So often in my blog I write about what makes relationships challenging, and what we can do to move through conflicts and complexities. Today, however, I want to write some of my thoughts about some key elements that I have learned over the years about what makes relationships work easily. These thoughts are based both on the relationships I have in my life that are entirely flowing, without demanding effort from either party, as well as what I have heard and observed from others’ experiences.
I want to simply name them, because I know that they exist. These are the relationships where things simply line up. I have been blessed to have a few of those, most especially with my sisters and my nephew.
Why do I call them miracles? One of the most foundational premises of the approach I follow, based on the principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication, is that all human beings have the same needs.
This has never prevented us from conflicts, fights, and wars. What makes the difference, I believe, is that in those miraculous relationships we also have alignment around specific strategies, as well as how we tend to interpret reality.
Since conflicts essentially emerge from differences in strategies for meeting needs and/or in interpretations of reality, having ease of alignment in those areas creates extraordinary ease and flow. It can be anything from what to talk about, what food to share, what makes us laugh, or, on the more serious side, how we make sense of the world, personally and globally.
I know that not everyone has these kinds of relationships in their lives, and I wish, deeply, for everyone to have them. Especially for someone like me, with a history and continued experience of being so at odds with the “norm” of how things are done, and being as sensitive to so much, both physically and emotionally, as I am, having these islands of “home” has been a saving grace.
Miracles are not something any of us can learn how to create, or strive for. Ultimately, the real question for me is whether we can find and create relationships that are easy even without this automatic ease.
Is there anything we can do, either internally or with the other person, to shift a relationship into more ease and flow?
I believe so, and I have identified a few elements that can help:
Perhaps the most important one is a quality of faith. I have a friend, for example, with whom I had a short “honeymoon” period some years back, following which we went through a period of sufficient difficulty that would have severed many friendships. We stayed with it, because we both found access to faith that it was possible for us to enjoy each other. We learned to take only small steps into the direction of what was not working, and, for the most part, to stay within what was easy.
We have been walking together almost every week for a number of years, something we both enjoy. We’ve discovered areas of pleasure, most especially sharing and tending to minute details of relational intricacy, not necessarily in our own relationship. And we’ve continued to have immense faith that over time we will find more and more closeness and ease. That has panned out.
These days, we are able to venture quite far into the territory of what has been sticky in the past, primarily those areas where one of the other of us are vulnerable and in need of support. When we trip up, which we still do, we can recover, and even laugh about it. The years of being together on this journey have deepened our faith, and it is now an asset in the moment, not only over time.
The relationships that are most easily working for me are those in which there is a fundamental orientation of “yes” unless there is a compelling reason to say “no.” I recognize in me, and can sense in others, if that orientation is there. It’s a combination of generosity and flexibility that I treasure. This allows solutions to arise.
There are many areas in which I do not have flexibility because of my organismic makeup. These are, primarily, the physical limits (such as foods, smells, sounds, ways of doing things) that my body can tolerate. In addition, I sadly don’t seem to have much flexibility about what registers in me as care and support from others.
For example: If I am in distress and someone attempts to support me while entirely misunderstanding what is going on for me, my distress often deepens, and in the ensuing helplessness I find it extremely hard to remember, notice, and acknowledge the love that motivates their response, even when, later, I can completely see it.
I have, over the years, learned to stretch to recognize and register the care that fuels actions that don’t necessarily support me. Still, it’s not an area of ease for me.
Nonetheless, in those relationships that are workable for me, I notice a willingness in me to learn together with the other person what works for me and for the relationship.
In those relationships I also exhibit something I rarely have access to: an openness to “surrender” a little bit. Perhaps, if I am entirely truthful with myself, it’s more a willingness from the other person to be responsive to my own limits and sensitivities. Although that is mostly the truth, I also recognize that I have an immense willingness to step into action, to do things, to care, to offer, in those areas where I can, and in those areas I have no reservation.
As I am thinking about this, it seems to me that the most significant ingredient of this kind of generous willingness is about letting go of any notion of fairness, any accounting of who does what and how much or often, and simply get mobilized to do what each person can willingly do to make things work.
I mentioned up above something about interpretations. As outrageous as it may seem, I am now entirely confident that we live in a world made up of how we interpret things. Last night I showed a small group of people a rough draft of a video made from my teaching in Nashville a few months ago, a video that is going to be part of a self-study guide I am creating.
In the current version of the video, I relate a story of how I put hours into trying to create an alternate story about why someone did what they did that was so not working for me. When I finally succeeded in finding a coherent story in which the other person didn’t look like they didn’t care, my entire experience changed and I was able to have inner peace again.
One of the people who watched the video said: “And what if your alternate interpretation is not true?” The answer I now have is that, on some level, it really doesn’t matter.
I can choose my interpretation, and my choice affects what kind of world I live in.
When I talk about the assumption of innocence, what I mean is, simply, being able to retain the capacity to see others, even when they act in ways that don’t work for me, in their full and vibrant humanity. All of us make choices that are ill-informed, that don’t take into consideration in full what the effect of our actions will be on others, or that are motivated by fear and protection, even to the point of spite or revenge. Still, I can see – for myself and for others – the direct links to those needs we all share.
The more I am able to stay in that zone, the more workable a relationship. Even doubly and triply so if both of us can do it at the same time. Those people with whom I have the most easeful relationships are those who are both open to checking their assumptions and verifying intentions and to having my assumptions about them verified with them. There is such relief I feel when I am able to match up my experience with what someone else tells me about their experience. It’s one of the ways I most know that I am not alone or crazy: when I am able to find a coherent story that unites me with another.
For me, this is the sine qua non of any relationship being easy. The most dramatic example I can remember is with my older sister. Although we are now about as loving and delighted with each other as any two people can be, this wasn’t always the case. Growing up in the conditions that prevailed in our family, we were in almost constant fight as girls (she is five years older).
When I left home at eighteen, things started improving, though there was still ongoing pain that would flare up occasionally and unexpectedly. The critical shift happened when my sister finally told me the full truth, without sparing me in those places where she had judgments and criticisms of me. I, of course, knew that they were there, though I didn’t quite know what they were. The freedom that she experienced from telling me the truth, and especially in light of my ability to take it in and be relieved and grateful that she did, created an openness that catapulted us into joy beyond what either of us truly expected or thought possible.
From then, we started developing more and more of an understanding of each other, until the relationship shifted into this place of miracle in which no work is necessary for the basic flow of pleasure and ease.
Some years ago, I had the good fortune to host the most extraordinary couple in my house for about a week. I wrote about them at the time, because the work they do is so amazing to me.
For now, all that matters is one of their core relationship agreements: Ask for everything you want, and always tell the truth.
Just thinking about this brings relief and ease to me. I know how difficult it is, sometimes, to ask for something. Just recently, for example, I learned of a dear friend who didn’t ask me if I wanted to write a chapter for a book, despite really wanting me to, because she concluded, without asking me, that I was too busy and would say “no” anyway.
It takes ongoing inner vigilance to recognize the places where we shy away from asking and to keep going for it. There’s clearly a risk, and yet, if we can open ourselves to the possibility of a “no,” and take it to mean that what we want will not work for the other person rather than that they don’t care about us, then the sky can open up, and the flow in a relationship accelerates and deepens.
Ultimately, for me all of the above are based on a quality of care that is like an artesian spring, flowing and flowing from within, effortlessly. I know those times when the fountain of care dries up, when I close down, withdraw, protect. Those times are deeply sad and distressing to me. I want to have more choice in the matter, to find ways of keeping my heart open even in difficult circumstances.
In this moment, however, I am focusing on those relationships in which the flow is there. Perhaps there is magic, after all. Why else is it possible for me, in some relationships, to have that exquisite experience of an abundance of care that multiplies, where my care, and the other person’s care, show up in all the ways I just described, and increase and enhance each other?
This is what I want, for me, for you, for all who live on this precious planet.