Thoughts From The Couch – Keeping curious

One of the things I often hear when working with couples is ‘it was so easy at the beginning, and now we feel so distant.’ They speak of the past when their relationship was new and exciting. Each meeting filled with a deep desire to get to know and connect deeply with each other. The time they made for each other. The deep conversations they had, going beyond the outlines of each other’s lives, interests, job, holidays. They shared their profoundest fears, desires and longings that allowed each to be vulnerable and connected. Between them, they carved out a life filled with their hopes and dreams. They spent any available moments together, lying in bed, letting the hours float away, content and warm in the love they had found with each other. They laughed, held hands, took pleasure in the small things. They missed each other when they were not together and looked forward to their reconnection. Constantly striving to know more. And then, over a period of time, no one really knows when, they started to struggle to ground their love in daily life. With no real conversations the two parties just hoped that somehow their problems would simply go away.

What I see is how hard it is to hold the balance of being known and unknown in long term relationships. We all know how exciting and interesting the unknown is, and yet at the same time, many long for the reassurance of a long term relationship.There is something deeply comforting about our partners knowing what we like to eat, the sorts of things that we enjoy doing, and what makes us feel loved, but if we stop there, and rely solely on the belief that we know our partner, we can see how, excitement and interest wains.

I often find myself reminding my clients that life changes us all. As a result, understanding each other is a lifelong process. Having children, illness, relationship problems, redundancy, financial pressures, along with the passage of time, means that no person is the same person you met one year ago let alone five, ten or fifty. If we fail to acknowledge that concept, we can see how easy it is for couples to lose their way in the everyday rise and fall of relationships. “For one human being to love another, this is the most difficult of all our tasks,” the poet Rilke wrote.

What often emerges in witnessing couples is how much they take each other for granted. They assume that they can read their partner’s body language and predict how they think about things. They are no longer curious about their desires, concerns and longings or even facial expressions. Gone is the thrill of learning something new about each other. They make the mistake of assuming that they have arrived in the relationship, knowing what they need to know to sustain it, losing any sense of curiosity. Days become weeks, which become years and, each starts to feel a loneliness that gnaws away silently at their heart as they find themselves no longer intimately familiar with each other’s worlds. Samuel Johnson observes “curiosity is, in the great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

The path of intimate relationships is not an easy one. Like the weather, they are in perpetual change and, we need to adapt accordingly. The time we initially devoted to our relationships gets interrupted by other things. The space that once belonged to each other, as a priority, is now filled with responsibilities, and a dangerous assumption that our partner is somehow ours. We start to neglect each other and no longer put a strong emphasis into integrating our relationship into everyday life. Instead of looking lovingly into our partners eyes, we check our social media, watch television, work, and even avoid each other, too tired to engage. We make so many other things a priority that there is no time or mental space to keep up with each others every changing worlds. No longer do we listen with curiosity. If we listen at all, it is not to understand, but to defend and reply. As a result important conversations get missed and, small hurts become aching resentments.

I love what Jeff Brown writes in his book An Uncommon Bond. “You can connect from all kinds of places – energetic harmony, sexual alchemy, intellectual alignment, but they won’t sustain love over a lifetime. You need a thread that goes deeper, that moves below and beyond the shifting sands of compatibility. That thread is fascination – a genuine fascination with someone’s inner world, with the way they organise reality, with the way they hearticulate their feelings, with the unfathomable and bottomless depths of their being. To hear their soul cry out to you again and again and to never lose interest in what it is trying to convey. If there is that, then there will still be love when the body sickens, when the sexuality fades, when the perfection projection is long shattered. If there is that you will swim in love’s waters until the very last breath.”

Whether it be fascination or curiosity or perhaps both, we need to remember that as much as we think we might know our partner, there is always more to learn. The couples I meet all long to be known. For their partners to stop and look at, and into them as they did when they first met. Curiosity is a rare skill, and one which, if practiced, can light the path as couples explore the tangled web of their relationship. It takes courage to step out of what has become comfortable. By trusting that by devoting time and genuine interest to the relationship, with generosity, future challenging terrain will be lit by a warm ray of hope. With this their love for each other can be held safe.

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