When I was younger, I conceived of partners traveling down a long, windy road with multiple paths. Each of those diverging paths provided an opportunity for couples either to stay together or to start to journey apart.
As time went on in a relationship, there would be more and more diverging paths to choose from, and the risks of a couple following different paths likely would increase.
At the same time, they also would get more familiar with the kinds of roads each of them likes and dislikes, with the result that they also could arrange things to make it more likely that they could stay together. The trick was to choose the right roads.
In retrospect, I believe that my original conceptualization of the course of relationships was wrong. Life turns out to be more complicated than that.
Once upon a time, I thought that life paths were pretty clear.
One could stay in a relationship or leave it. One could stay in a career path or leave it. A couple could decide to have children or decide not to.
There were multiple decisions, but at least the nature of the decisions seemed to me, then, to be clear. I no longer think that is the case. One does not choose or even discover roads; one creates them.
Consider, for example, staying in or leaving a relationship. Sure, one can stay or leave.
But there are so many varieties of “stay” and “leave.” Some people stay and have or manage to restore deep and meaningful communication; others hardly talk to each other and, when they do, stick to wholly superficial conversations.
Some stay together because they truly want to be with each other; others stay together but only for the sake of the children.
Similarly, some couples split and never have contact with each other again, except perhaps through lawyers; other couples, often those with children, maintain contact, sometimes close contact, over a period of many years.
Today, I envision relationships as being more like making your way through a dense, uncharted jungle with, at best, each of you possessing a compass that may or may not work and perhaps a map on which it is hard to spot your exact location or even where you are going.
Each of you has a scythe to help you cut through the underbrush, but it is not as sharp as it once was and some of the underbrush barely responds to it.
Moreover, when it is, metaphorically, dark, it is not only hard to see the landscape but even whether your partner is still with you or even near you. You have to make your own road.
In other words, you are on a journey together but there is no prefabricated easily traveled highway for you to follow in your luxury car.
Rather, for the most part, you are on your own, trying to figure out where you are, where you are heading, and even what your ultimate destination is.
As you travel, one of you may change their mind about either the destination, how to get there, or both.
The result is that it is very easy for you to get separated from each other during the journey, and as well, to become totally lost.
And you even may encounter other people individually or jointly on their own expedition, some of whom may attract you and appear to have the secret to an easier and seemingly more pleasurable journey.
How to make it through your journey together
To put it simply, the journey is much more chaotic and unpredictable than I once imagined it to be.
If you are on a journey with your partner, what can you do to improve the chances of making it through your journey, all the way, together? Here are five tips.
1. Make sure you initially agree on a destination and keep discussing your destination to ensure that you are still going to the same place.
As times change, what people want out of life and out of a relationship can change. Keep track of whether you are still trying to go to the same place!
2. Synchronize your compasses before you leave and keep synchronizing them during the journey, making adjustments as necessary.
Make sure, as you go along, that you both perceive yourself as being on the same path. Sometimes, couples think they are going to the same place, but really aren’t.
In our studies of couple’s feelings, we have found that couples often misperceive, sometimes grossly, how each other feels and what each other wants.
3. Bring a scythe-sharpener on your trip.
Your scythe will get dull from use and eventually you may find it hard to cut through the undergrowth.
Many times, couples get through a series of difficult periods or even crises, only to find that they are worn out and thus not ready and willing to face the next crisis.
Keep working at renewing your relationship and your willingness to work together as a team through hard times.
4. Ask yourself when to speed up and when to slow down.
As you go through life, you will change; so will your partner and your relationship. It is inevitable. At times, you may feel yourself leaving your partner behind, or their leaving you behind, or your starting to go in different directions.
When you feel yourselves becoming more distant, be willing to slow things down and see whether you can find a common place to be.
If you are on different jungle paths, give yourself some breathing time to see whether you can get to the same place and into the same direction.
5. Don’t do anything drastic in the dark.
There may be times in your relationship when it seems you have entered an extended night. The darkness never seems to end. You may be tempted to do something drastic to bring back the light.
But when it is pitch black is exactly the time not to do anything drastic you later may regret.
Give it time; see if you can get some light—some reason, some sense—back into the relationship. Only then make decisions that may affect the future not only of the relationship but also of those affected by it.
Good luck on your journey. We all need it! But also, we can follow these five tips, and help to make our own luck!