Preparing Your Partner to Listen: The Simple Change in Behavior That Can Radically Change Your Relationship

Ava wanted to tell her husband about a troubling and upsetting argument she’d had with her sister. She wanted to process the experience; she wanted his understanding and empathy; she wanted to be heard.

But when she tried to share her thoughts and feelings about the situation, her husband seemed irritated about having to listen. When she wanted to talk about the details of her life, things that didn’t involve him directly, it was as if he could barely stand to listen. She described having to wrestle his attention into the room, pull him away from his own thoughts, where he clearly wanted to remain. She was exhausted from having to get and keep his attention.

This kind of experience comes up frequently in my couples practice, for both men and women—a partner who makes you feel like your life is an annoyance or burden to have to focus on, whom you have to corral into paying attention.  

Usually, when a couples’ primary issue centers around listening, it suggests that serious work lies ahead. Listening is love in action. That said, when listening is the problem, chances are we’re heading into complex, painful, and often early childhood territory. But sometimes we get lucky and the listening issue has an easy and straightforward cause, and fix. 

In certain situations, we can correct a listening issue with a simple shift in behavior, which is timing: how and when we bring our important matters to our partner’s attention. It’s strange really, we overlook the importance of timing in communication; we consider timing a far too simplistic and obvious factor to consider. In addition, we are conditioned to believe that attention is something that should always be at-the-ready for and from our loved ones. But this is false or perhaps only true with an attuned and loving parent. In fact, attention is not always available, even in love.

When we want (or need) to share something important, often, we often share without any real awareness of the other person. We don’t consider what they’re doing or thinking about, or how they are in that moment. In a sense, we pounce on our partner, wanting our experience to be known and shared, to have immediate company in what we’re experiencing. (All of which is natural and normal.) While an important part of partnership is indeed being able to share our life, the problem is that we expect our partner to be ready to hear us, and specifically, to receive our experience at precisely the moment when we’re ready to share it.

We forget that our partner is not living the same reality as we are; they may be living in our external reality but they’re not living our internal reality. We assume, without knowing it, that we share an internal experience with our partner, but this is usually not the case. We forget that our partner may not be ready or able to receive our experience, to properly hold space for it. We imagine that because we’re ready, our partner will or should be ready. We then approach without asking if they can or want to give us their full attention in that moment.

At the core, we forget that asking someone to listen, really listen, is indeed a profound ask. When we listen, we literally gift someone with our attention, our most precious asset. When we listen, wholly, we do love. To ask someone to listen therefore is no small request, no matter how easily we discount its importance. article continues after advertisement

When we share our experience, it’s important that we do so with awareness, and with respect both for ourselves and our partner. And furthermore, that we include discernment and patience, and consider the reality of what’s possible in that moment, not just what we wish were possible. We need to remember that our partner is not us and we are not them; we are living in different internal worlds, no matter how intimate we are. 

While it may feel clunky and overly formulaic at first, checking on our partner’s availability before we share, even making a scheduled time to pay full attention to each other, is a way of giving ourselves and our experience the best chance of being received with the interest and attention that we so crave. 

When we bring our feelings and vulnerability to the table, it behooves us to prepare that table a bit ahead of time. To have to do so is not contradictory to intimacy. Our partner’s willingness and ability to listen whenever we’re ready to share is not the gauge of healthy partnership. Healthy partnership means being aware of our own needs and giving ourselves the best chance for those needs to be met. And simultaneously, respecting our partner’s needs, which are not the same as ours. 

It’s our responsibility to treat our experience, our truth, with the self-care and carefulness it not only deserves, but requires. It’s our job to make sure that the space we’re bringing our truth into is ready and able to meet it. And, ready and able to take good care of it.

We do this both for ourselves and our partner. article continues after advertisement

It’s a simple shift, but a powerful one. We ask our partner if they’re available to listen to us in the moment and we make that ask a habit. And, if they’re not, we ask when real listening will be possible.

It’s not to say that we have to schedule an appointment every time we want to have a conversation. But, if what we’re sharing is important to us, I suggest that we treat it as such, which is to do our part to ensure that it will be received with the care we desire and deserve.

I also suggest that we recognize the act of listening as the gift that it is. This simple shift in behavior has the potential to create profound change in our relationship, not only in how we listen to each other, but also in how we understand, respect, and love each other. 

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Freeing Yourself From Your Partner’s Behavior

I recently wrote an article about a client who enjoys her marriage and who also struggles with her partner’s angry outbursts. The article garnered some fierce criticism.

To recap: After many years of explaining to her partner how and why his anger (and denial of that anger) was hurtful and not okay, his behavior continued, barely impacted by her rigorous and persistent efforts to change it. My client, as I reported, eventually lost the willingness and interest to keep trying to change her partner. At the same time, she realized that her partner’s behavior was not in her control to change.

It was at this point that my client decided to turn her attention away from her partner and toward herself, to get curious about her own response, her own relationship with her husband’s bad behavior. Since changing her partner was clearly not possible and she still wanted to stay married, she began investigating her own narrative, the story she was telling herself about his behavior, and what kind of partner she “should” have, how she “should” be treated, and what her relationship “should” include.

A number of people were angered by this article and believed that my client’s choice to shift her attention away from her husband and his problematic behavior and toward herself and her own process was to demonize herself, make herself to blame. And furthermore, that I was encouraging her to accept what she positively “should not” accept, to find fault in herself. But in fact, it was nothing of the sort.

Turning her attention to her own process was not about trying to figure out how and where she was to blame, nor about denying or condoning her husband’s behavior. Rather, it was about finding a way to free herself from the anger, helplessness, and frustration that her current reaction to her husband’s anger was triggering in her.

What she wanted was to hand her husband’s bad behavior back to her husband, to not have to carry it around as her problem, and to not have to wait for it to change until she could be okay. In short, she wanted to be in charge of her own well-being.

It’s abjectly false and dangerous, in fact, to suggest that focusing our attention on our own response to difficulty, prioritizing self-awareness above fixing anyone else, is negative or self-defeating in any way. For my client, the decision to stop trying to change a behavior she couldn’t change felt immediately empowering and liberating, as if she were taking the reins back in her life. With the shift in focus, she was no longer waiting for her husband to change so that she could be happy. With a better understanding of her own narratives, her husband’s outbursts could be just that: her husband’s outbursts, his problem that he would or wouldn’t address in his own time.

But most importantly, his outbursts could be not about or against her, not something she had to be in charge of correcting. Turning the lens on her own response, and doing what she needed to do to maintain her own peace, was about taking care of herself in the reality she was in, as opposed to fighting with reality and continuing to demand that it be different. One thing we know for sure, when we fight with reality, reality wins, every time.

We hold firmly entrenched beliefs and internal narratives on the topic of relationship. They range from the micro to the macro, the subtle to the obvious. The most troublesome “should” of all, however, may be this idea that we “should” be able to change our partner, fix what we don’t like. And consequently, we can’t be happy or content until we do.

To stay in a relationship with a partner we can’t change, to accept what we don’t like, is seen as a surrender to failure, giving up on our partner and, to some degree, ourselves. When we stop trying to change the parts of our partner we don’t like, we are judged (and judge ourselves) as weak, dysfunctional, and lacking self-respect.

The idea of focusing on ourselves when the problem is our partners sends us into the fiercest of “should” minefields. We get tangled up in the narrative that we “should not” have to live with this problem, “should not” let the problem continue (as if we have a choice), “should not” have to change who we are to accommodate our partner’s problem, “should not” let our partner get away with the bad behavior, and countless other “shoulds.”

But these “shoulds,” while sensible and maybe even true in some perfect universe, do nothing to change the problem, the partner, or the relationship. And most importantly, they don’t bring us peace. These “shoulds” keep us fighting with reality, convinced of our rightness but suffering nonetheless. But worst of all, they keep our well-being hitched to someone else’s capacity or willingness for change, which is never where we want to be.

Contributing to these “shoulds” is the belief that the relationship is either good or bad. If the relationship contains difficulties we can’t fix, then the relationship must be all bad and we “should” leave. If we don’t, we’re agreeing to stay in a bad relationship.

The truth is, we abhor contradiction in this culture; we’re not trained to hold co-existing and contradictory truths. Contradiction, which paradoxically is the essence of a relationship, terrifies us. We can’t wrap up contradictory truths and put them neatly on a shelf. Nor can we categorize a relationship as either bad or good, worth staying in or not.

And yet, every relationship is both bad and good (except perhaps the newest ones). Accepting that good must coexist with bad, and being loving amid the contradiction, is the ground of a healthy relationship. Please note that those bad aspects of a relationship are not abuse. Your partner can have shortcomings that are difficult to bear without them being intentionally hurtful toward you.

A relationship requires an attitude of “and,” not “but.” “But” is an eraser word; it wipes out everything that came before it. Opposing truths can indeed be happy bedfellows.

It’s a healthy drive to want to fix what we don’t like in a relationship, to change what’s not working. And the period of figuring out and fighting with the problem and our partner, in other words, the period of suffering, can go on for a really long time, sometimes the duration of the relationship. For some people, the lucky ones, a moment arrives when we realize that we’ve done everything we know how to do to try to change our partner, and still the problem persists and the partner remains unchanged. We then have the option to take a new tack and examine whether there’s a way to find peace even with the problem. Our partner may keep doing what they’ve always done, but we can do things differently.

At any moment in a relationship, we can choose to get curious about ourselves, our history, our triggers, our stories, and our response to a problem we experience with our partner.

We can unpack our narratives and consider whether there’s anything we can let go of that will ease our suffering and bring us peace.

We do this not to blame or castigate ourselves, but to liberate ourselves from the fight. We do this so as not to be tangled up and victimized by the problem any longer, but to use it as an opportunity for self-awareness and expansion.

The act of turning the lens on ourselves is a victory, a setting ourselves free and handing the problem off to the one whose problem it is.

We unhitch our own well-being from the other person’s wagon.

Once unhitched, we discover that we can live with that same problem, but not experience it as problematic, our problem, or even a problem. This is freedom. This is autonomy.

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Keeping Your Life Simple, Even After the Pandemic is Over

Are you starting to feel anxious about the world opening up, about possibilities becoming possible again? We’re not there yet, but are you feeling a little nervous nonetheless, with maybe even a tinge of loss?

For a lot of people, this phase of the pandemic is bringing with it a new and unexpected kind of stress. The anxiety that’s bubbling up right now is not about life closing down, but paradoxically, about life opening up, and with it, the possibility of what we can and will do. It’s about “getting back out there” and what that will mean for our overall well-being.

As dreadful and devastating as this pandemic has been and continues to be, it has also brought with it a strange and unexpected sense of relief. So many people have confessed to me how relieved and thankful they’ve been over these last few months about the fact that there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. When nothing was possible, for everyone, when we couldn’t do most of what we do, what appeared, unexpectedly, was a sense of peace. So too, many people have confessed to being afraid that they will go right to living the way they did pre-pandemic, and forget all the lessons they’ve learned (and earned) through this hard time.

In our productivity-obsessed society, we feel like we have to do everything, be everywhere, see everyone; we suffer with the fear of missing out on the life we’re supposed to be living. The freedom and relief, therefore, that has come from not having to do anything (because there’s nothing to do) has been profound and life-altering. Permission to not have to be busy, productive or social, to not have to prove (to ourselves or others) that we’re living a good enough life, has offered us a much-needed break from the chronic shoulding, doing, and chasing by which we habitually live.

While change never comes in the form we wish it would, this pandemic has given (and continues to give) us a radical opportunity to step off the hamster wheel of doing, to disconnect from the relentless and mindless busyness with which we fill up our lives. With all future planning called off, this period has been a unique chance to fully arrive in this moment, now, to be present with ourselves, the people around us, nature, and everything else. We were handed an official permission slip, to award our full attention to washing the dishes, walking the dog, playing music, and making the bed, and to do so without guiltshame, or deprivation. And maybe even, with a touch of gratitude.

When we couldn’t do any of the things we were used to doing, many of us discovered that we were quite OK, good even. We were OK doing a lot less; the things we always did suddenly didn’t seem so important or necessary. We may have realized that a lot of our doing and busyness was simply borne out of habit and conditioning, what we thought we were supposed to do, should do, or had to do. This crisis has woken us up from the anesthesia of our perpetual busyness, uprooted our pride in our busyness. Many of us have realized that we don’t want a lot of the things we thought we wanted, and don’t want to be living the way we were living before the pandemic shook us from slumber. Doing less has allowed us to experience more. Having tasted a radically different way of living, we have started asking the most important question: How do I actually want to live my life? When this is all over,we don’t have to keep living the same life we lived pre-pandemic.article continues after advertisement

During this crisis, the present moment, blessedly, felt like it was enough, no matter how simple its contents. Whatever we were doing, it was fine or at least good enough. We couldn’t make anything happen so we didn’t have to make anything happen. We were off the hook. There was no better reality out there against which to compare and denigrate our own. 

But, as things start to open up in the world and it’s possible for us to start doing again, this reverence for the present moment can easily slip away. If we’re not awake, appreciation will soon become dissatisfaction again. Undoubtedly, we will start to hear those familiar and dangerous whispers that tell us we should be doing, should be busy, should be keeping up with everyone else, should be taking advantage of what’s possible, should be socializing more, should be “living” more and better. If we’re not prepared for these whispers, aware of them when they come, then we will quickly slide back into the belief that the simple things, simple moments, simple experiences are not enough and that we are not enough if that’s all we’re doing, all we’re accomplishing. And, the accompanying and perhaps most dangerous thought of all, namely, that there’s something outside of us, some experience, achievement, acquisition or place, that can make us enough, make us content, and ultimately, make us want to be where we are. We will lose our sense of peace and return to that particular brand of suffering that comes from forgetting that happiness is an inside job. 

Our drive to get back to life in the world may be authentic and healthy, and yet, if we get back out there without awareness, we risk losing the profound gifts and insights from all this difficulty we’ve just endured. If we’re not mindful of our reentry into the world of doing, we’ll find ourselves back on the hamster wheel of habitual and chronic busyness and doing. Before we finish counting backwards from 10, we’ll be sleepwalking through our lives (or sleep-running), back to doing what we think we should do and have to do, mindlessly chasing after a better moment and a life that’s enough. We will have again lost touch with ourselves, with what we really want, and with a more present, grateful, and satisfying way of living. 

As we re-enter the world, my hope is that we can do it with awareness and intention, and with a deep respect and appreciation for what we’ve glimpsed through this powerful and unprecedented time. Let us not forget the way it felt to bake a pie, take a walk, or play cards with our child, when that was the only place we could be, and maybe even for a moment, the only place we wanted to be. Let us not lose touch with the experience of being deeply grateful for a good conversation, a good song, or a good cup of coffee. It is up to each of us to keep fresh the experience of being fully in this now, without the chatter of what’s to come or what we should be doing always running in the background. Long after we’re back out there, our practice is to stay tethered to the sense of relief we felt when we had permission, perhaps for the first time in our lives, to not have to do all the things we think we have to do. Simultaneously, to keep in the foreground of our mind and heart the way we felt when we were off the hamster wheel. Most of all, my hope is that we continue to ask ourselves the question, “how do I really want to live?” and then design a life that’s in line with our answer.

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The Harder Life Gets the Softer We Need to Be

When life gets hard and things go wrong, the most counterintuitive and seemingly impossible choice is to relax, to soften, and find ease with what’s happening. How can we (and why should we) relax when life feels out of control, and not in a good way? When difficulty arises, we fight with it, brace against it. Our resistance is our way of saying that we’re not okay with reality, and insisting that we can change it. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work and it doesn’t help.  

These days, with four broken bones in my foot, I’ve taken to tooling around New York City on a knee scooter. As you might imagine, the ride is bumpy. My scooter is the opposite of a mountain bike; its wheels are petite and fragile and it takes nothing more than a twig or pebble to tip it over. I’ve gone flying numerous times, landing on my broken foot and in excruciating pain.

As I’ve gotten more skilled as a scooter pilot however, I’ve noticed something important about what makes for a hard ride and what makes it easier. It seems that the rougher the road, the more precarious my path, the tighter I tended to grip onto the handlebars, to tense my body and brace against the bouncing and jostling of the vehicle. The more turbulence I met, the more rigid I became in body and mind. As a result of the chronic bracing and constriction, I ended up with a spasming upper back and strained pectoral muscles, which made taking a deep breath an impossibility.

But I also noticed, thankfully, and just in time to trade in my scooter for my own feet, that if I opened my hands, loosened my grip just slightly when the bumps came, relaxed my upper body as the scooter tried to right itself in the uneven terrain, if I just allowed the bumping, tilting, and shaking to happen, remarkably, I didn’t tip over. The scooter adjusted and found its way back to smoothness without my having to mount a fight against it, and without my having to break anything else along the way. 

In life, when the bumps come, when the road gets rough, as it has been for all of us of late, we tend to brace against it, fight with it, and try to control it. When we lose our job, the doctor calls with bad news, our marriage falls apart, or this gigantic bump, the pandemic arrives, we resist, brace, tense our minds and bodies, and (understandably) fight against what we don’t want. The more difficulty life delivers, the more unpredictability and impermanence, the tighter we grip onto what we know, what we have, an imaginary safety and permanence. We cling to an idea of what we had and what we’re losing. The more flexibility life demands, the more rigid we become, and the more we suffer. 

When life throws us curveballs, or balls that hit us smack in the knee, we suffer not only from the pain of our smashed kneecap, but equally (if not more), from the thought that this shouldn’t be happening to us. We “shouldn’t” get hit in the knee, we don’t deserve that, this is not the life we signed up for. We get stuck in the idea of what our life “should” look like—which, for sure, is not this. We fight against reality, a reality, by the way, that has no interest in our protestations. article continues after advertisement

We not only brace against reality, cling onto an idea of how our life “should” be, but at the same time, we personalize the bumps in our path. We deny the truth, that everyone struggles and every human life includes difficulty, which means us too and our life. We reject the fact that we are not different from other humans, that we too will encounter bumps, and that this is indeed the human condition.

When difficulty arrives, we are temporarily shattered out of our uniqueness, out of our delusion that we are magically protected from hard times. But, we continue imagining that we are different and that our challenges are happening specifically to and against us. We feel punished, victimized, and personally deprived of what we deserve, burdened with difficulties that “shouldn’t” be, and that we “shouldn’t” have to endure. The result: We suffer more.  

So, what does loosening our grip on the handlebars look like in real life? In reality, what does it mean to relax our body and mind, to allow the bumps in the road, ride through the chop without bracing against it, stay loose when the ground and we are shaking?

To begin with, it means that we stop fighting with the truth, stop bracing against what’s happening: the reality of the bumps. It means that we release the idea that this can’t be happening. Whether we want it or not, this is happening, this is our reality for now. The bumps in the road are here. That’s the inarguable truth, which doesn’t mean we like it or will stop doing what we can do to make it better. But the sooner we accept our reality, the sooner we can start adapting to it, righting ourselves within it. 

More than anything else, we need to release this dangerous and damaging idea about the way our life “should” be going and what “should” be happening to us. We must see through this notion that our life is inherently different from all other lives and therefore, protected from pain. And, that we are somehow entitled to a life that is without big bumps.article continues after advertisement

To wish for a smooth and easy life, without great hardship, is natural and healthy, but to be tortured and feel punished by the fact that our life is like other lives, with its share of suffering and struggle, is to force ourselves to suffer senselessly and more than necessary. Human life includes hardship. You are human. You do the math. 

So too, releasing our grip on the handlebars involves acceptance. This bump, this boulder, dragon, wildfire, or crevasse in our path, is not something we can control; it’s bigger than us. What it’s doing here, why the universe put it in our path, we don’t know and may never know. This involves that most profound step we call surrender. When we truly surrender to the fact that we cannot wish, work, buy, pray, seduce, or strategize this challenge away, that it’s here whether we want it or not, then, we are on our way to a smoother ride and a different sort of serenity.  

Simultaneously, relaxing in the face of difficulty includes considering the possibility that there might something for us to learn from this bumpy path. While this broken pavement is a huge and scary obstacle now, perhaps something in all this turbulence can serve us later and help us grow. Perhaps something in all this difficulty and pain will help us be of service to others in some way at some time. While we can’t yet know what good might come from all this, staying open to this possibility, even when it seems unthinkable, can help us relax and roll with more ease. article continues after advertisement

As you roll through your life and encounter the bumps that every life contains, contemplate what it might mean to loosen your grip on the handlebars, to stop bracing against the ride. Ask yourself what that would look like in your own life. See if there’s a way to let go of the fight with reality, even when you absolutely despise your reality. Consider whether there’s anywhere or any way to relax with and within the reality that’s here, for now.

What’s certain is that when we brace against the challenges of life, fight with reality, reject our human vulnerability, rigidify our body and mind … when we do it that way, we strain other muscles, break other bones, and ultimately, we suffer, more than we have to. Counterintuitively, when we give ourselves the gift of relaxation, of softness, and acceptance; when we roll with not against our situation, we offer ourselves the smoothest ride possible on an inherently bumpy road. Strength and toughness are great skills, but it’s our ability to relax and roll when life gets hard that ultimately determines our resilience and wellbeing.

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When Your Relationship Is Not What You Think It “Should” Be

There comes a time in every relationship when you realize that something you think you need and “should” have is not available. What you do when you discover this can determine the future of the relationship, and your contentment within it. Our partner will have limitations, just as we will. It might be something small and meaningless, or something more serious, like unacknowledged anger issues. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if these are deal-breakers in the relationship.

Lily recently walked into the bedroom to find her husband, Ken, asleep. His sweater, which was covered in dog hair, was draped across her pillow. She wasn’t in the room but for a few seconds when Ken turned over, spun around to face her, and began unleashing his anger. “Look at it,” he said, accusatorially. “It’s dog hair. She’s been in here, sleeping in the bed. I had to change the pillowcases.” His tone was furious and aggressive. There was also a pile of laundered clothing on Lily’s side of the bed. “What is all this?” she asked. “Put it away,” he said sharply, and then turned back over and, after a few sighs, seemed to be back asleep. And no, he wasn’t dreaming.

Lily felt blindsided and completely confused. Why was he attacking her about the dog? Was he implying that she had left the door to the bedroom open? She had no idea what had just happened. But, given that it was late, she went about her nightly ritual, moved the clothing and hairy sweater, and went to sleep.

Ken was already at the breakfast table drinking coffee when Lily got up. She was carrying a lot of feelings as she sat down to join him. “What happened to you last night?” she asked. “I walked into the bedroom and you shouted at me, attacked me about the dog hair.” “I attacked you?” he said, raising his eyebrows, making a face and other mocking sounds.

Lily spoke quietly, “In my world, that was an emotional attack.”

Ken responded: “I didn’t shout at you. In what universe did I attack you? You think everything is an attack. Whatever you think, I’m sure it’s right.” Lily didn’t say any more. But when their daughter arrived at the table a few minutes later, Lily humorously told the story of what had happened the previous evening, mocking Ken’s rage and actions. As Lily put it, “I expressed myself to Ken, again, backhandedly this time, and let our daughter validate my feelings since he would not acknowledge anything had happened.”

Lily and Ken had been married for 14 years, with a lot of happiness.  Ken had always been quick to erupt over small things. But when his eruptions were done, which was also quickly, he carried on as if nothing had happened. He didn’t remember his anger. Anyone who pointed it out (which Lily had done many times) was then deemed to be distorting reality and attacking Ken. When these eruptions occurred, Lily was left feeling wounded and in need of an apology, which rarely came.  She wasn’t “gaslit” as she didn’t doubt her experience in any way, but still, she wanted Ken to acknowledge his behavior.  article continues after advertisement

After “the dog hair attack,” Lily felt upset, closed off, and emotionally attacked, even if it was in a small way. Maybe worse than the attack itself was the feeling of being further mistreated by what she believed was her husband’s demand that she pretend nothing had happened.

Lily desperately wanted to tell Ken that this was not OK, but she also knew no apology or empathy would be forthcoming. Rather, she would be judged for attacking him and inventing the whole thing. She felt trapped and alone. At the same time, Lily was angry and disappointed in herself for not having the courage to tell Ken how she felt. Lily believed that to truly respect herself, she had to be willing to be honest about how she felt.

She also knew that letting the incident go and moving forward would be the best choice if peace was what she wanted, and indeed it was. As Lily saw it, there was no good option. What she longed for, really, was a simple apology, an acknowledgment that he shouldn’t have spoken to her like that, even if it meant nothing to him.

For Lily, everything wrong about the marriage, a marriage she also very much enjoyed, was contained in this one incident. 

But her response felt inauthentic and incomplete; making fun of his behavior with her daughter didn’t take care of Lily—it didn’t make her feel more understood or loved. Was there a way to take care of herself, she wondered, even if her husband couldn’t give her what she needed?

When Lily and I dove into this experience together, we discovered a couple of powerful “shoulds” operating in the background of her mind, which, although not the problem, were intensifying her suffering. 

To begin with, Lily believed that she “should” be able to share all of her feelings with her partner and have them lovingly received. And that if she couldn’t share her truth, all the time, she should not be in the relationship. Lily also believed that she “should” have the courage (and be willing) to share her feelings with her partner, no matter what consequences doing so would create.article continues after advertisement

Together, we unpacked Lily’s suitcase of “shoulds,” exposing each to the test of the light. Was it really true that Lily “should” be willing to share all her feelings, no matter what consequences the sharing would create? Was sharing, even when she knew it would meet with defensiveness and rejection, really the self-respecting choice?

Was it possible that, in certain cases, the self-respecting and self-caring choice was to acknowledge and honor her experience—to herself—and not to her husband? Was it possible that the self-compassionate move was the one that took care of her pain but protected her from more aggression and misunderstanding?

And was it really true that she “should not” be in a relationship in which she could not share everything? Did Ken really have to always understand how she felt in order for her to feel good about herself? Furthermore, what if the story she was telling herself—that Ken had intentionally hurt her and was now bullying her into silence—was just a narrative of her own making and not the truth?article continues after advertisement

It occurred to her too, that when this happened in the future, she could simply hold up a “stop” hand to her husband, tell him she didn’t like or wouldn’t stand for his tone, or simply leave the room. She could choose to act in alignment with her discontent rather than explain it in words.

With her “shoulds” brought to light, Lily immediately felt freer. She realized that self-respect could come from not sharing rather than sharing—from actively choosing to protect herself from her husband’s defensiveness and anger.  This process was not about excusing his behavior but rather about seeing how her judgments about the what the relationship “should” be like were causing more suffering not less.

She accepted that her husband’s defensiveness was his issue and not something she could fix—and certainly not something that more disclosure on her part was going to change. She discovered that it was enough to acknowledge her experience to herself and take care of herself in the moment; she did not have to share all her feelings with her husband—even when they stemmed from his behavior.  

She also saw through her belief that a worthy relationship was one in which everything could be shared and received with an open heart. This marriage was worth a lot to her, and worth staying in, and at the same time, it contained a difficulty she couldn’t change.  And so, she started accepting her relationship for what it was and was not, which brought a lot of peace. article continues after advertisement

She was better off taking care of herself in the relationship that actually existed and with the partner who actually existed. Finally, Lily loosened her grip on the story she was telling herself about her husband’s intention to hurt her and his “demand” that she pretend nothing had happened.  She decided to let the meaning of his eruptions be the meaning he ascribed to them and not the meaning she had constructed.  When she let go of the idea that he was “doing that to her,”  the whole thing felt a lot lighter.

When what you want is not possible, and yet you still value and want to stay in the relationship, it is a good idea to investigate the stories you’re telling yourself about your partner and what’s happening in the relationship. Get to know the narrative you’re writing in your head about your partner’s intentions. So, too, it’s important to uncover the silent “shoulds” running in the background of your mind, the “shoulds” that are continually stoking your suffering. Unpacking your stories and “shoulds” is not a replacement for trying to change bad behavior, and not about justifying bad behavior, but it will free you to live more peacefully within your relationship—as it is.

One caveat: If your relationship feels abusive in any way, it’s important to leave, not to learn how to work with it.  This article is not meant to encourage you to find peace with what is consistently hurtful or to turn a blind eye to bad behavior.  Leaving an unhealthy relationship is an option that needs to be considered.  At the same time, every single intimate relationship, even the very best one, contains difficulty.  Joy and difficulty.  We often feel happy and want to stay in relationships that also contain aspects we don’t want and that are painful.  In this article, I hope to offer a path and some peace for anyone who chooses to accept and  stay in a relationship with elements that are not okay, and particularly elements that you cannot change.  

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