How to Not Suck at Relationships

Thank goodness for experts

02.16.17
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.

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