For each of us, our relationship exists on multiple levels. We have the way it exists for ourselves, and then the way we describe & treat it for each other. These two planes may overlap, but they are never the same. Which one is primary? Which one do I need to focus on? And which one is real?
Although you and partner may share similar experiences, you experience everything in a different way. You may share an apartment, you may share a candlelight dinner, you may share a bed, and you may even share kids together. And yet, your descriptions, associated meanings, and satisfaction may differ tremendously. We all experience the world in our own unique way. Of course, this is true not only for you, but for your partner as well.
If that is the case, how do we come up with a truthful, objective definition and understanding of our relationship? Is my experience the primary arbiter of the quality of our love together? After all, my experience is what defines my “truth”. Or how about yours? Perhaps you decide how our relationship is going. If you think and feel that all is well, then perhaps is must be?
But that doesn’t work. Because allowing you input into how I describe our relationship would be disingenuous at best, and deceitful at worst.
At some point in your relationship maturity, you begin to realize that there are three players here: Me, You and Us. We already know what you and me are. But who is Us and when did he/she get invited to the party?
In the Beginning
When we first fall in love, for many, it is a precious time of flying sparks, heightened emotions, and intense meaning. We become consumed with our love, and our mind has almost no room for anyone/anything else. Those are some of the most fantastic days (and nights) of our lives. They are so impressive, that as a therapist we are often implored by methodology to encourage couples to retell their meeting-stories to bring them together via a flood of intense love.
In reality, as intense as these times are, they have an underpinning of selfishness that by necessity needs to dissipate in order for the relationship to succeed. This is because my feelings towards you, about you, are really about me. My emotions are a reaction to how you make me feel. Completely self centered. And it’s all good at first because the purpose of these feelings is for us to bond to each other, leading to long-term commitment and family.
But over time, selfish love gives way to a more mature love. And I begin to give to you, even when I’m not feeling it. And in ways that quite frankly can make me feel uncomfortable. You begin asking things from me – and needing things from me – that take me way out of my pleasure zone. Being there for you, showing up for you when it’s hard for me is a sign of mature love.
This happens because a new member of our relationship – “Us” – shows up in the room. Us isn’t me or you. Us is the culmination, the creation, of both me and you. Us is made up of our love, our commitment, our goodwill, our boundaries, and becomes an investment vehicle through which we grow together. You don’t own Us, and neither do I – we both do. Us lives and breathes between us, surrounding us and in some ways, outside of us.
And after a time, we realize that this isn’t about me, or you, or our feelings. This is really about Us. In some ways, I may stop actually doing things for you, and instead, do them for Us. Because I want Us to grow, with me and you together. We both deposit positivity, love, acts of kindness and goodwill, and Us shares, grows and amplifies these gifts between me and you.
At this point, my opinions of you take a back-seat to the life of Us. There is a new calculation I must make – does what I’m about to say hurt or benefit Us? Will this critic or “constructive comment (?!?)” build up Us? Or tear Us down?
Climbing the Mountain Together
I once watched a documentary about a group of young cliff scalers climbing up a steep rock. Connected together via rope, they worked as a team, in mind, spirit and heart. The success of one meant success for all, and vice-versa. It was a pleasure watching them deftly scale this impossible incline and make it to the summit, helping each other along the way with words of encouragement and sometimes a tug or pull that aided their partners.
When interviewed back at base camp, it came as a surprise to all that one of the young men had experienced a crippling leg-cramp that needed to be attended to while on the rock. In shock, his teammates were bewildered why their partner didn’t just “say something”. His answer came clearly and swiftly: “If I shared how I was really feeling, we would never have made it to the top.”
As with our heroic mountain-climber, at some point in our relationships, our personal reality takes back-seat to our shared reality. That’s because what we have built together – our “Us” is greater than what we could accomplish alone. It’s more important. And we don’t want to tear it down.
But What about My Truth?
I’m not suggesting that you suppress “Your Truth”. Share it for sure. That’s what trusted friends, parents, therapists and co-workers are for. Open up and let-er rip, if you must. My wife has a technique she uses when something or someone gets under her skin – she writes it up on a paper, reads it back to herself, and then rips it to shreds.
And, I’m not suggesting that if something about Us isn’t going well, you shouldn’t raise the concern. You must protect Us and contribute to it if you want the relationship to succeed. However, when you make Us the priority, it may come out that your personal issues take a backseat.
While your Truth is real, and so is his, it often must be quelled in favor of Us. And if you want a healthy, loving, committed, long-lasting Us, that’s exactly the way it should be.