By Jane O. Smith at Stage Your Comeback
It is very hard to love well when life goes sideways. When we face something that radically alters our lives, our relationships are usually tested. Our abilities to give and to relate are often out of sync for a time.
Many of us play multiple roles such as spouses, parents, daughters, professionals, neighbors and friends, that require self-awareness and trust. Engaging with our most intimate partners is especially critical when we are struggling and afraid. Being available to each other isn’t always easy when we are vulnerable or sad.
According to Abigail Brenner, M.D., there are seven elements in a loving relationship:
- Participating in each other’s learning and growth
- Valuing and respecting each other’s individuality and boundaries
- Encouraging healthy communication and dialogue
- Sharing similar values
- Trusting each other without question
- Sharing major life decisions and choices
- Having the ability and desire to let things go and to move on
They are the litmus tests for creating the space where respect, honesty and joy can thrive. When they are encouraged and appreciated, everyone wins. In times of difficulty, however, they may take a back seat for a while.
Healthy coping strategies can keep those we love within our grasp, instead of alienating or avoiding them. Remembering what we cherish about them can heighten our sense of admiration and gratitude for how they’re wired and what they add to our lives.
Lauren Bacall, in an interview of Vanity Fair, said, “I never said (Humphrey Bogart) was perfect, because God knows he was not. Who would want to be married to somebody perfect? I wouldn’t.” They were married from 1947 until his death in 1957.
Gisele Bundchen, the wife of New England Patriots’ Tom Brady spoke of their relationship to Vanity Fair. “You know that feeling of, like, you can’t get enough? From the first day we met, we’ve never spent one day without speaking to each other.” They have been together since 2006.
Sarah Jessica Parker, married to Matthew Broderick since 1997 told Harper’s Bazaar, “I love Matthew Broderick. Call me crazy, but I love him…I love our life. I love that he’s the father of my children, and it’s because of him that there’s this whole other world that I love.”
Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham are still together (since 1986), committed to supporting each other’s talents and quests every day. They are authentic and ambitious without traditional boundaries.
Focusing on what is working – and what is most important – are keys to long-term commitments. Although fame and fortune might help, they don’t protect anyone from brokenness and hurt.
When life goes sideways those who matter most deserve our energy and devotion. Learning how to talk through differences might be a good start. F. Diane Barth, a licensed clinical social worker, discusses this in Psychology Today. Here are some of her suggestions to manage tension and to resolve conflict:
- What really matters is how you manage it, not what you disagree about.
- Find ways to express what you admire, value and love about your partner in light of criticisms.
- Focus on a specific behavior or situation (i.e. actions) you are unhappy with – not your partner’s personality.
- Be specific and do not generalize, e.g. “You always…You never…”
- Offer to help with a difficult situation.
- Accept what you cannot change.
A different approach is to consider what we should unlearn, to experience greater intimacy and joy with those we love and care for, during times of stress. Martha Beck, an acclaimed author and Oprah Winfrey favorite, shared these myths that she gave up:
MYTH: Problems are bad.
Real problems are wonderful, each carrying the seeds of its own solution.
MYTH: It’s important to stay happy.
Giving ourselves permission to feel what we feel is the foundation of well-being.
MYTH: I am irreparably damaged by what happened.
When we take the time to question the truth of this, we are opening the possibility of letting it go.
MYTH: Loss is terrible.
Your heart and soul will go through cycles of breaking and healing and they will not abandon you.
MYTH: Status and stuff can come and go.
Feeling joy is true fortune.
There are many dimensions to loving well. There is no one way or one right way. Do what feels natural to you. Do what resonates best with your partner. Consider the situation and use whatever affirmations or approaches feel right at the time. (If you get it wrong, change it up!)
You might also create a calming space to promote relaxation between you. Along with decluttering and adding special touches, agree to make it safe and friendly. You might want to keep certain topics off limits, and identify a different place to discuss them. (When I had cancer my husband and I finally decided not to talk about it in the house. It was a zone-free space that allowed us to focus on other things, making it a haven and retreat.)
However you design it, commit yourself to coming from a place of love in your conversations and activities. Being intentional will help you to make better choices about what to say, when to say it, where to say it, and what to ask for. These strategies can help you right away:
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
“Presence is a noun, not a verb; it is a state of being, not doing. States of being are not highly valued in a culture that places a high priority on doing. Yet, true presence or “being with” another person carries with it a silent power – to bear witness to a passage, to help carry an emotional burden, or to begin a healing process. In it, there is an intimate connection with another that is perhaps too seldom felt in a society that strives for ever-faster connectivity.”
– Debbie Hall, Psychologist
“My mother and I began to find time to sit and talk to each other in ways we had never done before. A new understanding developed between us. Today, we both become freer as we cry and laugh and hug together. Sometimes she pushes my buttons, which only tells me that there is something further for me to clear.”
– Louise Hay, You Can Heal Your Life
SHIFT A BIT
“I believe that a light change in direction is both all that is possible and all that is required. It is the refreshment of a slight breeze , rather than refrigeration, that’s needed on a hot summer night; the pleasure of warming one’s hands before the fireplace rather than the furnace upon coming in from the cold. Given the ability to change directions slightly, to demonstrate some desire for modest risk-taking, may be enough to renew hope…”
– David Maitland, Against the Grain
LISTEN TO YOUR HEART
“It’s critical to listen to your heartfelt longings. This is a particularly challenging task for women because we often run on automatic pilot, taking care of everyone else’s desires before we pause and feel our own…When you are connected and tuned into your heart, you are more likely to create what is best for all concerned.”
– Rachael Jayne Groover, Powerful and Feminine
EXPRESS WITH KINDNESS
“…No matter what form the strain in your relationship is taking – be it jumping down each other’s throats, nitpicking, walking on eggshells or endlessly revisiting an ancient grievance – it will be nearly impossible to begin to solve your problems if the energy between you and your partner feels more unfriendly than friendly…Frank, non-defensive messages have the power to quietly reverse the course of a difficult interaction by going right to the heart of “feeling connected…Redirect from the content of the interaction to the context. This is the real arena – how the two of you are treating each other in the moment.”
– Nancy Dreyfus, Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love
UNDERSTAND AND ADAPT
“Expect…embrace…and acknowledge that people never stay the same…A (loving) relationship involves challenges, disagreements, boredom, sickness, broken promises and a lot of other inconvenient truths that people mistakenly feel shouldn’t happen. These are normal and natural and you get through them if you have a similar outlook, similar values and if you have a similar way of coping with life’s absurdities. That, and of course a good sense of humor.”
– Dr. Mehmet Oz (an interview with EHarmony)