No matter how much we love someone, they will eventually frustrate us to some degree. And if this is a long term, daily relationship, this challenge is likely to become a regular thing. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand what is a small annoyance, what is worthy of fair battle, and what is a deal breaker. Our love relationships are unique and personal and the variables are great. Still, there are some universal truths.
A wise coworker once told me that a marriage should be 90% fantastic and 10% challenge. I admired his marriage and could see that my own marriage was more like 30% pretty sweet and 70% horrible.
People have a lot more grace with divorce these days, but it is by no means an easy exit. It is rife with loss and a painful sense of failure, and yes, there is still judgment from others. Yet, with divorce and major break ups now a more common experience, I have learned that there is a big difference between what conflicts I know are almost nothing to what I know is seriously threatening our earnest promise to exclusive and lasting love.
Let’s begin with the obvious. If someone is living in a way that is soulfully damaging US, such as gambling to the point of unpaid debt, cheating sexually, or using violence to control me, I am out. Most people would agree that this level of behavior must have a hard line NO. Some people will stay due to the vows they made, but let’s all agree, the person destroying the relationship is not the victim. It is the person who first broke their promise to be your support, your ally and your protector, leaving you in this horrid position, forcing you to save yourself.
Then we have the other side of the continuum: The small stuff. Honestly, I have gotten to the point where certain issues are almost not worth a single breath of my time. Leaving crumbs on the countertops, toothpaste on the towels, and snoring. If this person is vegetarian and I love beef and pork, I just get creative. I mostly take care of these issues in silence. Why? Because I love too much about them to give a damn. If my partner tends to laugh nervously when we meet people, or they grow silent at dinner parties, I think my loyalty should override their idiosyncrasies. If my partner likes to watch football and I prefer a foreign film, or he seems more invested in hunting than playing with the kids, it is not a difficult thing to ask for what I need and establish what I can expect. If these are the sorts of things that bother me, perhaps I am overlooking the real problems. It seems like this level of complaint is either smothered by our love, or inflated by the fact that I don’t really want to be in this relationship to begin with. The small things can become big as a decoy from the scary stuff that is being ignored, avoided, deflected, or denied. If I am in a safe and loving relationship, these little contentions are easily resolved.
However, things are not always so big or little. There are subtle ways to threaten the harmony of a significant partnership, and over time can burn away the affection we once held. This grey, gone unchecked, is a growing cause of torturous angst. Perhaps this person misses work too much and spends hours a day sleeping; they’re not pulling their weight in the duties of the home and finances. Perhaps they overspend in unnecessary ways. Maybe your partner has emotional affairs with those who are attracted to them. Some partners hide their whereabouts, or become unreliable with mutual social commitments. One of the most damaging and elusive behaviors is sarcasm and calloused criticism, even the painful experience of being told you are unworthy of love; often these messages are only implied. Some partners grow possessive and accuse us of things we have not done. These grey areas can leave us confused, and we hope the deterioration of our trust and esteem will not ultimately ruin our love. These are the areas in which we wonder how long we must endure it, or if there is hope of change.
I would contend that long term experience with the grey can become unbearable and generate such a level of contempt that one begins to dream of one’s freedom, however that might occur. If we honestly approach them and our partner listens and agrees to change, then continues to do the very things that cause us pain, it is unlikely in today’s world that we will endlessly suffer. We know today that we can leave. We know that we have a choice; unfortunately, it will still come at a price. We spend much time and energy deciding if the price is too high, or if we are better off being half-content.
It seems important then to establish the spiritual nature of a love relationship. Love is not living under the same roof. Love is not having someone around so you don’t have to be alone. Love is not paying the bills and sitting at your mother-in-law’s table. These are the things that happen to support the love that is already there.
The spiritual nature of love is to honor something that occurs between two people, beyond the grave, beyond their choices, and beyond our petty desires. Love is an unconditional grace and resolve. And most importantly, this sort of true love must be matched by how much you love yourself. If someone is hurting me, I must love myself enough to assure my health and safety is first. If I love someone, I must measure my capacity for tolerance. If my partner does not honor my safety and trust, I must love myself enough to leave.
It comes down to these honest questions: Is this person I love doing their best? Are they sincerely trying? Am I also doing my best? Has it been made clear what is going to be enough? Is it clear what is not enough? If you don’t know where the line is, do not expect your lover to know it.
This is all that we can ask of each other in this messy world, and if his best is not enough for me, then perhaps I should step aside and let someone else love him instead.