“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” –Steven Covey

Usually, when people leave each other they cite irreconcilable differences. What they don’t realize is that the things that end up feeling so big and unworkable all start out being little things. Annoying habits that don’t change, emotional insecurities that play into blame and shame, inability or unwillingness to own our own feelings… the list goes on and on because we are all such imperfect versions of ourselves. When we first fall in love, we miss the shortcomings entirely. We project without knowing it, the ways we want to perceive our beloved and then when the hormonal rush wears off we need to reconcile with what we thought was true about our love and all the ways it isn’t quite what we had thought.

Dealing with the small things in life and not allowing them to become huge deal breakers in our most intimate relationships takes vigilance and skill building. It starts with a decision to acknowledge and work with the issues as they appear rather than trying to sort them out in hindsight. In order to do this, there are three crucial agreements you have to make first with yourself.

Recognize what you don’t know.

Mary Oliver said it best when she wrote, “I live in the open mindedness of not knowing enough about anything.” This is particularly true when it comes to the people who we live closest to. When we know, or think we know, we cut ourselves off from the vast swaths of reality that we cannot see. Lately, I am painfully aware everyday of not knowing how to do what I am attempting to do. It is embarrassingly easy for this lack of knowledge to harden my exterior, and before long, I am not sure who is speaking through my voice, but I don’t like her very much. Instead, when I can embrace the not knowing as a form of wonder, I soften and I can trust in what has yet to be revealed. Not knowing what to do, or what should come next can be a kind of freedom that lets you be where you are. Most of all, it unlocks the judgments that separate us from loving ourselves and others.

Become a better listener.

Steven Covey, the genius businessman often reminds us that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” The truth is that we shut the door on the love in our lives everyday with our low skill levels in listening. I am the queen of this particular malady, so it is with deep humility that I bring it up again as a primary form of love. I have said before, but it bears repeating that when we feel truly heard, we cannot distinguish that experience from love. My own lack of listening usually comes from a good-hearted place of wanting to share an insight that I believe would help the person speaking to me. It has taken me five decades to really understand that others (especially my children) don’t want my insight, they want my love, which they perceive as I bear witness to them silently, opening and holding the space for them to listen for their own insights. Love has little to do with fixing, recommending, or telling- when people want this from us, they will ask.

Lean always towards your feelings.

There might be no more beautiful line of e.e. Cummings than this one in parentheses (exists no miracle mightier than this: to feel). I maintain that there is no deeper turning away from love than our refusal to feel. Emotional illiteracy hampers our ability to identify and name our feelings also prevents us from expressing them. The things that live in us without recognition don’t go away, they grow larger, demanding to be seen. This explains the vast and ever-changing technologies and self-medicating techniques that we give so much of our life to. When we won’t feel our own hearts, we have to numb them. And worse still, when we won’t feel our own experience, we have no access to feeling the people we love. Learning to feel can be scary, because we believe they will swallow us up whole. The opposite is actually true, as we allow them space to express, they wash through us, and in the deepest cleansing the heart knows. Our capacity to feel is truly a miracle waiting to happen and forces you to work with the small things.