the definitive tentative guide to identifying and maybe (but let’s be frank mostly not) solving relationship problems

(not using capitals in the title makes this seem more thrown together than it actually was, thus unconscious lowering your expectations for the quality of this text)
(isn’t this called self-disqualifying or something?)
(the explanation above doesn’t eliminate this effect, just as knowing you’re taking a placebo doesn’t prevent it from making you feel better)
(I’m quite fond of road cycling, and there’s a common ritual before each group ride which is to announce to everyone within earshot how you (i) have barely slept, (ii) have been too overworked to ride for the past few weeks, (iii) are feeling that old knee pain from an injury you got at karate when you were 8 come back, (iv) need to bring your bike to the shop since your wheels are getting untrued, etc.)

 

Identification
I got mad knowledge o’self, brothers gotta find knowledge o’self

You can hardly fix issues you’re not aware of, so the first step is as simple as identifying what’s wrong — simple but not necessarily easy, since it presupposes a non-negligible degree of self-awareness, of being able to take a step back from within yourself.

Try to be aware of your feelings, identifying them as they happen. Of course, most times you will just feel like something isn’t right and not be able to identify what is wrong: an undefined sense of imperfection, uneasiness, without a clear identifiable edge to it. When you don’t know what you want, but you vaguely feel like this isn’t it, but can’t quite put it into words, can’t quite give it shape?
Surely you’ve had conversations such as, Not this, What then, Something else, Like what, Like not this, like do you even listen to me?!

Here’s the challenge. When ‘it’ makes its presence subtly felt, grip it and hold it down. Examine that vague uneasiness. Bored? is it from dull conversations, unimaginative or non-existing dates, unchanging routine? Uncomfortable? is it from impromptu personal confessions, claustrophobia-inducing emotional entanglements, vulnerability caused by having brought them too far into the rest of your life? And, while we’re at it: powerless? is it from always surrendering your own agenda and priorities to theirs, feeling like you’re never able to go beyond their surface while letting them scramble your whole self, having (for once!) invested too much in the relationship and having them be the one skipping by and dropping carefree references to a potential impending breakup?
By the way: those were just examples, not a checklist — and we could be here all fucking night, seriously, and not in a good way, so the point is just to self-aware yourself into realizing what’s going on.

Then, whenever you have identified a negative feeling, register it.
Write it down — it will (i) better crystallise it from a vague feeling into a concrete, defined issue, (ii) force the creation of a mental space for a (brief) reflection on it, and obviously (iii) allow you to revisit it later on.
Three or four sentences or even bullet points are fine, by the way — Wallacian, thinking-addicted overcomplication may well lead you to overstate the issue’s dimension and lead you to dig too deep — unnecessarily, counterproductively deep — into yourself. Step into a room outside of life, but ensure you’re always able to look out the window at it; don’t reduce it to a sliver of light barely making it through layers of autopsychanalysis.

After you’ve written down an outline of the issue… do nothing about it. This will be hard: you might tend to be impulsive and have a strong bias to action. Your mind might be telling you to do! fix! act!… but first, do nothing. Really. If it’s really that urgent, it might be unfixable anyway. Just let it simmer. Over the next few weeks, see if it comes up again or if it was a one-off thing. Go back to it from time to time and see if it still holds, looking at it from different moods and states of mind, in different times of day, different times of month — when you’re ovulating, PMSing, menstruating, and everything in between. Refine what you’ve originally noticed, discarding or accentuating or adding new observations when appropriate.

Then, when you feel you have a clear enough picture of what is going on, time for…

 

Communication
Just the basic facts, can you show me where it hurts?

After you managed to draw a clear picture of the issue(s), it’s time to let them know about it. Try to ensure that you both have enough time and the right frame of mind for this discussion.
Book an open-ended slot on both your agendas; ending this sort of discussions unilaterally is likely to cause needless resentment.

Also, when talking about how you feel, don’t let your partner interrupt you: you need to be able to present your feelings in your own rhythm, and as your own story. Organizing information as a coherent narrative helps you, and them, make more sense of it: humans love nothing more than a story. Also, try to always present the issue both in terms of events and how you felt about those events, so that it is both objective and personal.

When you’re finished stating your point, force yourself to take a step back. Give them time to think things over, ask clarifying questions, present their own version of things. Two opposing factors weigh here. Your feelings are undeniable, regardless of how arbitrary and capricious they might seem or be, and should be addressed. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s not fully up to you to make this happen, i.e. collaboration is desirable, delegation isn’t. However, some changes are ultimately unfeasible even with the best, most driven collaboration, so you are likely to have to accept a certain degree of failure and inaction, even though backing down and accepting failure within relationships might sound to you like a shitty ask.

As an extra, try to assess the quality of the discussion as it happens: did they prevent you from following the fairly straightforward guidelines described above? avoiding, ignoring, multitasking, interrupting, one-upping, dismissing, unfocusing, deflecting? if so: did they actually do it or did you want to see them as having done it?

 

Initiative generation
I’m building higher than I can see, I want fantasy

Depending on how solution-oriented you are, you might already, as you’ve identified the issues at hand, have automatically entered into problem-solving mode, having come up with a list of possible initiatives to fix them as well as those initiatives’ feasibility, requirements, and timings, and you might feel the need to communicate them and start working on them straightaway, either because now that you feel like you’ve identified what’s wrong you feel a sense of urgency about fixing things or just because of sheer enthusiasm.

However, try to avoid doing it until your partner had the chance to reflect on the issues you told them about.
Otherwise, they are likely to feel overwhelmed — and react impulsively — and excluded from the whole process, which is a sure recipe for failure. To put it idealistically, this should be a collaborative process, since there’s a second person who’s as much a part of the relationship as you are and should have an equal stake in it. To put it practically, think about how it feels to be handed a memo or to-do list which you had no say on; compare it to when you get to participate in the whole problem-solving process, from the first brainstorming onwards. That difference in interest, investment, and engagement is a result of what is normally called “buy-in”, and a lack of it means that even the best-thought plans will get shelved and ignored indefinitely.
Give your partner time to come up with some of their own proposals, which should address, or at least strongly acknowledge, some of their feelings, concerns, and issues; it should always feel like you’re both making efforts and both getting the rewards. However, be careful not to point this out explicitly; let them come to this conclusion, to avoid it seeming like you are only addressing their concerns in order to score “selflessness points” and obtain leverage in getting what you want.

Try looking for inspiration and suggestions online — make use of the “information overload era”, or whatever they’re calling it now, where information is growing exponentially and the ease of accessing it is decreasing accordingly. Or so I hear: as a highly ambitious career-minded young urban professional, I only use the Internet for writing moronic texts across two computers and for networking, and by “networking” I mean “trying to find wealthy middle-aged women interested in a sugar momma relationship”.
As I’m told, though, it should be easy enough to access blog posts and and articles and lists and listicles addressing this issue and attempting to offer solutions (such as this one), though most of them will be utterly useless and simply feed on and regurgitate one another, without a sliver of new thoughts or insights (insert obvious joke).
Use the resources at hand: it’s highly unlikely that you won’t find a single vaguely useful idea, which you can then tailor to the specificities of your own situation and personality or at least see as a starting point or guideline to be developed on; and, if nothing else, the awareness of the commonness of these issues might bring you some much-needed grounding and sonder, since being aware that your own issues are common and have been faced and solved by other people is actually a powerful tool in itself: it makes them smaller, less unknown, less intimidating, more approachable.

Also, make this process as free from constraints, pressure, and risk as possible. Come up with what you feel like; don’t turn down or put down ideas yet; let everything be as open-ended as feasible. You’ll have time to whittle everything down later, in the next step, because…

 

Selection, prioritization, and calendarization
I’d like to be under the sea in an octopus’s garden in the shade

… some ideas will be stupid, some will be unfeasible or require too high a commitment, some you barely know how to approach.

Interpolation: in life in general, but especially in relationships, I feel a strong bias both to agreement and to action is highly desirable.
(In part, there is a Costanzian heuristic at use here: these are characteristics that I emphatically do not have, and since I, like Seinfeld’s George, err on the side of feeling like “every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong”, it follows that these must be highly desirable mental features. I try to base most of my opinions on self-loathing and/or sitcoms.)

A relationship in which participants tend, by default, to say no to one another’s proposals and to not act in case of uncertainty is ultimately doomed, not to mention fucking boring and pointless.
If being with someone else isn’t an opportunity to step a bit beside yourself, then what is? If you are so firmly committed to a personal myth, to a certain representation (both meanings: as construct and as performance) of your self, that you are unable to move out of the limitations and constraints that it defines for you, that you defined for yourself… are you not (i) willingly embracing stasis (ii) precluding the very possibility of self-improvement (iii) preventing the discovery of new experiences/ pleasures/ interests (iv) severely limiting the number of people you might be with to those who will like you and/or tolerate you within a very narrow range of how you currently are?

I mean, I’m not saying to throw your time-tested comfort-maximization strategies and risk aversion and everything else out the window at every occasion, though more on comfort sub. But do you avoid any kind of exposure so much that you could absolutely never say something like “elope with me Miss Private and we’ll sail around the world”? or have you ever set something ablaze? told anyone about a book that made you cry? I’m pretty sure fucking Costanza hasn’t.

(Actually, among that song’s lyrics is “we’ll help the passers-by”, which, if you remember Seinfeld’s finale, lends my seemingly flimsy comparison a whole new relevance and depth.)

Comfort is value-neutral — what you find comfortable is what you are used to, and if you’re used to spending your weekends, say, drinking beer with breakfast cereal and avoiding calls from your few remaining friends and masturbating all over yourself, a coffee date on a sunny Sunday morning is decidedly uncomfortable, and voluntarily foregoing that comfort is much easier said than done. Nonetheless, comfort comes to be something we not only spend most of our lives chasing but consider a significant factor in assessing whether we enjoy being with someone (“everything feels so easy and effortless”, and so on).
That the very thing which we seek in our relationships often be a factor in their unsatisfactoriness and, eventually, demise might, after all, be one of those social/ mental/ behavioral traps that is impossible to avoid.

There’s no clear solution here, except maybe to voluntarily develop the aforementioned biases to agreement and to action, so that the default action is to say yes, and to do, and to go… and a strong burden of proof is placed on the “no” decision? End of interpolation, but this mindset is one I’m starting to have a strong attraction for.

 

Anyway, I feel like the key for success is to convert the initiatives you both proposed into something that:

  • you both feel is a step towards ensuring the medium-term viability of the relationship;
  • you both feel like you haven’t been coerced or pressured into accepting, since a negative attitude towards the steps meant to ensure the relationship’s viability can easily mutate into a negative attitude towards the relationship itself;
  • you both feel excited and looking forward to implement — this step here has a catch, since it actually doesn’t matter if you naturally feel e. & l.f. to anything; you just have to make yourself feel so, and yes, pretending consistently is the same as being, and no, I don’t know how to do it;
  • is SMART (I won’t insult you with an explanation but I will patronize you by asking you really take some time to understand and internalize all that the acronym implies, and will repeat it);
  • is SMART;
  • takes into account the above biases to agreement and to action; if you notice yourself become defensive on an upper meta level against these bias themselves, please refer to the Costanza heuristic and apply to self;
  • considers the possibility of failure without thereby precluding the possibility of success.

 

Implementation
We can give it time, so much time, with me

Okay, now everything gets fucked, I mean, it’s fine when you’re discussing something in a specific setting and in a defined time-frame, giving it your full attention. But life is what happens in-between, the integral sum of all those infinitesimal moments scattered among the few discrete major ones, and the latter are the ones that stay with you but the former ultimately end up mattering much more through like just sheer temporal extent.

Meaning: operationalization is the death of strategy. Cf. vast cemeteries of New Year’s resolutions.
Give yourself daily tasks to keep the initiatives both constantly happening and in your mental foreground.
Have regular discussions on whether things are getting better and on whether you should change course.
Remind yourself of and remind each other of and simply celebrate the mere fact that you’re doing something. Stasis and decay and misery are easy and comfortable; action is risky, laborious, demanding.
Bonus: acting will inherently increase your investment in the relationship and in your partner and make you value it more (to a point), inciting further action and generating virtuous-circle positive side-effects.

All this is a continuous and iterative process, by the way; it never really ends.

And it will bring frustration and disappointment, inevitably. Some things won’t work, and others will but will imply too much work to be feasible long-term; this effort might breed resentment and feel like a sunk cost, especially since you might not be used to investing so much in a relationship. The feeling of carefree fun might be lost irrevocably, and with it your enthusiasm for it all.

Also, new issues will come up.
But that’s okay: at the end, accepting someone else is accepting their limitations. That you won’t be able to mould them to your perfect image, that some of their flaws will never be corrected. That, every single day, you’ll have to live through countless tiny disappointments, and be aware of the unsolvable major issues that underlie them.
That you’re not walking towards any end state, only forward, and often not even that much.

“Problems don’t go away — they change and evolve. Today’s perfection becomes tomorrow’s swampy cesspool of shit, and the quicker we accept that the point of life is progress and not perfection, the sooner we can all order a pizza and go home”.
Mark Manson

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