James V. Cordova Ph.D.

Living Intimately

Affirming the Container

Your relationship holds you with affection and without judgment.

Posted Oct 24, 2011

Too often we mistakenly believe that we must first solve all of our relationship problems before we can be happy. If we somehow know we can't solve them all, then at the very least we believe that we must first solve our most significant relationship problems, the ones we grind ourselves against until we are raw, before we can relax, be happy, and simply love each other. Holding ourselves off from intimacy because we need this problem to go away first is a trap. If you drag your relationship into this trap, it will happily chew it up, spit it out, and ask for more.

One of things that we know from both the research and clinical literature is that all couples have issues that they are currently struggling with. Some issues come and go so quickly we barely notice them. Others have been with us from the very beginning of our relationship. I imagine that for all of us in our relationships the simplest problems, the ones with easy solutions, were all solved relatively early in our relationships and maybe even so quickly we can no longer even remember what they were.

After that, there may have been a few more challenging problems that gave us a harder time. Maybe we argued about them more often and struggled with them for more years, but eventually we were lucky enough to stumble into some workable solution. Although we may remember that we used to argue more about that particular issue, maybe it was money, we note with some satisfaction that it's hardly an issue at all anymore. We are proud that we stuck with it until it yielded.

Finally, we are left with that small handful of intractable problems that we call "perpetual issues"—the ones for which despite our best efforts, there simply are no workable solutions. Maybe she still stresses out "too much" about the "to do" list. Maybe he still spends "too much" time at work, with friends, playing games, or watching TV. Maybe he still has an "irritable" personality. Maybe she still makes "mountains out of molehills." Regardless of the particular issue, you and your partner have it, you know what it is, and it won't go away.

So, we get to work (again) trying to problem solve it away. After all, our problem solving strategies have worked so well in so many other areas of our life, why wouldn't we reach for those same tools here? And maybe this is fine. Maybe trying to problem solve isn't itself a problem. Although I usually advocate for practicing acceptance in relation to those things about our relationship that we cannot change, maybe acceptance isn't the only alternative to burning the house down in the pursuit of change.

I think the most destructive mistake that partners make in their intimate relationships is saying to each other, in effect, "I won't love you with my whole heart until this problem between us has been solved." We work ourselves into a knot in which we vow to withhold some portion of our love and affection until our partner changes into someone more to our liking. "When you change, when this problem goes away, when I no longer feel hurt, disappointed, worried, frustrated, afraid, or angry, then, maybe, I'll really love you without restraint."

Of course, the problem is that we can't love in partial measures. I can't half love you, or three-quarters love you, or 98% love you. I can either love you or I can hide. My choice. You can either love your partner, as he is in this moment, in the midst of all your unresolved problems, or you can hide from your own life. You don't have to believe me. Look into your own life and see if this isn't true.

Too many of us spend our lives hidden away, locked in a dark cell of our own making, because loving someone else can be painful at times.

There is an alternative, however, which is always available to us. Regardless of whether at the moment we are happy and content or irritated and profoundly uncomfortable, we can affirm the container. Affirming the container means touching base with the fundamental and unshakeable foundation that is our human and loving connection with each other. This fundamental connection is not always easy to discern, because in many ways it is too close to us to see, too simple to take seriously, too lacking in drama to be the solution to our problems. However, if we can discern this loving container, we can touch it and we can deliberately move into it, affirming its existence and freeing our willingness to love without resistance.

The container of our relationship is our relationship itself. It is attention and affection and touch. When we were studying couples in our lab talking about times when they had hurt each others feelings, one of things I noticed is that some couples, even when talking about difficult times, reach out to touch each other, with their hands or their eyes or their smiles, to affirm their connectedness, even when hurt or upset. It is as though they are quietly letting each other know "We're okay." "Even though I'm hurt or angry or unhappy right now, we're okay." This is affirming the container.

Recent research has shown that partners who show each other affection even when arguing are happier, healthier, even physically calmer, despite whatever conflict is at hand. It's just that simple—a little affection. That is affirming the container.

We are complex creatures. Our relationships are complicated in ways that make even physicists shudder and take comfort in particle accelerators and string theory. Two complex human beings engaged in something as vulnerable-making and constantly changing as an ongoing intimate relationship is as complicated as any phenomenon on earth. But, affirming the container is simple.

Affirming the container is communicating in whatever way available to you that the relationship is alive and well and has you both in loving arms. Your relationship holds you with affection and without judgment and has done so from the very beginning. Regardless of whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with each other. Regardless of whether you are happy or unhappy with each other at the moment. Your relationship, your willingness to move forward one step at a time, has always happily contained every complexity and nuance of your shared lives. No matter how much you pour in there, the container holds it without complaint.

How do you touch the container? How do you affirm it and in turn receive its affirmation? This is the simple part. You don't have to be able to see the container. You don't have to be getting along particularly well first. You don't have to solve any particular problem to gain entry. All you have to do is touch, smile, hug, hold, and place your lips to cheek. When you are happy, hold each other. When you are unhappy, hold each other. When the problem is solved, hold each other. When the problem isn't solved, hold each other. When you are blissed-out on love and harmony, hold each other. When you are broken-hearted, lost, and afraid, hold each other. This is affirming the container. And in affirming the container you are held, and affirmed, and saved, and there is only love—boundless.