washy, practice and develop the skill of saying No. I can’t do that. That’s not for me.
- Get to recognise what saying no feels like in your body. Thinking it is not the same as declaring it and owning the sentiment. That will have a feeling that you need to become familiar with. Are you freezing up? Are you remembering to breathe? Get out of your head and register your thoughts as feelings in your body. In my experience, most women find this easier, or more familiar, than many men.
- The bigger the conversation, the more important it is to breathe.
- When a relationship ends, moving on to another relationship to fill the void is never a wise idea. It is important to take time to process .. give ourselves space for learning before we move on. Fires and frying pans come to mind. Bearing in mind this may well be a time of great sadness, it is important to seek the support of people who can help you.
- Explore your feelings and name them. You get a much clearer idea about yourself, your needs, if you can verbalise and put words to what is going on inside. It helps you to understand yourself more.
- Get clear, get support, then make your choice.
- Know when you are ready for a new relationship. Be able to say a strong yes when asked if you are. From being on your own and healing from your last relationship, you will likely reach a point, a ripening, when you know you have integrated your learnings and are ready to move forward in to the next relationship.
- Know what you want in a relationship. Forget physical attributes and hobbies Yes, these are important, but relationship success is going to come from a set of values and qualities that you want to share with the other. Qualities like kindness, integrity, support and communication. And for each one, know what it looks like for you. Does support mean strong arms to hold you? It’s really helpful to be specific - precise.
- For everything that is on your list of Wants, you have to be willing to give these back to the other.
- A complication of modern relationships, especially later in life, is the presence of children from former relationships and the need to create a blending of a new family. Not all families have to live together all the time - be creative in how you bring everyone together and consider the continuance of having two homes. Work out what you need to have for your personal relationship to work. What else can work in supporting the step-children to continue in the homes they know? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to create another nuclear family.
- From double to single to double again? People who have been in long term marriages for most of their lives and then find themselves single in later life, have to look deeply into what they want out of a new relationship, if at all. Maybe we need to be creative about how we spend our lives and balance our need for intimacy and connection with our desire for personal space.
- Is society expecting you to look for a relationship once you are single again? Is this what you want, do you really want to live with someone again and be in a relationship? We carry the scars from before, it’s up to us how we resolve these. Friendship and connections are really important to us - we have to look to our needs to see how best to satisfy them, in a way that is good for us.
- Know what you want. Malcolm quoted Thomas Hubl who said “The essence of love is precision”. That gave us all something to think about, and you can see the quality of precision needed to ask yourself good questions: What do I need? What does that need look like? Really think about the essential qualities you desire in another so that you do not end up settling for less. The clearer we can be about our own needs, the better chance we have of successfully satisfying them.
- Stand your ground early in a relationship - don’t put up with crap. If you partner acts weird you have to ask yourself if this is acceptable for you. You get what you tolerate. Something to think about.
- Staying inside a relationship requires work to keep it successful. Everything changes all the time and you have to grow with that. It always comes back to your why - you have to ask yourself what do I want to get out of this?
- The bottom line to a successful relationship is to really think about the essential qualities that are important to you in a partner and not to settle for less.
- Are you right for each other? You need to have a resonance between you and there are four areas to look at:
- Physical: just being together feels right, walking, chatting with friends .. and of course a sexual connection that works
- Mental: even if you don’t have the same choice of newspapers being able to exchange ideas and a stimulating conversation is important. Being able to bounce a conversation back and forth.
- Emotional: can you handle each other at an emotional level? Can you handle their anger .. hold their sadness?
- Spiritual: does the energy between you feel sympatico? Do you have a sense that you are more than just two individuals and that there is a connection to the divine? What you are passionate about has to be there in the other person.