This very question highlights the problem
One of the primary problems in relationships arises from how we envision our relationships. Conventional advice on relationships and intimacy often reads like a how-to manual or a “Six Steps to a Happy Relationship” workshop.
Relationships are not machines, nor are they electronic devices. A mechanical approach looks at relationships not as an art form to be cultivated but as a series of steps to master, as though we were assembling a device. Such a way of thinking about our relationships contributes mightily to our struggles.
Can you save our marriage?
People often ask me if their relationship is “salvageable.” That very question points to the problem—insufficient expectations. We shouldn’t be seeking a repair job or a salvage operation—again the language of machinery — but deep gratification and fulfillment. In its ideal form, a relationship is a creative, evolving, and beautifully raw experience in which two individuals craft their particular way of communing with each other.
Cultivating the relationship is an art form that requires sensitivity to the complexity and nuances of two people engaged in a most important dance of life. The deep fundamental change in how we view relationships begins with how we conceptualize uncertainty. Two individuals, committed to their individual process of becoming—the commitment to perpetual growth and self-awareness—can create the opportunity for joyful partnering.
A relationship is a co-participatory dance that embraces uncertainty as it spirals into deeper and more complex levels of understanding and experience. Just as each person must engage in their own growth, they need to expect the same of the relationship. The union needs to be seen as a vibrant and dynamic experience, not as a dormant and unchanging structure. “I’m in a relationship” sounds like you’re stuck inside a container. This may sound awkward, but imagine thinking instead, “I’m committed to the engagement and process of my relationship.”
Uncertainty is the essence of romance
Oscar Wilde wrote, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” If this is accurate, then predictability must be its downfall. Our inclination toward the predictable routine and formatting of our unions is counter to an emotionally vibrant and intimate experience.
The experience of falling in love was likely bathed in uncertainty. The absence of certainty required us to be present and stay attuned. Yet, once the romance has been secured, we replace uncertainty with predictability, and so we experience a loss of passion.
I’m not proposing that couples seek an unsafe, volatile experience but that they try to welcome currents of uncertainty and change, which can propel their individual growth and usher in a corresponding growth in the relationship. Embracing some degree of uncertainty is necessary to keep the relationship afloat. One person’s crisis or challenge inevitably provokes opportunity for growth in their partner. We are on this ride together.
Frequently in couples sessions, I’ve noticed that as one person begins to express himself, the other begins to react, even if non-verbally. In the midst of a session, Hank began to share some of his perceptions about his wife, Julia. Although he was talking in a non-adversarial way, I noticed Julia’s face tighten. I gently interrupted Hank to ask Julia what she was experiencing. She said, “I know what he’s going to say before he does. There’s no need for him to go on.”
This level of predictability leaves no room for surprise, wonder, or genuine inquiry. Certainty deadens the ability to be present and precludes playfulness, let alone spontaneity. When I asked Hank to continue, Julia was indeed surprised by what he had to share.
Think about how certainty affects your ability to be romantic and how it dulls your love life.
A new kind of commitment
The commitment to always love each other or to monogamy, regrettably, often fails. Commitment to the process might better assure continued love and fidelity—envisioning a lifelong process requiring that each person embrace the spirit of the coupling. Learning the tools of emotional and verbal intimacy are the bedrock of this journey.
Think of your partnership as the clay in the sculptor’s hands, but this is a clay that you don’t permit to harden. You keep crafting it. You can master the art of relationship by welcoming uncertainty and change as you become the artists of your engagement with each other.