Cultivating wisdom in long-term relationships

Cultivating wisdom in long-term relationships

The quality of our whole lives can be reflected in the quality of our core relationships. In fact, the way we relate with anyone and everyone matters. By working on ourselves and our most intimate relationships, we can improve practically everything in our personal universe. 

Unfortunately there is plenty of obtuse and flimsy relationship advice out there and an abundance of misinformation in our environment. This can make cultivating true relationship wisdom difficult. 

Maria Popova wrote, “We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two. We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.”

In other words, it’s one thing to read articles and books on relating. It’s another to actually learn to relate well with another human being.

It’s possible to hear words and phrases like “attachment styles” and “secure functioning” and ascribe a meaning to them… without genuinely knowing the clinical meaning of attachment or feeling secure emotions. We think we know… until we truly know.

Gaining Self-Knowledge, Together

It’s true that we must know the depths of ourselves, but it’s also true that our partners are best situated to help us know ourselves better. 

At the beginning of a relationship, each person is working hard to show up as their best, most conscious selves. We proactively treat one another with kindness. We experience a captivating open-hearted love. 

Gradually, though, we see the reality. No matter who you are, you are most tested by those you love the most. It’s both deeply rewarding and also a pretty tough job to continually love the people we live with day in, day out, over time. 

Through this enduring “hardship” of loving other messy humans long term, we can find rich and fertile ground for personal growth. 

Self-knowledge unfolds over time, as we become more willing to examine our lives. A few questions to ask of yourself and your partner include: 

  • Have you looked at your family’s patterns?
  • Have you adjusted any of your perspectives?
  • Are you willing to go deeper into the unknown? 

In developing our wisest selves, we have to make peace with ambiguity. We release our need to control, learn to tolerate temporary discomfort in order to see greater horizons. 

A profound awakening can happen as we actively continue working on our wounds and fears. This is because all our previous moments of feeling “less than” tend to be times we felt hurt, rejected, or abandoned by our primary caregivers. 

Regardless of whether you had “a good childhood” in a safe and loving home, or you faced serious trauma and adversity, you have undoubtedly experienced feeling “less than.” It’s part of the human experience. Our survival brains are wired to keep us safe. We’re always looking for what we might be doing wrong or what might be going wrong – and sometimes (perhaps frequently?) that brain gives us answers that aren’t exactly accurate or entirely helpful.  

Speaking Truth to One Another

“Speaking truth” to one another sounds easy enough, but the process of uncovering individual realities can be quite complex. 

The main question here is:  

  • Are you withholding any feelings and thoughts from yourself or others?

This is a particularly tricky question, because sometimes we can’t even see this clearly for ourselves.  

Getting clear on what our truth “is” requires listening to the layers and parts of our inner dialogue. We may have many interpretations of our reality — what’s the first story we tell ourselves? Is there anything beyond that? How do we feel about it — are we angry? Hurt? Sad? And what is causing that feeling?  

We must also learn to hold space for our loved one’s truth. They need time to unearth their reality and state their needs clearly. This takes time and patience. 

Over time, we may become experts in our partners’ neuroses… and they, ours. Yet paradoxically, we may reject their interpretations of our repeated patterns. It can be frightening to feel unloved by those who know us most closely. We want to flee, run away, escape. Perhaps at any cost. 

We may have entered into this long-term relationship to avoid feelings of fear, loneliness, separateness, and disappointment. We may have thought that our shadow sides had gone away – but we may in fact have developed some ugly coping mechanisms. Most everyone can be aggressive, calloused, judgemental, and short-tempered at times. We don’t want to know these things about ourselves. We’ve worked hard to overcome them! 

So why would we want to hear someone telling us the unvarnished truth about our distorted projections and less-than-acceptable behaviors? This isn’t what we signed up for! 

Or is it? 

Perhaps on a cosmic level, radical truth is exactly what we need most. And our long-term partners can actually be partners in exploring the truth. Only once we drop our delusions with ourselves and others can we start to feel more at ease. We’ll share moments of joy with our loved ones that only those who’ve stood in the fire of reality-based acceptance can share. 

It’s beautiful when we stop expecting our partner or our relationship to bring us only positive feelings or to solve all of our problems in life. Once we see “what is” rather than “what we want it to be,” the real work of radically honest connection begins. 

Seeing Love as a Practice

Levels and evolution of each of these occur across the spectrum of time, they are a practice. We have to learn to share openly, in a clean-burning way. 

It can be useful to “wipe the slate” clean and start again with a beginner’s mind in a relationship. The closer we become, the more we think we know one another, the easier it is to make assumptions that the other person sees the world as we do.

In his book The Road Less Traveled, author M. Scott Peck defines love as, “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” I wholeheartedly believe this is true – that the purpose of a relationship is essentially to help us grow. 

We are both always growing and evolving — sometimes separately, sometimes together. It’s natural for any relationship to have periods of expansion and contraction. Sometimes we need help coming together and seeing our current situation as it actually is. Pinpointing what we need to work on most, in order to flourish.  

Doing couples work benefits your entire universe — starting with you and expanding out to everyone you encounter. Our brains and nervous systems are wired to feed us fear-based responses. But we have within us the capacity to respond with love, and to repair what we have responded to in fear. 

Don’t hesitate to address even a tiny squabble or unspoken feeling of distance. Examining even the smallest encounter helps us generate heartfelt encounters and true relational wisdom. 


Seeking guidance

Couples counseling is one place where we can clarify our understanding of our relationships. Over time, with expert guidance, we learn to resolve our own inner conflicts and stop projecting ourselves onto our partners. We awaken to our partner’s needs, and they can awaken to ours. Learning to repair our differences is long-term relationship wisdom in action.

. . . 

Ready for more? 

If you and your partner are ready to go deeper, book an appointment with me today. 

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