“There is no perfection, only life.” Milan Kundera
A dear friend of mine who will be signing divorce papers next week was lamenting to me about how he wishes he had paid better attention to the moments earlier in his relationship where things began to come apart. “I don’t know why I didn’t understand how serious the problems were then…” Most of us don’t see the gravity of the moment when things are coming undone, we don’t take heed when our partner is faltering, not because we don’t care but often because we are not paying attention- we are so preoccupied with the multiple vectors of success that we are pursuing that we don’t really understand yet how critical the stability of our primary relationship is to the whole of our life. So here are the three primary intervention points to avoid this hindsight of where it all came apart.
The early years of life in our careers and relationships are so deeply challenging because we are still often holding ourselves to unrealistic levels of perfection. We haven’t yet mastered the gift of applying the principle of good enough to how we move through our challenges. The most palpable difference between good enough and the perfection we are seeking is that we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We do what we know how to do, we give it our best effort and then we move on to the next thing. Here’s the rub, if we are unable to do this for ourselves, there is little chance that we can offer this good enough space to our partner and by extension our relationship. So when you are continuously coming up short in your own eyes, so is everyone around you. It is a very challenging space to grow anything meaningful and takes a heavy toll on the early years of loving. Good enough really is enough to make things last, and the reverse makes you have to leave.
Here’s the thing about loving people: They are annoying. I am know to say this regularly, and even to the people I love best, sometimes they laugh, nervously but more often it is a knowing laugh. We laugh together out of relief. It’s not just you, or me, but lets face it, collectively we are all pretty annoying. A recent study of thousands of couples sited the most frequent cause of breakups and divorces were rarely about big issues, but rather the build up of small gestures or lack of them that caused people to leave their relationships. Even within our own tribes and families, our similarities and genetic ties are challenging to grasp and hang onto. With both partners and children, appreciating how we are related is something that we have to learn and re-learn. It takes separating the essential loveliness of the people around us from all of the incredibly annoying traits that fill the din. Learning how to not let our sense of connection become dominated by the small things- how people chew too loudly, or swing their knees in their sleep, or drip food from the corner of their mouth, or talk while they are chewing. The noises we make when we brush our teeth, or the crumbs we leave on the counter, or the socks we can’t turn right side out. In my house these lists are infinite and trivial and weighty. Learning to sustain our relationships and choosing to stay happens in all the small moments of how we deal with the everyday mess of life.
Two Feet In
The last and most precarious obstacle that most people don’t see coming is the way that we give up on our relationship a little at a time. Whether its because we feel like we can never get it right, or because the annoying things around you are too overwhelming and won’t shift, we start to look for an exit. At first it is just at the moments of frustration or despair, but slowly, our interior exit strategy starts to take hold in our mind and then we treat the relationship or job we are in differently. It is a subtle yet decide shift, this place of one foot out the door. And the saddest part about it is that the relationship or job degenerates in part because you are never really there giving it your all anymore. The truth is that the situation is an entirely different one when two people have two feet in, working on working it out. It’s kind of how Einstein said that we can’t plan for war and peace at the same time- keeping yourself at arms length, with one foot out the door is only a shadow of the relationship you could be creating and will likely end with you or your partner gone.