One of the primary problems we encounter in our relationships is due to how we envision them. Conventional advice regarding relationships and intimacy often reads like a how-to manual or a prototypical “Six Steps to a Happy Relationship” workshop. Relationships are not machines, nor are they electronic devices. This mechanical approach looks at relationships not as an art form to be cultivated, but as a series of steps to master, as though we were assembling a mechanical device. This way of thinking about our relationships contributes mightily to our struggles.
At times people may ask me if their relationship is “salvageable.” That very question points to the problem of insufficient expectations. We shouldn’t be seeking a repair job or a salvage operation — again the language of machinery — but deep gratification and fulfillment. In its ideal form, a relationship is a creative, evolving, and beautifully raw experience in which two individuals craft their particular way of communing with each other.
Cultivating the relationship is an art form that requires sensitivity to the complexity and nuances of two people engaged in this most important dance of life. This deep fundamental change in how we view relationships begins with how we conceptualize uncertainty. Two individuals, committed to their individual process of becoming — the commitment to perpetual growth and self-awareness — can create the opportunity for joyful partnering. A relationship is a co-participatory dance that embraces uncertainty as it spirals into deeper and more complex levels of understanding and experience. Just as each person must engage in their own growth, we need to see the relationship similarly. The union needs to be seen as a vibrant and dynamic experience, not as a dormant and unchanging structure. “I’m in a relationship” sounds like you’re stuck inside a container. This may sound awkward, but imagine thinking instead, “I’m committed to the engagement and process of my relationship.”
Uncertainty is the essence of romance
Oscar Wilde wrote, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” If this is accurate, then predictability must be its death knell.” Our inclination toward the predictable routine and formatting of our unions is counterintuitive to an emotionally vibrant and intimate experience. The experience of falling in love was likely bathed in uncertainty. The absence of certainty required us to be present and stay attuned. Yet, once the romance has been secured, we replace uncertainty with predictability, and so we experience a loss of passion.
I’m not proposing that couples seek an unsafe, volatile experience, but that they try to welcome the currents of uncertainty and change, which can propel their individual growth and usher in a corresponding growth in the relationship. Embracing some degree of uncertainty is necessary to keep the wind in the sails of the relationship.One person’s crisis or challenge inevitably provokes opportunity for growth in their partner. We are on this ride together. Nowhere is inseparability so apparent as in our partnering.
So frequently in couples’ sessions, I’ve noticed that as one person begins to express himself, the other begins to react, even if non-verbally. In the midst of a session, Hank began to share some of his perceptions about his wife, Julia. He was talking in a non-adversarial way, but still I noticed Julia’s face tighten. I gently interrupted Hank to ask Julia what she was experiencing. Julia said, “I know what he’s going to say before he does. There’s no need for him to go on.” This level of predictability leaves no room for surprise, wonder, or genuine inquiry. Certainty deadens the ability to be present and precludes playfulness, let alone spontaneity. When I asked Hank to continue, Julia was indeed surprised by what he had to share. Think about how certainty impacts your ability to be romantic and how it dulls your love life.To thrive in our relationships requires a new kind of commitment.
This is not about the commitment to always love each other or to monogamy. Regrettably we know how often those pledges fail. I’m talking about the commitment to the process, which might better assure continued love and fidelity. This is a lifelong process requiring that each person embrace the spirit of the coupling. Learning the tools of emotional and verbal intimacy are the bedrock of this journey. Think of your partnership as the clay in the sculptor’s hands but this is a clay that you don’t permit to harden. You keep crafting it. You can master the art of relationship by welcoming uncertainty and change as you become the artists of your engagement with each other.
This article was excerpted from Mel’s new book, The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love.
Mel Schwartz LCSW MPhil is a psychotherapist, marriage counselor,TEDx speaker and corporate leadership and communications consultant. He is the author of The Possibility Principle: How Quantum Physics Can Improve the Way You Think, Live and Love. Mel earned his graduate degree from Columbia University. Mel’s TEDx talk, Breaking Free From Anxiety receives over 50,000 views per month. He has written over 100 articles read by more than 3 million people. One of the first practicing psychotherapists to to integrate the principles of quantum physics into a transformative therapeutic approach.
Mel practices in Westport CT, Manhattan and globally by FaceTime.