In my previous incarnation as a family law and divorce lawyer, I probably handled somewhere in the range of 700 cases. I have also acted as a mediator in these disputes on several occasions. And between the practical demands of many family law clients, not to mention that I have many friends who seek out my advice, I have acted as a de facto relationship counsellor more times than I can count. That people have allowed me into this most intimate aspect of their lives has given me unprecedented access to the psyches of individuals during one of the most traumatic times in their lives, thus affording me a front seat view to the psychology of relationships.
Add to that my own personal relationship experience, replete with two divorces, several other failed attempts at cohabitation, and a string of broken relationships. However, do not feel badly for me, and definitely do not mock the fact that I will seek in this article and others to give relationship advice. From each of these relationships (not to mention the inevitable therapy sessions that follow) I have learnt much about the nature of romantic relationships and, of course, about myself. I am a better man for it, and in fact at 45 years old am the most evolved version of myself, perhaps more advanced than many who knew me in my younger days ever expected me to be. I have the cuts and scars and bruises that give me the gravitas to enter the dangerous fray of advising on relationships.
About 15 years ago I developed a seminar for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto which had me travelling to about a dozen parishes a year as part of their marriage preparatory course. The 3 hour seminar was was entitled “A Divorce Lawyer Tells You How to Stay Married”. It was based on the simple premise that if I took all of those things my clients had told me led to the breakdown of their marriages and turned those items on their head, the opposite side of these negatives was a positive that if enacted may have helped propel the relationship upwards instead of down.
Arguably the most important thing I have learnt is that relationships involve a delicate balance. While we all strive for relationships of true equality the fact is that this rarely happens. One partner or the other usually has something over the other in some or all aspects of the relationship- money, intellect, child rearing ability, friendships, family relations, etc. Contrary to popular myth, sometimes the most lopsided relationships are the most successful and often the most equally matched people cannot keep it together. That said, the real balance of which I speak is in our heads and our hearts, not on some superficial checklist. It comes down to balancing how we feel about ourselves with the respect we have for our partner. Or put another way, try as we might, it is ultimately our egos, whether too strong or too weak, which entangle us.
If, in your mind, you are so far out of his league that you constantly feel he should be eternally grateful for your existence in his life, you will become complacent at best, disinterested at worst. You think you are doing him a favour because you tell him what to wear, what to eat, how to behave, etc, but you’re not- you are actually masking your contempt with the patina of caring. Who amongst us hasn’t been in a relationship where several years in we have gone from the extreme described above to complete disdain for our partner? My friend Deborah Mecklinger, one of the finest family counsellors and mediators in Toronto, is fond of saying that the very thing that attracts us to our mates will eventually be the thing that repels us. “He has such a great sense of humour” becomes “he never takes anything seriously”. Spontaneity comes to be seen as irresponsibility. Grounded turns into boring. Good with money becomes cheap while generous becomes bad money management. “She’s close with her family” becomes “her family is overbearing”.
But walk around feeling so lucky and blessed that this person should deign to be with you and insecurity will eventually creep in to the mix. Suddenly your spouse’s bad mood, tiredness, illness or casual sarcastic off the cuff remark becomes blown out of proportion and you torture yourself with fear and worry. You start to read into everything your partner says and does in a way that negatively affects you. If she wants to have dinner with a male friend, you suddenly become suspicious. You become jealous of the time she spends with her girlfriends or her sister. Her working late suddenly gives you thoughts that she’s having an affair, or that you are playing second fiddle to her career. If she leaves the room to talk on her cell phone so as not to disturb the tv show you are engrossed in, you become convinced she has something to hide.
Everyone at the courting stage of relationships is overcome with the blush and excitement of new love. The new lovers write notes professing their eternal love, rejig their work and personal schedules to spend as much time as possible with each other, forsake friends and hobbies, try things they never would have thought of just to make the other person happy. Neither is prepared to make a decision on where to eat or what movie to see for fear of offending their new potential life partner, and for certain there is no criticism levelled at your future bride or groom. And yet this passes, as it must. It is impossible to sustain the excitement and passion of the early stages of love. As the relationship settles into one of normalcy and day to day minutiae our real selves manifest. This where we need to be aware of the ego lurking silently within us, either arrogance or insecurity or often, incongruously, both, just waiting to jump out and scare our relationship away.
There is no recipe for a perfect relationship. In fact, relationships by their nature are not perfect. But if we each learnt to recognize the arrogance and insecurity- these two sides of the same coin- that destroyed our past relationships, we can protect against the tide of our ever rising egos from inflicting further damage.
And while we’re on the subject of past relationships, leave them in the past. You must not project the bad qualities of or hurt caused by a former partner onto a new one. That is a sure recipe for disaster. I have enough of my own issues to deal with to keep a happy relationship without having to worry that I will be punished for some infraction I have never committed because of your last boyfriend.
The most confident of us have insecurities, and the most insecure of us can become smug. The key is to keep these two competing forces in check and balance. Come to think of it, this applies not only to romantic relationships, but to our jobs and our friendships as well.