We are not the same persons this year as last;
not are those we love. It is a happy chance if we,
changing, continue to love a changed person.
~W. Somerset Maugham
If everything goes right, the one you love today will become someone else by the the end of this year, or this month, or, heck, this day even. I say "if everything goes right" because ONLY in the environment of support does one have a chance to blossom fully. So...if you are finding yourself with a brand new partner, a stranger, FEAR NOT. Instead, turn to him or her and say, "Who are you today?" and then just listen.
The journey of loving the one who will eventually become someone else is full of real challenges as well as real treasures. While we are often conditioned to see each other's differences as fundamentally threatening, in romantic relationships it is precisely our idiosyncrasies and our differences that draw us to our partners in the first place.
The painful paradox is that we often love the stranger in our PROSPECTIVE partner, but not so much in our ACTUAL partner. Our actual partner's "otherness" doesn't seem to be charming or attractive at all. In fact, it's often frustrating, annoying and even scary.
Encountering the seemingly insurmountable task of navigating each other's otherness is where many couples enter therapy.
Many of the couples I see in my practice come to therapy because they no longer feel close, they are troubled by the changes in their partner or themselves, they worry that something is desperately wrong. So naturally there is a lot of fear and panic, which, of course, is par for the course whenever uncertainty gets introduced into the mix.
What these couples discover in therapy, however, is that NOTHING IS WRONG and that they are at a particular precious juncture in their relationships that signals the inception of a very important development. This development is the recognition of their partner's "otherness" AS a pathway to a more fulfilling connection and deeper intimacy.
My clients John and Melanie (*fictional names for purposes of confidentiality) come to my mind when I think about the power of MAKING SPACE FOR THE STRANGER IN THE PARTNER. Both John and Melanie are in their 40's. This is her first marriage and his second. She is bubbly and energetic. He is more reserved, more composed. What begins as her complaint about the frequent "ugly" fights between the two of them evolves into a conversation about her desire to know him more. I can see he is uncomfortable; he doesn't trust her. He also doesn't trust me...to hold his fear, to hold HIM. We work slowly and, over the course of several months, he begins to take risks (HUGE risks for him!) to share more of himself with with wife. As John opens up about the multitudes and contradictions he contains, all the yeses and all the noes, Melanie begins to feel unsettled. "I feel like he is a whole different person." I see her begin to clench around her fear of this NEW person she feels she has never really known. During one of the sessions Melanie becomes flooded by fear and panic. As I stay with her and her panic, she says she is "trying to feel grateful," but she also wants "my old husband back". Over the next several weeks in therapy, Melanie makes her way toward the stranger in her husband, which allows the couple to discover a whole new level of intimacy and connection.
In "Letters to a Young Poet", Rainer Maria Rilke writes: “The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
Instead of clinging to sameness and commonalities, when we make space for the stranger in our lover, we RELEASE them NOW to all the parts of themselves that are yet to be expressed, calling forth and making space for all of who they are.
Like everything else in life, relationships are cyclical. They are ever-changing and yet repetitive. Within the relational cycles, there are periods of contraction and expansion as well as the periods of moving away and then moving toward. The relational dance is always between the familiar and the unknown and if we embrace it fully, we would embrace our lovers not only as the family they have become to us, but also as the strangers they would remain for the duration of our shared path.
Seeing the stranger in a loved one can be startling, but what I have witnessed time and time again is that the discovery is only startling whenever there has been a steady denial of the stranger's existence in the first place. In other words, if partners refuse to acknowledge each other's otherness and changes as they grow and evolve, becoming confronted with these changes one day can be quite unsettling and disorienting.
Seeing the stranger in a loved one can feel akin to a small death. A new version of him or her is often the death of the old version. If you are in a long-term relationship, you have likely lived through many of such deaths and, if you've done it right, you have been able to see your beloved expand and unfurl, all the while learning to shed the attachment to the parts of him or her you had grown to depend on and love.
It takes real courage to be willing to see what IS. Not what once was and not what one day will be, but what IS-now, in this place, at this moment.
I find that this willingness to see and be with what IS is the very foundation of relational intimacy.
If you are interested in learning how to make space for the stranger in your lover (i.e. all the parts of him or her you are yet to meet), consider the practice of asking each other the following questions:
-What makes you happy TODAY?
-What do you love about our relationship TODAY?
-What do you find particularly attractive about me TODAY?
-What is hard/challenging/frustrating/unsatisfying to you in our relationship TODAY?
These questions are relational, so their focus is to tend to the well-being of the relationship. However, if you make this your regular practice (monthly or weekly, for example), you will ALSO will begin to habituate yourself to the emergence of the NEW in your partner's responses. You might discover that what turned him or her on years ago is no longer a turn on. You might also discover that discovering that does not spell disaster for your relationship. In asking your partner what matters to him or her TODAY you will learn...well, what matters to them today, which is simply heart-opening.
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Until next time, be well.