by Sara Slater, LICSW
My favorite bit of relationship advice so far this new year: “don’t be relationally lazy.” The words of respected couples therapist, Esther Perel, remind me that when we don’t invest in our most important relationships, they stagnate. Or worse, we get strangled by the fallout from miscommunication or unintended injuries. Maybe there’s minimal conflict, but perhaps because there’s little engagement.
Are you relationally comfortable–or lazy?
Lets say you’ve been married for more than twenty years, together for longer. You text, talk on the fly, and try to solve problems while driving down the road. Is that efficient, or is that lazy? After all these years, its easy to assume you know everything about your partner–how he thinks, what makes her laugh, how to engage each other when one of you is distracted. Is that familiarity you’ve cultivated, or have you stopped really seeing your partner? If you’ve gone down one of those rabbit holes of miscommunication, and treat it like a big “what happened?” mystery, is that lazy? Or have you simply not invested the necessary effort in knowing what to do that sets you right side up again?
When we rely on quick fixes, emoticons to express ourselves, and communication that focuses on tasks and to dos, we only go so deep. We are responding, but not engaging. We may be checking things off the list (“yup, got milk, the kids have a ride, my parents arrive on Saturday”), but we are not seeing, or being seen. We may fool ourselves into thinking its “relational.” Or maybe it really is “a lack of effort or exertion,” as defined by good old Merriam Webster, which certainly doesn’t feel like caring.
And the cost of not exerting yourself?
You miss opportunities to show or experience tenderness. You miss sharing a course correcting laugh or a touch that brings the light back into one another’s eyes. You miss the chance for true repair, and the deepening of connection that can result. All necessary investments, and all risky, if we really want our relationship to flourish. Without investment in one another, we miss knowing, and being known. It’s frustrating, even infuriating, but “safe.”
The truth is that many of us have learned in myriad and subtle ways that being known has its dangers. In our earliest caregiving relationships, most of us have felt the sting of criticism and shame, the hurt of unmet expectations, or behaviors that feel unloving. We’ve learned to respond in ways that mitigate whatever feels unsafe in the relationship, because we’re all wired to protect ourselves. We all have “attachment wounds.”
The trouble here is that we’re protecting ourselves from the very people we’re asking to care for us, When we partner up, we become “family,” with its many associations both positive and negative, We’re easily triggered by the presence–or absence–of words, tone, and gestures, all the stuff of daily life. Attachment wounds prompt us to operate on autopilot and from memory, so if you don’t understand each others’s wounds, you are doomed to repeat them, again and again. If you’re not looking at one another, for example, you probably miss that something even happened. But you probably felt it, and moved on.
It is never too late to create the relationship you want
Our best relationship advice? It starts with curiousity–the same thing that prompted you to want to talk all night or ask a million questions when you were getting to know one another. Curiosity, genuine and without judgement, builds compassion. So when you really understand each other’s histories–not just the facts, but the feelings–you are in a position to help one another heal from them. You can literally learn what to do for one another that feels safe and loving, thus moving from shame, defensiveness and self protection to openness, mutuality, and security. When you allow yourselves to know and be known, you deepen the connection you felt at the start.
It isn’t easy–it takes effort, exertion, and the willingness to risk being vulnerable. Few of us can do this without help or support, and its even hard to remember that resources and supports exist. But the fact is that whats most important in creating a secure and loving partnership is a mutual commitment to becoming unlazy. Set that foundation with one another, and the door is open to learning, growth and connection.
Here’s a starting point
Imagine saying to your partner, “I think we can be better than this, and I want to work on things with you.” If that gave you pause, let me offer my other New Year’s mantra, from a favorite yoga teacher that becomes excellent relationship advice, “Discomfort is ok, pain is not.” When you consider becoming relationally unlazy, which is it for you?