The skills we need to “work the relationship” by “working ourselves” inside the relationship are different from qualities prized in the “intervention from above” model — being right, being powerful. That flies out the window when we begin to think relationally.
The new skills one needs are creativity, sensitivity, and flexibility. You work the marriage by making an experimental move, seeing what your partner does with it, and then adjusting your behavior based on his or her response.
While general things can be said about what tends to work, such wisdom must be leavened with a humbling appreciation that, at this moment, with this person, all bets are off. There’s no big book of relational rules. Think of raising children. The very tack that worked like a charm last Tuesday may be a disaster today. The rule that surpasses all rules is that you must be connected, willing to see what’s in front of you, and willing to move if what you’re doing isn’t working.
A readiness to shift one’s position is one of the great, unsung skills a relationship. Some people might label such intentional action “manipulative,” but I don’t agree. Manipulation means deliberately distorting the truth in order to control another person. Being flexible means that — out of the many possible truths you could pick — you chose to be thoughtful, even playful, in which truth you select. You don’t attempt to control the other so much as shift the dynamic by controlling yourself.
Just as I distinguish relational flexibility from manipulation, I also differentiate it from accommodation. Sometimes flexibility requires you to shift from acquiescence to confrontation; sometimes, the reverse. You don’t lie; you don’t deliberately distort; you don’t necessarily give in. You just jump out of your accustomed track.
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There are things you get in a real relationship, and things you do not get. The character of the union is determined by how the two partners manage both aspects of love — the getting and the not getting. Moving into acceptance means moving into grief, without being a victim. You own your choice. “I’m getting enough in this relationship,” you say, “to make it worth my while to mourn the rest.” And mourn we do.
Real love is not for the faint of heart. What we miss in our relationships we truly miss. The pain of it does not, and need not, go away; it is like dealing with any loss.
Part 1: How to Kill a Marriage