Dr. Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. is a gerontologist who interviewed over 700 elders (ranging from 60 years old to over 100 years old.) on the different aspects of long-term relationships. “The Experts”, as he refers to them, are as diverse in cultural background and life experiences as our 50 States. Their advices on love, intimate relationship and marriage converge on simple, practical and effective words of wisdom. Their life lessons, if we chose to listen and implement them, can save us countless painful struggles in our primary relationships. Here are five of the thirty life lessons the Experts agree on. Let’s see if the Experts might have some insights to help us navigate our intimate relationships.
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1 & 2: Listen To Your Heart. Listen To Your Head.
Follow the warning of the “this is wrong” feeling. Even when there are social, familial or religious pressures not to do so, listen to that persistent voice which whispers that the relationship is not meant to lead to a deeper commitment. If true love and mutual respect–which are an integral part of a strong foundation on which happy and fulfilling long-term relationships are built on–have been swapped by powerful feelings of lust, listen. When in doubt, talk to those you trust. Really trust. Talk to best friends and genuine confidents. Talk to qualified ethical, spiritual, religious advisers. Ask those whom have a track record to tell you their honest truth, not what you want to hear. Talking and thinking things through can be of great benefit to help you see clearer and feel lighter.
The part of you who sends you the “this is wrong” feelings needs and deserves to be heard. Refusing to truly listen, the Experts warn us, will most likely come at a higher cost and lead to greater pain. It doesn’t mean that this part of you is in charge of the relationship and holds all of the cards, or that you’ll do all that it says. Giving due respect to our gut feelings and internal dialogue increases the likelihood that they won’t return later with the harsher and stronger message of “I told you so”, when things fall apart.
3: Do Your Values Align?
The idea that opposites attract is highly celebrated, especially in romantic relationships. Being with a partner whose personality is opposite to ours can be a lot of fun and allow for life experiences we would otherwise not have. Couples who embrace and honor their individual differences can, when they chose to, enhance each other’s lives! This said, personalities and values are not the same. Values that do not align, or even clash, will become a real source of problems in long-term relationships. Do we want to be with someone whose soul is polar-opposite to ours or with a soul friendly partner? Believing that someone’s values will change once they are with us, that they’ll embrace our worldview, that they’ll realize that we are right and they are wrong, definitely leads to great heartaches and harsh awakening.
Dating is often a vetting process for the longevity and ease of a long-term relationship. When dating, allow yourself to ask and to witness with eyes wide open what your person’s behavior says about his/her values. What is his/her relationship to money, to work, to co-workers, to strangers, to children, to his/her parents and siblings, to his friends, to truth telling, to authority, to those who are less or more fortunate, to the planet, etc. Do you share in these values? Which values do you hold strong or cherish dearly? Which values are simply none-negotiable for you?
For most Experts, open discussions around sexual needs, wants, likes and dislikes were simply not a part of their cultural norm. It seems that talking about values is often as taboo nowadays as sex was for the Experts. This mindset is often rooted in a “why ruin a good thing? S/he is so attractive, sexy, confident, funny, smart, owns such a nice home and…” While these qualities add spice to getting to know someone, time will, sooner or later, force us to face how similar or diametrically opposite our values are to our partner. Values only change when we are truly ready to re-evaluate them, and change them. Bottom line, if you want a long, pleasant and fulfilling long-termrelationship, with as little turmoil as possible, pay attention to your partner’s values.
If you have already committed to someone who’s values don’t align with yours, it might be time to get real and have the many challenging and difficult conversations you never had. These conversations need to be shared calmly and respectfully and not during heated arguments where things are said that are regretted the next day, or worse, that damage the relationship further. This, infact, is often a strong motivator for couples to look for professional help.
4: Three Warning Signs That Spell Danger Ahead.
The Experts are very clear that moving ahead when one of these warning signs are present is a clear recipe for a tumultuous and painful relationship. Most people who have to face the harsh reality of any of these three red flags once in a long-term relationship cannot, in good conscience, pretend they did not know. In most cases, when we date or vet someone long enough these danger signs show their ugly heads. Downplaying them doesn’t make them go away or diminish their importance. Ah, the sweet power of denial!
1) No One Likes Your Partner: If your best friends, trusted advisers, parent/siblings or coworkers you like and respect don’t like your partner, pay attention. Listen! Carefully listen and take-in their feedback. This said, we also have to keep in mind that many people won’t volunteer their experience and views on one’s potential partner because they don’t want to bust our happiness bubble. If the evidence mounts and is persistent, take their views seriously. Slow down. If their feedback does not match your experience, ask them to help you see what you are missing, to see your partner through their eyes. We all have blind spots, especially when infatuation takes over. If it helps, blame our darn “lust hormones” and the vulnerability to be alone. Both highjack our best thinking brain.
2) Explosive and Disproportion Anger: While we all loose our cool at times, people who have a bad temper, who seem to get angry about the small stuff will, in time, re-direct that anger towards their partner. If the person you are with flies off the handle, pay attention. This is a red flag with flashing colors. If such is the case, don’t fool yourself that a person who is rude to others, excessively confrontational, controlling, easily triggered and responds with indignant arrogance will never do that with you. Don’t delude yourself that your love will make him/her change. Irrational and un-tampered anger, even towards inanimate objects, will destroy the safety and trust of a relationship.
3) Can’t Control His/Her Alcohol or Drug Use: Many people like to drink, use recreational drugs and get wild. Especially so when they are in their late teens, twenties and early thirties. For some, it can be fun to do so in order to rekindle with their uninhibited wild side. If doing so comes ahead of other important values you share, pay attention. As importantly, if your partner promises to only have “a few glasses” but ends up going beyond his/her limit, with all of the behaviors that come with excessive use, be warned. What you think is cute and funny may be the sign of someone who has no control over his/her substance(s) use. If this happens more than once, the Experts warn us: “walk away or stay at your own perils”. While s/he may be such a great person in other areas of life, in the long term, this alone will most likely destroy the good and delicious aspects of your relationship. Again, the Experts warn us to save ourselves from the challenges that come with trying to help someone who has not, until he/she met you, mastered his/her drinking/soft drugs use and habits. The Experts are very clear, lack of self-control is not likely to change without the person being totally dedicated at making it happen. Great promises and good will is not enough. Proper support is required and is, for most, a lifelong commitment.
5: Communicate – Communicate – Communicate
This one is as simple as it is. Talk to your partner and don’t get into a relationship where communication is lacking and things are brushed-off under the rug. Or worse, a relationship where you are shamed for wanting to clarify hurt feelings or for simply sharing in the joys and tribulations of life. Lack of communication in long-term relationships fosters a sense of isolation, of aloneness, of not being seen, attended to, or cared for. This, for most people, will lead them into depression or dysthymia (a sense of big blah in life). If talking and sharing yourself is not your strong suit, don’t hide behind your countless excuses: “I’m a man”, “We didn’t talk in my family”, “It makes me uncomfortable”, etc. Work at it. Do so consistently and diligently. Become better at it. From the toughest and most rugged Experts, to those who always were more communicative throughout their lives, all Experts agree on the importance of communication. There is no intimacy without talking. The longevity of your relationship will thank you for it!
The twenty-five other lessons for loving and dating mindfully are, from my opinion, rooted in commonsense, uplifting and life-proven lessons many of us can benefit from!
Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©