Making relationships work

Why is it so difficult to maintain love in relationships? Often, the initial thrill of the romance fades away with time only to be replaced by the banality of the mundane. Romantic relationships are elevated to the highest form of love in today’s popular culture and yet, they repeatedly fail to deliver their promise. It is the like the ‘same-day shipping’ that always arrives tomorrow.

The blame behind this false promise does not lie in relationships, nor in love, rather in the our expectations of what a relationship will bring us. Most people confuse attachment or the strong craving for the other as love. Attachment begins with the sense that “I need you to fulfil me” or “my life is incomplete without you”. Love on the other hand has little to do with strong feelings of attachment or need.

The existential wound exists in nearly all of us. Which means that we constantly feel a lack in our lives. There is a constant feeling that something is missing. We try to fill up this existential void by activities, travel, buying stuff, changing jobs and of course getting into relationships. Unfortunately (or fortunately), nothing can fill this void. If this void were to have been filled, most of us would be fulfilled by now. But the mind refuses to accept this truth and therefore constantly seeks the next.

We enter into relationships to fulfil this void. And what’s worse, thanks to popular culture and especially the movie industry, relationships are portrayed as the one thing that will bring us ever-lasting contentment and joy. But as we all know, this is never the case. In fact, because of this inordinately large expectation, we are plunged into the depths of deep pain, frustration and resentment. Look at the couples married for decades. If they are still together, you will notice that often there is simply no tenderness between them. Their relationship has denigrated into a purely functional one. “Did you bring the milk?” , “Did you do the laundry?”. To escape this boredom couples seek other couples, family events, travel friends – to bring in something more – something that can fill the void. And yet, nothing works. Eventually, over time, a mounting frustration comes about. And finally the couple separate after years of marriage. Or they settle into a resignation that “This is what life is all about”. The years that went by in frustration, battles, making the other understand one’s needs would’ve sapped the enthusiasm and energy in life.

Some others become philanderers. They seek happiness outside wedlock. Unfortunately, while this brings that initial excitement, soon, the same problems begin to emerge. Conflict, dissatisfaction and strife come back. This leaves us even more confused. Perhaps someone else can fulfil us? Eventually though, some people turn spiritual and seek that satisfaction in God, a Guru or in Yoga and meditation. A good way to see this change is in the profile pictures of people. First they are alone. Then, when the relationship is new, their partner pops into the frame. Soon, if a child arrives, the child pops into the picture in addition to the two parents. Then, only the child appears. This is until about six or seven years of age. Then, it is replaced by a quote – usually a philosophical one – perhaps Rumi or Tagore, telling us that one has to go through life all alone. Some, who don’t take the despondent route, increase their photogenic attributes by decking themselves up (or going to the garage as I call it). Telling everybody, as it were, that they are able to defeat the process of aging. Eventually though, pictures of God, of a Guru or simply a flower being to pop up.

This progression in the profile pictures documents the gradual but certain disenchantment with life. Nothing fulfilled us. Nothing will. But does this mean all is doomed? Do we take a Schopenhauer like pessimistic view of the world? No.

We enter into relationships knowing fully that the partner will not fulfil us. Nothing can. We enter into the relationship knowing very well that there will be enormous challenges, adjustments and difficulties. Why then should we at all enter into one? There are two main reasons.

One, to learn. Relationships bring out the worst in us. We display our darkest sides to our loved ones. Sides that we do not even show our closest friends. Our partners are subjugated to the worst sort of horror films that one can buy on the stands. This is certainly an education for the partner, but also for us. Our trigger points, our weaknesses are brought into the light. We become aware of our sensitive points. If we adopt a growth mindset i.e.” I am here to learn and improve and not to simply enjoy life”, then we see these difficult situations as opportunities to grow. If, on the other hand we adopt a comfort mindset i.e. “Life should always be nice to me”, then I am afraid, these situations will be hell.

Two, to learn to love. Love, as opposed to attraction, yearning and attachment has a giving quality to it. It is prudent to replace ‘love’ with care, concern and compassion (the 3 Cs). The difficult relationship becomes an opportunity to learn how to love, how to extend compassion to a partner, despite their weaknesses. How to get shouted at and yet understand that the other is doing it out of a place of weakness. This is the easiest way to grow psychologically and spiritually.

This means that we fundamentally change the reason as to why we enter into relationships. We start with a pessimistic attitude – This relationship will not fulfil me. Nevertheless I want to grow. When we adopt this attitude, we learn, and we begin to share what we learned with the partner. If the other partner takes a similar attitude, then this sets up the grounds for a balanced and respectful relationship. A relationship of mutual discovery, growth and understanding that the other cannot fulfil you. Paradoxically, it is precisely such a relationship that brings so much joy and happiness into our lives. Strange, and yet true. This is why perhaps the wise have so often said, “Demands destroy love”.

Natural Bridges. California. 2023

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