By Life Positive June 2006 Marriage counselors, Linda and Charlie Bloom, mine through the wisdom and experience of a longstanding marriage, to unearth the secrets of a healthy and happy relationship. LINDA: In the early years of our marriage, because neither of us knew how to deal with our differences, we frequently found ourselves in conflict. It wasn’t the differences themselves that kept getting us in trouble, but our reactions to them. Like many couples, we attempted to do away with our differences by trying to change each other or ourselves. Homogenizing our personalities, and thus eliminating the sources of conflict, seemed at the time to be a good idea. This strategy, we were to eventually discover, doesn’t work. Instead it produced further conflict, both within ourselves and between us… …Attempting to dissolve our differences hadn’t worked, so we began trying instead to meet them with acceptance, gratitude, and appreciation and to see if we could find the hidden gifts in them. We knew, at least intellectually, that it was these differences that had drawn us and made us attractive to each other. At the same time, they were the primary source of what triggered our reactive patterns. Thus we discovered that what drove us crazy about each other and what we were crazy about in each other were one and the same thing. The challenge was neither to try to change the other nor be willing to change for them, but rather to honor our own uniqueness while strengthening the bonds of loving respect between us. Learning to see our differences as tools for becoming more loving and fulfilled, rather than as obstacles to be overcome, denied, or eliminated, has profoundly altered how we relate to each other and everyone else in our lives. In our work with couples, we have found that while it does require effort and intention to adopt this orientation, it need not take as long as it took us to do so. … Thorough the many unskillful ways we treated each other we learnt the meaning of true respect. Because we were hanging by threads so many times, at risk of separation and divorce, we learned to truly care for each other, the relationship, and ourselves. From having come so close to the edge, we have learned to love with an enormous sense of gratitude. Although the lessons we have learned in this process have not come easily, the rewards of our efforts are sweet: an abundance of harmony, ease, and joy. Great Relationships don’t just Happen; They are CreatedThe exemplary marriages we know of have been earned. These relationships are true partnerships, built on foundations of hard won trust that accrues over time. The struggles and efforts to reconcile what can often appear to be impossible differences create the groundwork for these marriages. While compatibility and shared interests bring us together initially, they are not enough to keep us together over time. If there are no breakdowns, there is not enough friction and agitation to prompt development. We don’t need to seek stress; life brings it right to us. Invariably, obstacles arise that lovers have to overcome. Challenges vary from a family’s disapproval of the union to health problems or financial difficulties to differing styles, values, and belief systems. As the committed couple meets these challenges with their combined resources, the relationship becomes stronger and more resilient. Meaningful events link together and accumulate over the years: a gentle touch to comfort us when we are agitated, an intimate conversation, shared laughter, a cup of tea when we are exhausted, a bowl of soup when we are sick, special care to make the sexual experience extra thrilling, a show of pride in our partner’s achievements, acts of forgiveness, and all the precious moments of connection, insight, compassion, and understanding. These interactions are the building blocks of a great love erected over time. One of the most important things we can do to keep our relationship strong and healthy is build the bond of affection. It starts as a thin cord and grows ever thicker and stronger. When the inevitable stresses of life befall us in the form of differences and disappointments, the cord can become frayed. Gradually, with conscious choice, commitment, and intention, we can repair the connective cord with sincere acts of consideration, generosity, and kindness on a daily basis… One of the Greatest Gifts you can Give your Partner is your own HappinessCHARLIE: Like many of us, I grew up with the notion that marriage requires self-sacrifice. I believed that successful couples put each other’s needs ahead of their own and forgo pleasures that their mate doesn’t share. It’s no wonder I wasn’t exactly jumping out of my skin to settle down. In the shadow of my independent, commitment-averse self was the side of me that craved connection, affection, and (let’s be honest) regular sex. So, at the age of twenty-five, I got married… …For me, the hard part of marriage was deconstructing the beliefs that I had been caught up in and creating a life in which I could experience real happiness. With time, effort, and support, this intention has been, for the most part, fulfilled, largely due to the help I’ve received from Linda… Linda helped me to see that I didn’t have to become a martyr and sacrifice myself in order to make our marriage work. She showed me that my responsibility to create a fulfilling, joyful life for myself was as important as anything that I could do for her or the kids, ‘The greatest gift you can give us is your own happiness,’ she said. ‘We don’t want a husband and a dad who feels unhappy and burdened, no matter what else you’re bringing home.’ … I learned that my inner responsibilities to myself were as important as my outer responsibilities to others. I came to trust that the quality of my own life is no less important than the quality of my family members’. It is my job, not Linda’s or anyone else’s, to see to it that my needs are met and that I experience fulfillment in my life. This has probably been the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned, and it’s one that I keep relearning at deeper levels. I’ve come to see that responsibility, in the truest sense of the word – responsibility for oneself – isn’t an obligation or burden, but a gift and a blessing. …When we no longer hold our partner responsible for the fulfillment of our needs, everything changes. This is easier said than done, but it is perhaps the single most important thing we can do to ensure that our relationship will be mutually satisfying. Taking care of ourselves isn’t selfish; it’s the most generous and responsible thing we can do.. Commitment isn’t a Prison; it’s a Means to Greater FreedomCHARLIE: When I shared this observation with my single friend Howard, he looked at me as though I had taken permanent leave of my senses. I don’t blame him for his reaction. Not long before that, I had the same association with the dreaded ‘C word.’ It wasn’t until after Linda and I had been together for several years that I stopped feeling like I was stuck in a trap and began to experience the liberating nature of true commitment… …Thanks to a combination of perseverance, good help, supportive friends, understanding from Linda, and the maturity that comes from staying with something long enough, I eventually grew beyond my feelings of being trapped. I began to appreciate the many blessings and benefits of sharing a relationship with a loving, supportive partner. I came to value the security that comes from sharing a life with someone who knows you at your best and worst and who will not withdraw her support when you’re having a bad day. I came to trust that I could not do anything to jeopardize Linda’s love. This freed up vast amounts of energy that had formerly been locked into patterns of approval seeking that showed up not only in my primary relationship, but with others as well. As our capacity to love each other grows, we become increasingly able to rest in the knowledge that we are loved for who we are, not what we do. Over time, we come to develop a previously unknown well of self-love. Feeling loved and really letting that in provides a fantastic freedom: freedom from fear of loss and freedom to be ourselves fully. Excerpted from 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got MarriedBy Linda & Charlie Bloom
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