How to Not Suck at Relationships

Meghan Nesmith | February 16, 2017

Thank goodness for experts

English writer Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, KBE, aka P. G. Wodehouse, takes tea with his wife Ethel in Remsenburg, New York State, 14th December 1974. The great humorist had just been informed of the KBE (Knight Commander of the British Empire) bestowed on him by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. (Photo by Michael Brennan/Getty Images)

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My latest recurring nightmare is that I’m back with one of my exes. I’m bewilderingly unhappy, because I know there was a time I was deeply loved and secure, but I can’t remember who made me feel that way. It’s a kind of selective amnesia: dream-self scrolls through her past relationships, trying to find the needle in the haystack of trash men. I wake up, feverish, and then my partner is there, snoring, and I barnacle myself to him until he sleepily shakes free. The relief I feel — knowing he’s real and mine — is almost terrifying.

So why do I treat him like shit?

I’ve destroyed or watched fire engulf all of my previous relationships; before meeting my current boyfriend, I’d been single for five years. If you don’t do something for five years, anything — needlepoint, squats, eyeliner — you become pretty crap at it, so it stands to reason that in some ways, I forgot how to be a girlfriend.

I’m needy, childish, jealous. I snap over the boxers he leaves in the bathroom and strong-arm him in tossing shoes I don’t like. I have a serious lack of respect for personal space and physical autonomy. I bug him when he’s trying to work and tease him about his insecurities. I am a real treat.

Luckily, I’m not alone.

“Romantic relationships awaken shit that can lie dormant for years, whether that be memories from childhood or trauma we haven’t attended to,” says Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a clinical psychologist and the author of Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want.

According to Solomon, lived trauma is more likely to make itself known in a romantic partnership than in, say, a close friendship, because of our unique biology. “When we’re born, we attach to our mothers and family by the way they smell, the way they touch us. We’re such mammals in that way, we’re wired to be soothed by other people. And we kind of end up wiring ourselves to our partners.” Romantic attachments happen on a cellular level that can disrupt our very biochemistry. And that’s what leads to conflict.

“It’s precisely because our partner matters so much that conflict is inevitable in romantic relationships, but that’s a hard idea for people to get,” says Solomon. “There’s so much cultural romanticism around love that when there is a problem, people assume the relationship is bad. We’re fighting against the reality that conflict is part of love.”

Mandy Len Catron, author of the popular Modern Love column “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This,” and a forthcoming collection of essays on love, agrees.

“It’s a very pervasive idea, that when you are in a ‘good’ relationship, or when you’re with ‘the one,’ they will automatically understand you,” she tells me. That gap — the space between your expectations and your partner’s ability to follow through on them — is home to a lot of relationship tension.

1953: An elderly man and woman pose while eating from opposite sides of the same donut, during a Donut Dunking Association meeting. They have a plate of donuts and two cups of coffee. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Most of what I was doing when I was younger,” Catron says, “was just waiting for my partner to figure out what I needed and being angry and reactionary when he didn’t.” But not even the most carefully-tuned couples are able to anticipate each other’s every desire. And that’s presuming we even know what we ourselves want. Solomon advocates for “relational self-awareness:” the practice of consistent self-examination to discover what in our own history leads us to act out or behave in ways that do damage to ourselves or the relationship.

In other words, rather than erupting because the man I love has, yet again, put his spoon in the sink instead of the LITERAL DISHWASHER THAT IS LITERALLY RIGHT NEXT TO THE SINK, I should ask myself, why is it that the spoon inspires such rage?

With that in mind, I’ve developed my four relationship commandments.

1. HONOR THY CURIOSITY (Or, why does he leave the spoon in the sink?)

As someone who trends irrational, I struggle to appreciate that my partner is his own unique person with needs and impulses that differ from mine. The strongest relationships, according to both Catron and Solomon, have at their core a sense of curiosity about that disconnect.

“Ideally, when we hit a point of difference in a relationship, we should go shoulder to shoulder and look together at the problem,” Solomon says. “For example: I want my mom to come visit for two weeks, and you don’t. How ’bout that? I wonder how we can use this as an opportunity for greater intimacy? The key variable in partnerships is less about compatibility and more about finding a partner who is willing to have the conversation. Who, rather than rolling his eyes and saying you’re overreacting, says, ‘If it matters to you, it matters to me. Let’s talk about it.'”

It’s a curiosity that goes both ways. “What I try to do in my current relationship — and it’s important to acknowledge that I’m with someone who makes this easy for me — is interrogate myself and my own assumptions and impulses before bringing it to him,” says Catron.

Essentially, find yourself fascinating. Find your partner fascinating. Find the weird, improbable, frustrating things you both do fascinating. Apply the same level of scrutiny to each other’s quirks that you give to your favorite “influencer’s” Insta feed.

2. THOU SHALT FIGHT GOOD (Or, you’re right, that spoon isn’t such a big deal.)

I am both wildly stubborn and extremely sensitive, which means I am terrible in a fight. I take everything personally and refuse to cede ground, even if some part of me knows I’m wrong. I’m the worst! According to Solomon, fights with our partners are particularly insidious because of the intense attachments we form — attachments that, merely to exist, require vulnerability.

“In a fight with your partner, the less mature parts of our brains kick in,” she says. “Either I turn my volume up and explain why you’re wrong and I’m right; or volume down, and I retreat. That knee-jerk urge never goes away. The best we can do is be more and more mindful about it. So maybe in the moment you think, ‘I feel the urge to shred you, but I am going to turn that down and take a hot bath, because I love us too much.’ That’s a practice.”

Essentially, you give yourself a timeout. “It’s hard to do,” Solomon admits, “because anger tends to have an entitled quality — Because I’m upset, I’m entitled to say everything I want to say. They’re my feelings, so therefore they must be right.”

Catron agrees. “To become a ‘good’ fighter, you need to learn, in the moment, to say to yourself, ‘How can I interpret this person’s actions generously?’ If you can’t, you disengage.”

26th July 1936: 76 year old Evan Ellis of Anglesey kissing his bride, 70 year old Mary Ann Kinsley after their wedding at Ton Pentre, Rhondda. (Photo by Richards/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

3. REMEMBER THY PARTNER’S AWESOMENESS (Or, the reasons I love you have nothing to do with that spoon.)

Solomon advocates hard for a very specific type of relationship generosity, what she calls “generosity of intention.” Basically, it is the assumption that your partner has good intentions, even if his or her actions are not so good. This is easier said than done.

“If I’m not able to be kind to my partner, I try to remember that that’s my responsibility,” says Catron. “It’s not his responsibility to behave in ways that motivate me to be kind.”

She’s careful to note this doesn’t excuse emotional abuse or manipulation. “If you’re not able to be kind, ask yourself why. If the answer is, ‘I’m unable to be kind because he’s kind of a dick,’ well, remove yourself from that situation.”

For me, it’s reminding myself to operate in a way that honors the love we feel for each other. This is like, 27% successful. I’m working on it.

4. THOU SHALT NOT DESPAIR OF THY LADY PARTS (Or, the spoon will always be my responsibility, won’t it?)

Does this all sound like a lot of work? Haha, it is. Frustratingly, a lot of the work of maintaining relationships still falls to women.

“We have these scripts about how relationships are supposed to go and what our roles are, and it’s just so easy to default to that,” says Catron. “Even if we can intellectualize these ideas about gender roles in relationships and think they’re problematic, it’s still difficult to totally let them go.”

For her part, Solomon thinks this navigation is more difficult now than ever before. “It’s precisely because women are kicking ass these days, outperforming men at school and at work, that we’ve kind of pathologized dependence and need,” she says. “We’ve adopted this attitude — I don’t need a partner, I can do it on my own! — that belies our physiology, which is to love and be loved.”

And so the difficulty of being a woman in a relationship — and, to be clear, this is from the perspective of a woman who has only dated men — lies in how we need to learn to articulate and demand the treatment we deserve while simultaneously recognizing our own culpability, and to do all this despite the demands placed on our time, emotional energy and bodies.

I got exhausted just writing that. But it’s something I will share with my partner when I ask that he be willing to shoulder some of this burden. I’ll also ask that sometimes, just sometimes, please, I love you, but can that spoon be put in the dishwasher?

Photos via Getty Images.

  • Miss J

    I married my ex-boyfriend, and I too, want to have a nervous breakdown when I see a spoon on the kitchen counter every morning. Next to that spoon, every morning I find a lemon, which he squeezes in the morning. Aside from having to place that spoon in the dishwasher (that is right there) myself, I also have to wipe/scrub the sticky lemon residue off my black quartz countertops.

  • I’m desperately trying not to suck at relationships while working out how not to suck at being me, this was a really lovely read though. I need to learn that the spoons don’t matter in the bigger picture

    – Natalie
    http://www.workovereasy.com

  • this all makes sense to me, sure, but isn’t it contingent on being with the right partner? what if i try really hard to find someone fascinating and I just fall short? is it always my fault? i think i recognize a lot of the ways i am imperfect in relationships but i have a hard time believing that things don’t work out because i just didnt give it my all? if we try all these things, with all our might, and still feel like we can’t connect enough, is that on us? is it wrong to break up with nice wonderful people who we recognize as nice wonderful people but don’t feel like a perfect fit for us? this is so tricky.

    • yes yes yes, 100% is true. i dated a few nice wonderful people who weren’t the right fit, and letting them go felt odd, like i was tempting fate, but tbh – those nice wonderful people deserve to be loved wholly, so it’s not only unfair to you to keep trying to press a relationship into rightness, it’s unfair to them. i think, too, that the idea here is many of these things WON’T work with the wrong partner, and that helps you know that it is wrong. maybe?

  • Julie Garbutt

    Wait, I have been having so many of these dreams lately. So glad it’s not just me. Thanks for this post—I have been hoping that the dreams of random assortments of exes would fade away, and soon! They’re exhausting.

  • Julie Garbutt

    Also—everybody: go listen to Alain de Botton’s interview on the podcast On Being, released last week. It’s so, so helpful in exactly the way this post is, as far as expectations of romantic partners go.

    • Meerabel

      Thank you so much for sharing that podcast! Can’t get enough of Alain de Botton wisdom, wouldn’t have come across that interview if you hadn’t shared – and discovered a great new podcast obsession to boot. Can’t wait to listen.

  • Thanks for sharing! I needed this.

    http://objectsicantafford.com

  • SO TRUE. I’ve discovered all of these things after being in a relationship for 5 years. I spent way too long expecting him to read my mind and give me everything I desired. Once we actually started having completely open and honest conversations with each other things got so much better.
    I think it also has to do with our natural fear of rejection. I know I’ve been afraid of opening up because I was afraid my boyfriend would have a negative reaction to what I wanted to say. It overcame my trust that my boyfriend is a loving and accepting partner. And pretty much 100% the time my fear of rejection was irrational.
    So..communication is key guys!

  • This article came up on my Google news feed. I feel the author over thinks everything. Then I see the comments and am grateful to be single.

    There is so much more to Life than this petty squabble. You know what happens when my roommate leaves stuff in the sink? I wash it. When I leave clothes in the dryer, she folds my clothes and leaves it on top. When a girl stays over and leaves hair ties, t shirts or jewelry behind, I put it in a little gift bag and hold on to it until I see them next. I have no sentiment outside of gratitude towards them.

    I try to be kind. Contrary to what this surgery believes, conflict is not mandatory. Life will give you plenty of struggle. Your girlfriend or boyfriend is your teammate. Work together to get ahead in life. Leave this silly stuff behind already. We’re not teen-agers anymore.

    • Marie

      Interesting thoughts, but I know that in any long-term domestic relationship (and actually any close relationship), there is always a tension between the bigger priority of love, and the smaller day-to-day issues of sharing a life. Working on the things the author specifies is not just a relationship thing, it’s a growing up thing. Grown up love is ‘doing something you don’t really want to do for someone you don’t really like very much at that moment’. If this sounds like it doesn’t apply to your relationship or experience, good for you, but I don’t think it’s right to attack the author in the way you do. I have a sneaking suspicion there will come a time (as it does for all of us) where this advice will come in handy.

  • Alyson

    Thank you thank you thank you. This is the hard-work, slow, life-long practice which characterises any thoughtful person’s life. How do we put centre-stage the big picture when you still have to live your tiny lives. I’ve been married for a long time, and I have to say I’m afraid the work never stops. But put your faith in the process, the steps, and it becomes a reflex to put kindness to the front. I think the intentionality point is incredibly important. Great piece.

  • Shevaun

    Ive been with my boyfriend for 7 years and in the beginning, any conflict we had would result in my shutting completely down. I would silent-treatment him, or cry or whatever. And he would basically poke and prod and just bother me until I *told* him the problem. I realized that I was basically doing what my mom does in conflicts with my dad and my brother and I. She is not a shouter so she shuts you out if she’s mad. It’s a super passive-aggressive and manipulative way of dealing with stuff, and oh look! I learned that behaviour! Once I was able to recognize the pattern, I was able to stop it while it was on the upswing; like “I’m so mad I’m just not going to talk to him.” That Would make me ask “okay but who is this benefitting? What’s the point? I feel like shit and he’s either oblivious or hurt; why would I want to hurt him, I love him.” Once you address the why behind your actions, it becomes much easier to stop it or at least to be more open about it.

  • Alejandra

    Have you being reading my mind???
    I am a real treat, aswell…..

  • nidhicat
  • Maz

    A spoon in the sink means I might use it again. Don’t mess with my system. Although I wouldn’t leave it in the sink. I would clean it immediately by hand and leave it on the counter. Hiding dishes away is stupid. You’re only going to use them again anyway. Likewise, pots and pans, cooking utensils in general. I clean as I go, and I only ever use one of each thing, over and over again. Or two, if we’re dining together. So I never have to use the dishwasher, which is a waste of energy, even if it has one of those dumb little signs that says it ‘saves energy.’ If there are kids, well then they’re doing all the clean up. What’s the point of feeding them otherwise? And if you want to do something more elaborate in my home, do it yourself. I’ve had my last argument about housework. I would rather leave than let a woman try to tell me what my share of the housework is. Half of what a woman thinks needs to be done is twice what really needs to be done. And then you complain you’re so “busy.” It’s just too foolish to buy into that craziness.

  • stinevincent

    A lot of these are really great, it was mostly a lovely read. But jebuz christmas does this psychologist REALLY think that a uterus makes someone more sensitive than someone without one? She supposes that women’s “physiology” causes caring?!

  • Kattigans

    “I am both wildly stubborn and extremely sensitive, which means I am terrible in a fight. I take everything personally and refuse to cede ground, even if some part of me knows I’m wrong. I’m the worst!”

    THIS! Omg this is me with my boyfriend. We are both so intensely stubborn that we fight over the dumbest things that end up not being so dumb by the end of the argument. And I usually always lose because I’m not good in a fight. This is my total and absolute flaw and one that is very difficult to overcome.

  • Meerabel

    It’s so weird how you open with that nightmare – I’ve been having the exact same recurring nightmare of being back with my toxic, abusive and manipulative ex. I never stood up to him and let myself be railroaded for 4 years. In the 2 years of being single since, I’m hyper-aware that I’ve found myself repeating those patterns – so now it’s a matter of finding a balance between being assertive and not being a martyr/overly defensive/shutting shit down when conflict does arise, and dealing with it in a healthy, adult manner like you described above. The hardest pill to swallow has been that while I’m letting go of this baggage of being a victim in a toxic relationship, finding out in the context of healthier, functional relationships that I have toxic behaviors of my own. That’s a tough reality check but necessary to acknowledge on the road to being the partner you’d want for yourself.