When my last boyfriend and I were doing our dance of death, we went to couple's therapy. The first session informed us that John Gottmann's "love lab" research concludes three types of couples generally "make" it:
- the avoidant couple, who sweep everything under the rug for 100 years and never really discuss whatever problems they have
- the volatile couple, who always seem to be either fighting or making out in front of everyone
- the validating couple, who try to see the other's point of view through an empathetic lens
I didn't want to be any of those couples. I am unable to let things build up and ignore them. I find volatile couples exhausting to be around, much less to be in that relationship myself, as I do not have the energy for mania. And while the therapist did a terrible job of explaining validation, I knew that I was more likely to change the direction of the earth's rotation than to change my about-to-be-an-ex-boyfriend into an empathetic person.
We decided to break up after our second session, during which we learned that at least on paper we weren't doomed from the beginning: I just needed to find a better suited mate. That consoled me, since we had been together for 47 months, and I needed to know my heart was capable of good decisions. I needed to know that my love could be enough.
I needed validation.
So, after what I believed was an appropriate period of mourning, I went on dates. And learned I wasn't ready to date again. So I waited some more. I didn't want to practice on anyone else's heart, and I certainly didn't want to be practiced on.
Of course there was hurt, both from my ex and from these new adventures. There was not enough validation, there was too much volatility, there was a level of avoidance I didn't recognize within myself. However, there was also a lot of champagne and late night texting and... well, let's just say, good old-fashioned fun. (Remember: my grandmother reads this.)
And then I was ready. And then he was.
I probably have more heated discussions now than I have had with any other boyfriend.
I also communicate better now than I have with any other boyfriend.
I feel like my concerns are understood, digested, and empathized with. I feel like when I'm being crazy, he's strong enough to say "you're being crazy." (And vice versa.)
I think that a lot of people mischaracterize disagreements as potential dangers to a relationship. Recently, I was counseling a girlfriend trying to decide whether to separate from her husband. She said, "But... the crazy part is? We don't fight!"
I said, "But you also don't talk."
Something I tell myself and others with some frequency is that you cannot be happy with yourself 100% of the time, so you certainly can't expect to be happy with someone else 100% of the time. Gottmann will tell you that you need to be happy five times to every unhappy one time.
I'm not sure who has time to do that kind of counting besides researchers at the University of Washington.
Besides complicated math equations, another thing that makes relationships and marriages difficult is that a lot of people assume that if you're married, your relationship is fine. My friends ask with some frequency how things are going with my beau, but if I ask a married friend "how are things with Phil?", I often get a litany of his professional dissatisfaction, how crazy his mother is, his/their weekend projects or vacation plans, how sweet he's been to her during this particularly difficult period in her life, etc.
Then, if I'm close enough with her, I ask, "No, I mean, how is your marriage?"
And, if she's close enough with me, she answers honestly about how much work it is, how much compromise and kindness it requires, how parenthood has (not) changed or will (not) change things.
So embrace the dance of life and love. Know it will be hard but that all rewarding things are. Communicate with each other.
Or succumb to the dance of death, and be kind to yourself about it. You're not a failure.
But don't marry your rebound.