Sunday, February 3, 2013

Moving on from the Reactive Relationship

I think we've been sold a bag of lies about relationships. On the one hand, there's the plethora of fairytale romances that are always easy, and are filled with a seemingly endless supply of happiness and pleasure. On the other hand, there are all these folks out there peddling the idea that because the fairytale is a lie, the truth must be that all of this relationship stuff is "hard work" and requires endless amounts of sacrifice and compromise. Some, seeing these two extremes, offer the suggestion that it's somewhere in the middle of fairytale and life-long drudgery in the name of security and comfort.

None of those views are really accurate. Although it is the case that many folks live out one of these narratives, usually the negative one, although occasionally you might meet someone who, at least on the surface, seems to be "living the dream relationship."

So, what's the true narrative you're probably asking?

As I see it, it's something like this. In our ability, or lack of ability, to embrace reality as it is, lies so much of how we experience our relationship(s). Each of us, and the two of us (or however many in poly relationships) together, decide - moment by moment - how things are unfolding. Obviously, when happiness and joy are the flavor of the day for you and your partner(s), it's quite easy to just go with what's happening. You love who your with and what you're doing. It's all good, as the cliche goes.

But for a lot of us, that's where the ease stays. As soon as negative feelings or disagreements or anything that we don't naturally like enters into the equation, the joy and happiness disappear. The level of conflict rises, as does the level of dissatisfaction and suffering.

Maybe you still can connect with that love you have for the one you're with, but it seems more fragile, tentative, and conditional. You want to go on a trip to Chicago, and your partner says she can't afford it for the third time in a six months. You offer to pay for part or all of the trip and she still says no. Suddenly, you feel angry, she feels guilty, and neither of you can sense the bigger picture on anything.

Whether things are pleasurable or not so pleasurable, you can develop a wider view on your relationship that isn't subject to the ups and downs of everyday life. In my experience, this has come through regular meditation and mindfulness practices, although there are other ways to cultivate it as well. One thing that has brought much more ease into my relationships in general, and my romantic life in particular, is the letting go of stories about what it happening in the moment.

This maybe sounds philosophical and abstract, but it's not. Here's an example. You and your partner have just finished eating dinner. You get up to go into the other room, leaving the dishes behind in the sink. You're partner doesn't like dirty dishes in the sink and makes some remark about how it would be nice to have a clean kitchen. You've heard this indirect criticism dozens of times and before you know it, you're body is filled with anger. And you're mind is churning up stories. "She doesn't appreciate me. He doesn't care about anything but getting things done. Everything is a rush. I just want to relax. There's no trust in this relationship." It tends to go on and on, somethings in outrageous directions, until either you a) start an argument or b) enough time passes so that you move on, but in an unresolved kind of way.

The way to shift these patterns is to make a conscious effort to recognize the story development before it goes too far, and takes you over. If you're like me, you need to begin by setting an intention to act differently because you want the boundless of love as you're life's ground. Maybe you even tell your partner or a close friend that you desire to be less reactive in your relationship, and have more ease, regardless of what's going on.

From the initial intention, it often helps to start monitoring the feelings that arise in your body. To watch for patterns. Do you get hooked by certain comments the other person makes? Do you get upset by your own limitations or weaknesses? What triggers you in general?

Many of us have been trained to ignore the deeper workings of our bodies, and/or to check out of them in various ways. So, actually tending to emotions and sensations that come up might feel really foreign at first. In fact, it might feel odd for weeks or months even.

The same can said for letting go of the stories that begin to arise once the emotions reach a certain pitch. Which is the next piece of the puzzle. Because for most of us, it's probably the case that those stories about what is happening seem to be the truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth. In fact, even when we're proven wrong, there's still a tendency to believe. Or maybe slightly modify the original story. "Ok. Maybe she isn't rushing me this time, but usually she's in a hurry, and expects me to keep up with her."

There's much more I could say about all of this, but I think I'll end here for now. To recap:

1. Set an intention to change a reactive pattern. "I desire to listen more to my partner when she's upset about the way the household chores are getting done, and to let go of any stories that come up for me in the process."

2. Start cuing into the emotions and body sensations that arise. (You can do this generally during your day to notice overall patterns, or specifically during situations pertaining to your intention.)

3. Do your best to let go of the stories that come up around difficult situations in your relationship. (Including the need to do any of this "perfectly" or even "well." Even if you catch yourself once during the day, and let go of some nonsense tale one time, that's great! You're doing it, and the momentum will build.)

May you all be well today. If you have any questions, experiences to share, or general thoughts, by all means leave a comment.


  1. Thanks for this Nathan. My husband and I, both Buddhists (and bloggers) deal with this constantly. Apparently we make it look easy but really it is difficult sometimes. We disagree about clothes on the floor (him) or too many plans (me) and it brings up all our old issues, again and again, just watch the karma fly! Last discussion I did indeed set an intention to deal with things a little differently. It seemed like the only realistic thing to do. But I also want to add to your list to TALK about things. I would love if I could ignore the issues and they would just go away but they don't and in the end we feel much closer when we face what's painful and it seems like we are dealing with a little old karma each time. Aj talks about this a bit at Drizzle & Dew (I don't know how to link it but he follows your DH blog)

  2. "I also want to add to your list to TALK about things." Yes, no doubt. It's easy to get caught up in perceptions and assumptions. I spent large chucks of relationships in the past operating out of that mode, and being resistant to talking and letting go of my stance.

    On the other hand, I had a girlfriend who talked everything to death. Every little thing became something bigger and drawn out that we had to wade through. So, it seems to me like learning how to talk and also how to let go/let be are both key. Easier said than done of course.

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