The Essential Ingredients of a good Relationship

I suspect you have some ideas of what a good relationship looks like. Certainly, you would identify love as a central ingredient, and perhaps things like honesty, commitment, trustworthiness, or family connections. You might think a good relationship should be composed of good communication, lots of play, or lots of work. I agree that a good and developing relationship needs to have all these things. It takes a lot of love, honesty, and all the rest to have a good relationship, and without these ingredients, no relationship can mature into something great. However valuable these very positive things are in a relationship, they often take a lot of work. It might not take “work” to fall in love, but it takes work to stay in love. Likewise, it is easier to be honest and open in the initial stages of a relationship, but it takes work to keep open and stay honest as the relationship grows. I think that a good relationship has a good mix of work, play, talk, and graciousness all in the context of being loving and honest.

Deb and I often say to couples that “they were married for the wrong reason: they loved each other.” We say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek not really believing that there is something wrong with loving your partner. What we mean by this “wrong reason” is more about the lack of what we believe is the right reason for marrying someone: understanding that person. Frankly, it is easier to love someone than to understand that person. Love comes from the heart and it is gift that we need to receive with gratitude because we can never earn someone’s love. If someone loves me, I didn’t deserve it, I didn’t earn it, I can’t pay for it…but I need it. So, I’m all about loving someone. The problem with loving someone is that “love is blind.” And so it should be. I don’t love someone because; I just love someone. We might justify our loving someone by saying all the things we like about that person, extolling that person’s virtue, intelligence, or kindness, but these are not the ingredients of love; they are the ingredients of liking. Love does not a good marriage make….or any relationship. Love is good? Yes. Valuable? Yes. Essential? Maybe not. I think you can love anyone if you understand that person because I believe that when I really understand someone, I understand his feelings, his nature, his passions, his loves, his losses, his hurts, and maybe his soul. But love is not enough. You need disinterest, disagreement, and dislike. At first glance these three things must seem “negative,” but however difficult they are, they are also essential in any maturing relationship. Let me explain.

Disinterest

Simply stated, two people cannot be interested in the same things. Granted, couples find each other through some common interest. They might meet in a bar with a penchant for having a few beers watching a football game or a glass good red wine after work; they might meet at a co-ed volleyball game, a biking event, a volunteer group, hiking the canyons of Utah, or in church. People that start a relationship on this common ground have a leg up on people who find each other physically attractive or good sexual partners, but may not actually have anything in common. Whether a relationship began with some common interests and/or sexual attraction, people soon discover that they are not interested in the same things. However obvious this fact is, it can be of profound importance in a developing relationship. For instance, Deb and I share a great deal of common interest in psychology, theology, traveling, reading, working on the house, and writing as well as many other elements of life. Each of us, however, has interests that the other doesn’t have, like Deb’s passion for nature and flowers that I don’t share, and my passion for basketball that she doesn’t share. I just don’t care much about flowers although I certainly enjoy seeing them from time to time. I just don’t have the deep appreciation of Mother Nature that she has. After knowing Deb for 42 years and knowing for most of these years that she is a person of the earth, it was always a stretch for me to appreciate her appreciation for nature. In our recent trip to the Netherlands in the height of the spring flower season, I had what seems to be my first glimpse into appreciation of flowers as we perused the Keukenhof gardens and the acres of tulips, hyacinth, and other spring flowers. It might not seem terribly important that Deb liked flowers and I didn’t care much, but this difference between us is actually quite profound because Deb’s sense of the world, the universe, and God is centrally related to nature. Consider how it has been for her to live with me, whom she loves and appreciates dearly, when I didn’t really give a hoot about the likes of tulips. In a similar fashion, Deb has little interest, and certainly no passion in playing basketball. She kindly asks me how my game went after Tuesday and Thursday morning games and Sunday night games, but she doesn’t really care about the game. She cares about me.

A good relationship needs to acknowledge the fact that we are not interested in the same things…nor should we. But if I say that I am bored when I hear Deb talking about flowers or she says she is bored when I talk about a pick and roll, we would unnecessarily hurt one another. It’s nice that I have some recent history with appreciating flowers, but I most certainly will never spend the hours she spends with them, nor am I capable of finding God in a new rose. A rose is, well, just a rose. Someone once said that, I believe. 

This business of being passionate about some things but not others has to do with our value system. Deb values flowers, and I value basketball, but the value that each of us has in these matters runs quite deep and is quite passionate. Yet it is hard for couple to grant to one another these differences as well as the disinterest one partner has in the values and passions of the other partner. However difficult it is to admit to disinterest, it is even harder to admit to disappointment.

Disappointment

An unavoidable phenomenon and an essential ingredient in a good relationship is disappointment. Let me explain. Disinterest is difficult to accept in a relationship, but disappointment is much harder to accept. I am disappointed when my partner does something or says something to me that is hurtful and unexpected. We will unavoidably disappoint each other from time to time. I think it happens every day in every relationship. The difficulty is that most of us are not equipped to deal with disappointment. If I come into a relationship primarily because I love that person, it is likely that I have seen a good bit about the person that I like. And I probably have come to understand a lot about this person that I have come to love. It is also likely, however, that I do not understand enough of the person to know that he or she is like me in some ways and different from me in some ways. We might say that “after the honeymoon phase” of a developing relationship there come times of disappointment. I begin to see that my partner and I are different, perhaps substantially different. This can come as a shock to someone who is madly in love with his/her partner because of the “love is blind” thing that often operates at the beginning of a relationship. So, how do I get disappointed?

I get disappointed when my partner doesn’t live up to my expectations. I may not have even known that I had expectations, but when I am disappointed, my partner has not lived up to my expectations. Very often these expectations-come-disappointment are surprising and even shocking because I didn’t previously see my partner in all situations of life. If we come to live together not having ever lived with him/her, I might be surprised and disappointed that he always throws his underwear on the floor when undressing for bed. Or it might be something that is not so offensive, like using a knife and fork in a way that does not fit with your kind of manners. There are many others, of course, some minor, some egregious. And they all lead to disappointment. There are also some disappointments that are those that erupt out of a misunderstanding what a relationship is. In summary, some of our disappointments are minor, some major, some unforeseen, some obvious, and many self-created. Sometimes, however, the feeling I have about my partner goes beyond minor disinterest and minor disappointment: I actually dislike my partner is some way. Wow.

Dislike

You might be able to find ways to be disinterested in what your partner likes, or even disappointment when she doesn’t do what you would like her to do, but it a larger step to admit that you actually dislike something about her, like the ways she speaks or acts. Unfortunately, dislike is also an essential ingredient of a good relationship. I often say it this way: “When you first admit that you don’t like something about your partner, the dislike seems huge, but over time the dislike tends to diminish if never really disappearing.” I might name something that I dislike about Deb, and she certainly dislikes things about me, but I will use some discretion in being specific except to admit that there are things about each other that we simply dislike. Some of these things might be old habits that are not so good, but some of these things are simply unavoidable and even necessary. Consider your children.

Who “likes” waking up for the third time in the middle of the night with a hungry screaming infant? No one that I know. You could say that you “dislike the action but not the person,” but I think these are just nice ways of saying you don’t like the person…at least at the moment. I don’t think there is a real distinction between dislike the infant’s crying from disliking the infant…at the moment. Furthermore, I think there is nothing wrong with that feeling. It passes. Disliking something about your partner, however, is much more difficult, and it can lead to disliking the partner himself. The way to avoid coming to that dreadful point in a relationship is to admit that you don’t like something about him. You might not like the way he eats, sleeps, or talks. You might not like the way he walks or sings. You might not like the fact that he works a lot or doesn’t like to work at all. All of these things are behaviors or mannerisms of someone you might dearly love but not actually like all the time.

What do we do with feeling dislike, disappointment, and dislike?

We feel these feelings. We admit to them. We see these as honest feelings. And most importantly, we understand that when I am disinterested, disappointed, or disliking, I feel sad. Why do I feel sad? I feel sad because I have lost something, which is what sadness is always about. You have lost interest when someone is talking about something you really don’t care about. You have lost the hope that your partner forgot your anniversary or came late to dinner. You lost the feeling that you love “everything about” your partner when you discover that she isn’t perfectly like you, and as a result, you just don’t like something about her.

It is very hard to let the feelings of disinterest, disappointment, and dislike be there along with the accompanying sadness that always accompanies these feelings. We Americans are not particularly good at simply being disappointed or sad, and we are certainly not good at being wrong, even if the definition of “wrong” is in our own eyes. So, the first and central ingredient of being disappointed is to own up to it, to call it “disappointment,” and to allow the sadness come along with it. Deb and I have written (The Positive Power of Sadness) about how sadness ends. To have sadness end, one must feel it, feel it, and finally finish it. This “feeling it” is difficult, and no one wants to feel sad, much less disappointed, but it is the only way to finish feeling sad. And it is the only way to finish the disappointment, as well as the easier feeling of disinterest and the harder feeling of dislike, that often cause sadness. Too often, people try to fix something in the relationship before they have admitted to feelings of dislike, disappointment, and dislike.

After recognizing and admitting to feeling dislike, disappointment, and dislike, and hopefully finished the sadness that resulted from these feeling, you need to think clearly. Importantly, you cannot think clearly if you are still sad, much less angry or afraid. If you try to think when you have these emotions, you thinking will not be clear-headed because it will be infused with some kind of residual emotion, usually anger at the top and sadness underneath. However, this “finishing” of sadness is very difficult. By the way, finishing sadness doesn’t mean that disinterest, disappointment, and dislike go magically away; they don’t. These feelings never “go away;” they diminish. Small disappointments diminish over time, and even huge dislikes can diminish over time, but they never go away. If you’re one who uses your knife and fork in what we might call a “European style” with knife in right hand and fork in the left hand, but your partner never moves from the American way of knife and fork, you will never be pleased with his handling of utensils; you just won’t be very disappointed very much, and you won’t be sad anymore because you will have come to accept your differences.

What about change?

You might think something like, “Well, what about someone maturing, growing up, or simply changing” what he or she does? Shouldn’t we all mature? Yes, we need to mature, grow up, and get better. Some of our maturing can come at the hands of our partner’s feelings of disappointment or dislike, but ultimately, any kind of maturing or change has to come from the individual because the individual finds it valuable to change in some way. You can never change your partner and you should never try. You can carefully express your feelings of disappointment or dislike kindly, and then see if your feelings change or, over time, you partner’s behavior changes.

I know of a man who gave up a vibrant part of his recreational life to please his wife who simply said that he shouldn’t be involved in those activities anymore. She said that if he really loved her, he would give up his sports. He did. He never recovered from the loss. She got what she wanted but lost what she needed: the person she married. Now he was doing what she wanted, not what he wanted. There are other examples of expectations that come along with a newly established relationship. I am reminded of one of my favorite cartoons, Kathy. After a couple of shots with Kathy being disappointed in Irving, her boyfriend, she said, “You’re not the person I was pretending you to be.” Many people do a lot of pretending. There was a book written some time ago entitled, “I Love You the Way You are; Now Change.”

My encouragement for you is to know how your feel as I have written so many times in the Feelings Blogs. Knowing the feelings of disinterest, disappointment, and dislike starts you on the road to loving better, and even liking better.

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