Time to clear out tired myths that get in the way of connection, nourishment and aliveness in contemporary relationships to make way for a new style of relating
We all want relationship. We all seek to be with others. Neurobiology is able to demonstrate very clearly that we are wired this way. Relationships make us feel good, literally, with connection causing the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine. In fact, the pain of social disconnection and rejection travels the same neural pathways as physical pain. In other words, when we say ‘love hurts’ – it really can.
But relationships, partnerships and marriages have never been under so much pressure. And in the face of unprecedented change, we are holding onto expectations of our relationships that they surely can’t meet. The ‘rules’ of relationship – gender roles, social norms and economic factors – that bound us together in previous generations, just don’t apply anymore. So we feel less motivated to stay in our relationships, AND we are less compelled by social or economic pressures to do so. The result? Many of us are struggling to find a new way of being in our relationships and sustaining them long term. And in the wash up, many relationships don’t last.
With no relationship map to follow, how can we make it work?
– increasing our awareness of outdated cultural beliefs, assumptions and thought patterns that are the unconscious driving force behind our relationship expectations (and the reason we feel so disappointed and disoriented when things don’t go to plan),
– and exploring new ways of relating beyond these to help us find aliveness and connection in our relationships.
Once we bring to light and challenge these relationship myths, the possibility of a new map can emerge.
So let’s take the pressure off our relationships and expose some of the most common and deeply held cultural beliefs about relationships…
The you-complete-me myth
The film Jerry Maguire, when Jerry (Tom Cruise) delivers a romantic speech to the character played by Renee Zellweger which ends in “you complete me”
This outdated idea, or ‘romantic myth’, tells us that our partner is our everything. This myth, perpetuated by most traditional and many contemporary fairy tales, builds an expectation that one person can be the answer to all of our needs. But, as Esther Perel notes we are paradoxically trying to get our security needs and our need for novelty met by a single person.
How can one person alone meet all or even most of the needs that were once met by a whole tribe or community?
This myth has the unhealthy impact of building a ‘happily ever after’ picture of relationship perfection that is impossible to live up to. It also fosters reliance primarily on one person rather than valuing cultivating and contributing to a community of connection and support.
Our need for others beyond our relationship is especially noticeable in conflict, when it is near impossible to really be there in a loving, compassionate way, when our partner is the very person we feel angry with. And this idea comes completely undone when we have children and realise we really need the support of a community.
Perhaps we can explore a new way of thinking about our core relationships, not as our ‘everything’, but as our basecamp? The place we call home from which we can climb mountains and return to afterwards. So when we are in conflict with our partner, instead of expecting them to meet our needs, we seek a compassionate ear from someone else to resource and ground us to enable us to move forward. Instead of expecting perfection we can relax knowing that neither of us can possibly live up to this. And before we have children we can purposefully co-create community to sustain us.
The right-and-wrong myth
Ever had an argument or a break-up and felt like it was all their fault? Who hasn’t? We often are carrying a belief that the entire relationship would be perfect if only the other person would change.
But this belief just doesn’t stack up. In a relationship of any kind, there is no such thing as one person being entirely wrong and the other entirely right*. A relationship is a dynamic system that exists in the space between and around you and another person.
What happens is a complex interplay between you both, often guided by unconscious drives that have little to do with what is going on in the present.
If we come from the assumption that the other person is ‘wrong’ and needs to change, then we also put ourselves in a disempowered place. If it is all up to them, then there is nothing we can do except wait (and ask, blame, plead or coerce them into changing).
But in the dynamic system of a relationship, if one part or person changes even in a small way, the other person can’t remain the same. Instead they will reorient themselves around the change in you. Have you ever noticed that when you consciously approach someone differently you get a different result? So if we start doing something differently ourselves, this will automatically have an impact on the other person and the relationship as a whole. A much better place to be than if it is all up to them.
The honeymoon-is-over myth
Most of us believe that long term relationships become stale, particularly in terms of desire, as novelty wears off. And once we have a family, the domestic and the erotic collide and we are left trying to finding time alone together, lost in a sea of responsibility. These are such deeply ingrained views about relationships that they are in commonplace in popular culture from movies to jokes. But perhaps this doesn’t need to be the case?
This feeling of repetition and sameness in our relationships is not just about our partners. It also comes from automatic assumptions we make about them without even realising.
Instead of seeing the person before us, we see a ‘movie’ of our relationship – with our partner playing a particular role.
This blocks us from experiencing novelty as we keep rerunning this movie again and again. The good news is that we don’t know everything there is to know about our partners. How can we, when everything is in a constant state of change? There can still be mysterious connection in our relationships, if only we know how to access it.
“Mystery is not about travelling to new places, but looking with new eyes” Marcel Proust
Being able to see through the assumptions we make is the key to connecting with the aliveness in our relationships. Moving out from behind our movie to really see who this person is in the present.