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Can We Ever Get One That Works?

Copyright © 1996 by Richard Prosapio

This story appeared in the August, 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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  Not a week goes by that I don't get at least one couple coming through the front door of my psychotherapy practice with complaints about "the relationship." And not a month goes by without seeing, while standing in the checkout line at the supermarket, an article in Cosmo, TV Guide, or Reader's Digest, with a title like: "How to Make Your Relationship Work," or "25 Questions to Ask Your Partner Before Getting More Involved" or "Is My Relationship in Danger?"

Every few months another major publisher puts out yet one more bestseller self-help title that deals with relationship problems and how to fix 'em. And not a year goes by that another "Relationship Seminar/Workshop" for struggling couples moves like a giant tsunami across the country from California to New York.

And every now and then a talk-show host will interview a couple married 50+ years, or a study of "old marrieds" asks, "How have you managed to stay together so long?"

Why does this happen? Why the articles, studies, workshops and interviews? Because everyone, or nearly everyone, wants to be in a relationship. And often those who already are in a relationship that's not working wish they were in one that did.

All of us have certainly searched out every way in which they don't work.

In the 1970s and '80s, we focused on addictions and on the perceived status of women as being held in bondage by marital roles that were seen as more constricted than men's roles. It was fertile ground for the birth of the co-dependency movement, which promptly stamped most of the relationships we were familiar with as "pathological" or "patriarchal." Anything that smacked of one person's need for another person, for whatever reason, was co-dependent and/or role-dependent and was to be avoided at all costs.

As a consequence, we moved into the "Me" generation well-armed to protect our "independence" and to defend ourselves against any possibility of needing anyone.

Let's go back to those older couples being interviewed about how they have managed to stay together all those years. Their answers usually contain words like "forgiveness," "compassion," "trust," and "have a sense of humor."

But the real answer has always been right there in front of us. Most, if not all, of these older couples came from very similar backgrounds. There are all kinds of reasons this is true: in days of yore, most people lived in smaller towns, traveled less far from home ground, and divorce was not a social norm.

I think there is something even more obvious here. Many of these people are very much alike! Could this being alike be a factor in having a relationship that stays together over the years? I asked myself that question because I never had a good relationship, and by "good relationship" I mean one I really wanted to stay in for more than a year. Not that I hadn't stayed in relationships. I was married 20 years the first time and six the second, and had a couple of five-year live-in tries as well. I demonstrated more staying power than most couples I see today.

But was I, and were we, happy? And did staying power help? Absolutely not! And why?

Because of what I believed about life and love.

For example, these are the things I believed when I first began to get into relationships:

I thought that social and cultural differences, differences in values and beliefs, meant nothing. I discovered, through experience, that the differences that spring from race, religion, socioeconomic class, urban or small-town origins, create world views in each of us that can be miles apart. And not be reconcilable.

I firmly believed the strength of my love and my determined dedication to the survival of the relationship, through thick and thin, would pull both of us through anything, intact.

I thought that one could do the work of two. I heard that "opposites attract." So, naturally, I assumed that the more opposite, the stronger the attraction.

My female role models were Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Both strong females, on-screen and in real life. They played women who humbled the steamroller men they were always paired with and, at least in Stanwick's case, could be quite lethal.

So what kinds of women did I choose to be in relationship with? Barbara Hepburns, of course. They were the devil-may-care and the hell-with-planning-for-tomorrow and wimps-beware kinds of women. Translation: Being a romantic meant being too vulnerable. In this situation, signs of "weakness," like forgiveness, would not be tolerated. Be a man!

Whatever that meant was dependent on the situation. It could mean "Fix it!" or "Leave me alone." I had to sort out if the "situation" was a leaky faucet or a bruised-feelings problem.

I was passive. I was easy. I was a pleaser.

My girlfriends tended to be aggressive, pushy and self-involved-Barbara and Katharine screen personas to a "T." Sometimes they were ragers who were set to explode at any offense, real or imagined.

When I added it all up, these differences, along with all the other typical being-together problems, were not only too much to overcome, they were near-fatal to my desire, capacity and willingness to love anyone!

Even myself.

My partner-choosing process was based upon a misinterpretation of what made a good, solid, supportive relationship. I wanted "independent and assertive," all right. What that meant to me was someone who had her own ideas; who could stand her ground toe-to-toe with my intensity; and who was willing to wrestle with my (sometimes) stubborn short-sightedness. I wanted to wrestle, not battle to the death.

But I kept choosing partners who were aggressive and hostile, partners who saw every wrestling opportunity as a campaign for personal survival. In short, I kept choosing partners who had unhealed issues with men, issues with their own fathers which were then pasted on any male partner in the vicinity, and since I was there, they were determined to work them out with me. Or on me.

Many failed relationships later, I finally discovered my part in these doomed dances. I kept choosing partners who were unpleasable. My job had been to convince them that I, representing men in general and my father in particular, were really OK and they, representing all women and my mother, could love me without fear and be healed.

Imagine my (constant) disappointment when I couldn't win that one. The more I "proved" my love, by taking all that could be thrown at me, the more fearful, suspicious and hostile they were at anyone who would keep rolling over in the face of their attacks. I must have seemed "slimy" to them because I dodged so effectively. I thought I was avoiding conflict and thus saving the relationship. They thought I was lying to them, not only about who I was, but also about how I felt.

And I was. Good intentions aside, I was.

To get to the bottom of this, I had to come to grips with my fears of being abandoned and living alone for the rest of my life. I had to begin to know what my values were, instead of creating them in the moment in response to another's demands. I had to feel all the pain over all the losses and failed dreams I had invested so much of my self in.

I had to have the courage not to "settle for" any relationship that did not give me all I wanted and needed. And, though it has taken a lot of knocking on the wrong doors, I found it! And it's a relationship that works for both of us!

Our relationship works because we are very much alike and we've both been working a good deal of our lives on our own "stuff."

I finally got what my ancestors-Mom, Dad, grandmas and grandpas-kept trying to tell me. They said two things that I, and most of us involved in mate-seeking, have ignored.

"Wait!" was the first one.

The second was, "Marry someone from the neighborhood."

Being in a relationship is much more difficult when the number of differences between you adds up to more than the number of things that are the same!

It's that simple. That's what all that premarital counseling and all those values tests are about. And dependency isn't what we have to be worried about. We've become plenty scared of depending on anyone. In fact, now we are more afraid of being intimate than of being alone. What has finally come to the surface is that we do need and want each other! What a concept, huh? All this time we knew this, but the professionals, many of whom haven't worked out their own relationship needs and wants, have been selling us all on the idea that relationships were dangerous by their very nature.

Pretty silly, if it hadn't been taken so seriously by so many. Yes, me included. As a psychotherapist, I bought and sold this product! And you know what? I didn't really believe it either. But it was the "in" way to see relationships, so I, and many of the therapists in practice, bought it hook, line and very heavy sinker.

Well, thank God the whole co-dependency "craze" (or craziness is more like it) has run its course and CODA groups are folding up like daisies at dusk. They tried to make us believe that needing wasn't OK. As usual with anything that goes against our very nature, it didn't work. And basically we still want, above all else, relationships that work. We want interdependency! But how do we create that with any assurance that it can work?

We have to pay attention to the rules of the game as they already exist in nature. Not those posted in the therapist's office or on the dusty bookshelves in the "politically correct" library.

Nature says, "Select from among your own." This is simplification.

Obviously, there are not a lot of "neighborhoods" left in which we will find the boy or girl next door. I am using neighborhood in a metaphorical sense, to mean someone who has a kinship with our hearts, believes as we believe, has many of the same values and sings the same songs, literally and figuratively.

And this is not to say that in all cases this is absolute. As usual, nothing is absolute in mating, and I can point to at least five couples I know who stand in stark contrast to this view. They have wonderful relationships, full of diversity and challenge. But these are very rare, and we're trying to better the odds of finding and keeping a relationship that really works. In order to simplify all of this, and fill the basic need we have in this country for lists, I have condensed what I have learned through trial and grievous error into a set of "rules."

Work on your own stuff. This takes years of life experience, lots of "fooling around," making mistakes, learning to take responsibility and finding out who you are from the inside. This can mean, for many of us, don't get into a marriage until our late 20s or early 30s.

Lust at first, or even second, sight is not to be trusted as a sufficient criterion for selecting a lifelong mate.

Though "chemistry" will choose for us initially, don't forget to enter the brain into the process. Choose most-like over an interest in "opposite." Most-alike will weather a lot more rough going than the latter.

As you seek hopefully among the endless titles on the self-help shelf, the most important point to focus on is that having a good relationship boils down to first finding, then accepting, and then living your own life! Trying to be someone you're not will get you the person you don't want. The one you're looking for wants the real you.

In order to discover what you really want in a mate, spend time with yourself and discover what you will not accept. This is a process that involves trial and error, time, insight and, above all, honesty with yourself. And remember, if your relationship isn't working after lots of effort, it most probably can't be fixed. Accept that and move on!

A compassionate heart is stronger than a tough heart. Time and internalized love create one, trauma the other. Seek compassion and vulnerability in a mate over "survivor" skills. The only way to recognize compassion and vulnerability in another is to find them in yourself. Are you easy or difficult to know and to love? Ask yourself if it feels better to love a "difficult" person or one who is easy to be with. What makes you, and them, easy to be with? If you believe that love is about toughing it out, you are creating a tough heart and one that will not recognize real love. And the toughing-it-out will wear you out and create thicker armor. The slow and steady journey of learning to love yourself gets easier as you become more open and unafraid of being who you are. You are wonder-full underneath all those coping mechanisms. Unearth you!

Make an honest, compassionate inventory of what makes you a valuable relationship partner. Make a list of what you have to offer another person. Cover all the areas: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, sexual, financial. What kind of a personal "dowry" do you bring into a relationship? Ask yourself if you deserve the very best partner available.

Experience will teach you, if it hasn't already, that there is a fine line between hope and hopeless. Learn to recognize when to give up on a relationship that is not working no matter how hard you both try. I am assuming that you know by now that if only one of you is trying, no working relationship exists. Here are some clues to relationships that work and those it is best to abandon. On a descending scale of 10 to 1:

A "10" relationship is one in which there are never any disagreements. These relationships do not exist on the planet at present. And if they did, none of us could stand them for very long.

A "9" relationship has occasional disagreements, maybe six times a year. These are easily resolved and there is seldom, if ever, any "residue" of bad feelings left. These relationships are exceedingly rare, and we can only aspire and hope that maybe we could get within smelling distance of one just to experience what it must be like. Therapists and self-help authors do not believe these exist because they never see them.

An "8" relationship is one in which there are disagreements about once or twice a month. They are fairly small things and, most of the time, they are resolved without a great deal of fuss. Once in awhile some dust is raised and there are hurt feelings, and apologies. Reconciliations are called for, offered and accepted and the air remains mostly clear. Therapists see these once in awhile. These folks come in for a "tune up" after 20 years.

"7" relationships are hotter. Disagreements may occasionally lead to verbal fights. Feelings are hurt more often, once a week or more, and things don't always get resolved. Resentments are nursed and shoved under the rug. There is high tension in the air once a month or so. Words used by participants in these relationships describe them as "work," "difficult," "tough," and they use phrases like "Being in a relationship takes a lot of energy." These folks see therapists on a regular basis, attend workshops on communication, go to marriage encounter weekends, but never really get anywhere. They sometimes stick it all out and look very haggard at their 50th. They are tired most of the time and they know all the latest therapy modalities. If they don't stick it out, they will divorce and select another partnership just like the last one, and it will start all over again. To break the cycle, each of these folks needs to do their "homework" as noted above.

A "6" is fairly nasty. This is the fight-of-the-week type. But it's not a fight that ever ends or is really about anything. It's an angry energy between two people who don't really want to be together, and anger is always ready to be resurrected at the slightest provocation. As time goes on, these couples coexist, if they last at all, in a world of avoidance and depression. He works and watches TV, she busies herself with kids or other distractions. (Or vice versa, for that matter.) They seldom get violent. Everyone is too disengaged for that. Therapists don't see both individuals from this one. One comes in for a refill of the latest anti-depressant.

Anything below a "6" is, in every respect, dangerous to be in! While you're looking, remember that it's very important not to get caught up in the false idea that love can find a way through any kind of mine-field and, in the journey, prove its worth. If all the other factors that go into making a good start-like compassion, openness, trust, forgiveness, lust, alikeness and love-aren't operational, all that will survive your journey is your own stubborn determination and a lot of battle wounds.

Loving is supposed to be a dance. Anything less is a forced march. And a last word: trust. Trust yourself and continue to discover your self. And trust that when you find your true partner, you can choreograph all of your life dance together. Because if you choose wisely, you'll be hearing the same music.

Then, and only then, will it be true that "Love will find a way."

Richard Prosapio, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist in private practice in New Mexico, has been actively involved in alternative forms of therapy for over 20 years. Since 1985 he has been the leader of transpersonal workshops, whitewater adventures and team presentations with his wife, Elizabeth, on "Sexual Dialogues, Exploring the Freedom of Sexual Expression" at the International Men's Conferences in Austin, Texas, in 1991, 1992 and 1993 and the Chicago Men's Conferences in 1995 and 1996. He is a published author on a wide range of subjects including Intuitive Tarot, Discovering the Inner Teacher (U.S. Games Systems Inc.), articles on men and relationships in men's movement publications Man!, Ho! and Conscious Manhood, and regionally (New Mexico) in New Frontiers. He lives with his wife and three daughters near Edgewood, NM. 66 Snowy Owl, Sandia Park, NM 87047, (505) 281-4824.

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