I am not sure how many people realize that we live in a very fortunate context as far as relationships go. Yes, I still live on planet Earth. And yes, I am aware of the bleak statistics and happiness indexes, divorce rates, communication challenges, work challenges, financial challenges, parenting challenges…you name it, we have challenges ad infinitum. (yeay, I managed to sneak in Latin!)
But my theory stands.
I’m sitting down with my aunt on a random day, munching on pâté and crackers (multigrain savory thins from Trader Joe’s…I highly recommend them), and I start to do what I usually do in such situations, namely turn a perfectly pleasant, light conversation into a merciless inquisition-type scenario, where my victim has no choice but to suffer through a barrage of questions with a stoicism I suspect would have been impossible had pâté been missing from the equation.
I start with an innocent question about communication in relationships…and not the kind about groceries or electric bills, but the kind about feelings, worries, goals, and expectations. My aunt gives me a certain look, one that reminds me of Eddy Izzard’s show and “je ne sais quoi”. “Communication? she replies. “Honey, marriage back then was not the Dr. Phil show!”.
Ok. I guess they didn’t do the communication thing in the way I envision it today, but surely they must have communicated for heaven’s sakes! So I keep going with the questions. Yes, there were good times. But for the most part, people did their thing, kept feelings to themselves, and avoided conflict (if they were the ‘civilized’ type). Most relationships failed. Maybe the divorce rate was not as high as the numbers we look at today, but divorce papers are not the only way to prove failure. Most couples lived like roommates, each partner frustrated and unfulfilled in their own ways, each nurturing their own version of bitterness and resentment. Sure, in public, some would manage a decent enough show of unity, but for the most part, people lived in profound and rather tragic loneliness.
But wait a minute…what am I describing here? The sorry state of relationships a generation ago in another country sounds a lot like what’s happening today. Yes, our cultural framework may be different, but unhappiness is unhappiness, and failure is failure, regardless of context.
I am not ready to give up, but maybe I was wrong all along. Maybe relationships are doomed to fail by default. Maybe we expect too much from them, from our partners, ourselves. I tell my aunt that I understand how the social, economic and other constraints she described affected people’s ability to maintain healthy partnerships. Circumstances can make or break the deal, even when it comes to love. (I don’t believe it for a moment, but it seems like the sensible thing to say, because after all, if circumstances are very difficult, naturally people have more challenges and struggle more.)
And then silence. I don’t know what else to ask. And then my aunt surprises me: “You are very lucky you know, to live where you live, and in these times”. I raise my eyebrows. “Yes” she explains, “people may face similar problems, but you (and she actually points to me) know that you can ask questions…you have the healthy concept that you can do more, try for more, and that things can be better”. Oh boy. “Yes, and not only that, but you have resources, you have where to look, who to ask…you have ideas and advice. You (and she points again) are smart and informed, and so you can create more happiness and improve your relationships.”
The conversation ends, and she goes to make tea. She is right of course, and I feel somehow redeemed by how nicely her wisdom fits my beliefs.
So, here’s what I think. Love matters, connection matters, a good dynamic and ‘fit’ matter. A LOT. Circumstances matter too, and can get very harsh at times, and cause tremendous difficulties and pressures that weigh heavily on the strongest of positive sentiments. But, it’s not something that love, trust, courage and genuine effort can’t fix.
Clearly people have been in love and loved since forever. And it seems to me that since forever, people have been facing the same types of core issues in terms of compatibility, growing apart, conflicts caused by circumstances and families, etc. But the relationships of today, in this cultural context at least, have a huge advantage…namely a wide (and I mean WIDE) range of ‘maintenance tools’ that I believe place us all in a position of great privilege. We have but to look and ask for the endless array of resources at our fingertips to support our inquiries, help us navigate through difficult issues, support us in our efforts to learn how to be better lovers and partners. Yes, we live in a context that offers us the opportunity to ask questions, and seek solutions. Because we have much more flexibility in the choices we can make, if we take advantage of resources available and keep informed, we have the best chance ever to create and maintain truly wonderful (and lasting) relationships. I hate to say it, but many of us get lazy, refuse to challenge the status quo, refuse to evolve intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. And so we end up as generations before us did…only we have every reason not to.
So yes, as far as relationships go, to borrow the famous line from Dickens, like everyone before us, we too live in the best of times and the worst of times, to which I propose we add “and the most fortunate of times”.
Now go ahead and have so fun…show gratitude, practice a random act of kindness, play nice, buy your partner flowers, send a love note (via email, how easy is that…imagine if you had to wait for the mailman…in a carriage!), make an effort to do whatever little something to create more happiness today, manifest some love and tenderness towards the person who shares your life. And if you think all’s well and doing anything more is unnecessary, think of it as stocking up on brownie points and just do it anyway. 🙂