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Two Questions to Repair a Relationship

Few couples appreciate the need for ongoing relationship-maintenance. Every day brings with it small challenges — disappointments, frustrations, irritations — that can come between the most ostensibly committed lovers and subtly wear away at the sincerity of their connection. These lovers can end up furious without knowing they are so or alienated without any conscious awareness of their distress. The first moment there is an inkling that something is wrong (perhaps very wrong) is when they look over at their partner one evening over dinner and register that their heart is numb, that they feel nothing, that they seem — quite mysteriously — to have fallen out of love. Or else when they are on a work trip and notice, far more easily than they’d ever suspected they would, that they would be very much on for an affair.

These mysterious closures of the heart are not, on closer examination, any such thing. They are the result of slow, silent accumulation of silt in the arteries of love made up of little let-downs that have not been resolved close enough to the time of their genesis.

To prevent the risks, lovers should regularly make room to ask themselves — in a calm spirit of gentle openness and curiosity — two ostensibly simple, yet hugely central and effective, questions:

What are you angry with me about?

How have I scared you recently?

Without meaning to, we are constantly angering our partners by not being more of who they would hope us to be. Sometimes their expectations are reasonable; at other times, as they would themselves be ready to admit, they are bringing to bear on us expectations that no human could possibly fulfil. But in both cases, it is critical that the anger that has arisen can be divulged and heard. It counts far less that someone should actually be capable of perfection than that they should hear us out politely and sympathetically when we complain — nicely — that they aren’t so. What matter if a lover has a thousand flaws, so long as they allow us to share our bitter disappointment that they have them; how much we can forgive someone who won’t be defensive when we outline what is less than optimal about life around them. We don’t need flawless love; we need repeated opportunities to be listened to when we lament its absence.

In answer to the first question, we might explain how we are ‘angry’ that our partner’s friends are so boring, that they don’t have a better job, that they leave the kitchen untidy or that they worry so much about their mother. And they might get similarly angry with us that we are so nervous, and bad tempered, that we’ve been a stickler for manners and that we judge others so harshly. We need not get angry while we divulge our anger. The mood can be serene and even playful. We don’t need solutions or magical answers either. What counts is that we have a chance to let go of our let-downs in an atmosphere of understanding and mutual apology.

Similarly, love can be subtly throttled by fear. We scare each other all the time. By being unreasonable, by being messy, by being unreliable… Fear erodes the trust that the small vulnerable version of ourselves who lurks within us needs from someone in whom they chose to invest. There is a little child in us looking for a safe mummy or daddy, and who probably privately recoiled when our partners raised their voice with us or didn’t come home when they said they would. Once more, what matters isn’t that we never cause an upset but that we should hear a lover out politely when they tell us sweetly we have done so.

We should stop denying our relationships the routine maintenance we don’t hesitate to accord to a boiler or outboard engine. We don’t have to dread the mysterious end of relationships so long as we can regularly muster the courage to accept how much we may have angered and frightened those whom we are committed to loving.

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