The kind of relationship we all really want

Some years ago I read the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. The book is one of those classics that everyone recommends, and as a result I was somewhat skeptical that it was a pop-culture phenomenon. It’s not; I found instead a book that contained real wisdom, insight, and one written from the heart. I’d highly recommend it.

One particular story from it has stuck with me ever since. In the middle of the book the author tells a longer story about a time in his marriage, and it encapsulates one of the most beautiful expressions of what makes a relationship worth wanting that I have ever encountered. To this day I think it is one of the most touching descriptions I’ve ever encountered of what a romantic connection can be.

More so, I think it actually encapsulates a core story that is at the heart of what all of us really long for in a relationship; the kind of connection and understanding we long to share. In the dating world and the complexity of life it can be so easy to become jaded and lose sight of this. This story helps me reconnect with that longing, and make the search for it worthwhile.

So I’d like to share that story here:

I would like to share with you a personal story which I feel contains the essence of this book. In doing so, it is my hope that you will relate to the underlying principles it contains.

Some years ago, our family took a sabbatical leave from the university where I taught so that I could write. We lived for a full year in Laie on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

Shortly after getting settled, we developed a living and working routine which was not only very productive but extremely pleasant.

After an early morning run on the beach, we would send two of our children, barefoot and in shorts, to school. I went to an isolated building next to the cane fields where I had an office to do my writing.
It was very quiet, very beautiful, very serene– no phone, no meetings, no pressing engagements.

My office was on the outside edge of the college, and one day as I was wandering between stacks of books in the back of the college library, I came across a book that drew my interest. As I opened it, my eyes fell upon a single paragraph that powerfully influenced the rest of my life.

I read the paragraph over and over again. It basically contained the simple idea that there is a gap or a space between stimulus and response, and that the key to both our growth and happiness is how we use that space.

I can hardly describe the effect that idea had on my mind. Though I had been nurtured in the philosophy of self-determinism, the way the idea was phrased – “a gap between stimulus and response” – hit me with fresh, almost unbelievable force. It was almost like “knowing it for the first time,” like an inward revolution, “an idea whose time had come.”

I reflected on it again and again, and it began to have a powerful effect on my paradigm of life. It was as if I had become an observer of my own participation. I began to stand in that gap and to look outside at the stimuli. I reveled in the inward sense of freedom to choose my response – even to become the stimulus, or at least to influence it- even to reverse it.

Shortly thereafter, and partly as a result of this “revolutionary” idea, Sandra and I began a practice of deep communication. I would pick her up a little before noon on an old red Honda 90 trail cycle, and we would take our two preschool children with us– one between us and the other on my left knee– as we rode out in the cane fields by my office. We rode slowly along for about an hour, just talking.

The children looked forward to the ride and hardly ever made any noise. We seldom saw another vehicle, and the cycle was so quiet we could easily hear each other. We usually ended up on an isolated beach where we parked the Honda and walked about 200 yards to a secluded spot where we ate a picnic lunch.

The sandy beach and a freshwater river coming off the island totally absorbed the interest of the children, so Sandra and I were able to continue our talks uninterrupted. Perhaps it doesn’t take too much imagination to envision the level of understanding and trust we were able to reach by spending at least two hours a day, every day, for a full year in deep communication.

At the very first of the year, we talked about all kinds of interesting topics – people, ideas, events, the children, my writing, our family at home, future plans, and so forth. But little by little, our communication deepened and we began to talk more and more about our internal worlds – about our upbringing, our scripting, our feelings, and self-doubts. As we were deeply immersed in these communications, we also observed them and observed ourselves in them. We began to use that space between stimulus and response in some new and interesting ways which caused us to think about how we were programmed and how those programs shaped how we saw the world.

We began an exciting adventure into our interior worlds and found it to be more exciting, more fascinating, more absorbing, more compelling, more filled with discovery and insight than anything we’d even known in the outside world.

It wasn’t all “sweetness and light.” We occasionally hit some raw nerves and had some painful experiences, embarrassing experiences, self-revealing experiences – experiences that made us extremely open and vulnerable to each other. And yet we found we had been wanting to go into those things for years. When we did go into the deeper, more tender issues and then came out of them, we felt in some way healed.

We were so initially supportive and helpful, so encouraging and empathic to each other, that we nurtured and facilitated these internal discoveries in each other.

We gradually evolved two unspoken ground rules. The first was “no probing.” As soon as we unfolded the inner layers of vulnerability, we were not to question each other, only to empathize.
Probing was simply too invasive. It was also too controlling and too logical. We were covering new, difficult terrain that was scary and uncertain, and it stirred up fears and doubts. We wanted to cover more and more of it, but we grew to respect the need to let each other open up in our own time.

The second ground rule was that when it hurt too much, when it was painful, we would simply quit for the day. Then we would either begin the next day where we left off or wait until the person who was sharing felt ready to continue. We carried around the loose ends, knowing that we wanted to deal with them. But because we had the time and the environment conducive to it, and because we were so excited to observe our own involvement and to grow within our marriage, we simply knew that sooner or later we would deal with all those loose ends and bring them to some kind of closure.

The most difficult, and eventually the most fruitful part of this kind of communication came when my vulnerability and Sandra’s vulnerability touched. Then, because of our subjective involvement, we found that the space between stimulus and response was no longer there. A few bad feelings surfaced. But our deep desire and our implicit agreement was to prepare ourselves to start where we left off and deal with those feelings until we resolved them.

One of those difficult times had to do with a basic tendency in my personality. My father was a very private individual – very controlled and very careful. My mother was and is very public, very open, very spontaneous. I find both sets of tendencies in me, and when I feel insecure, I tend to become private, like my father. I live inside myself and safely observe.

Sandra is more like my mother — social, authentic, and spontaneous. We had gone through many experiences over the years in which I felt her openness was inappropriate, and she felt my constraint was dysfunctional, both socially and to me as an individual because I would become insensitive to the feelings of others. All of this and much more came out during those deep visits. I came to value
Sandra’s insight and wisdom and the way she helped me to be a more open, giving, sensitive, social person.

Another of those difficult times had to do with what I perceived to be a “hang up” Sandra had which had bothered me for years. She seemed to have an obsession about Frigidaire appliances which I was at an absolute loss to understand. She would not even consider buying another brand of appliance.
Even when we were just starting out and on a very tight budget, she insisted that we drive the fifty miles to the “big city” where Frigidaire appliances were sold, simply because no dealer in our small university town carried them at that time.

This was a matter of considerable agitation to me. Fortunately, the situation came up only when we purchased an appliance. But when it did come up, it was like a stimulus that triggered off a hot button response. This single issue seemed to be symbolic of all irrational thinking, and it generated a whole range of negative feelings within me.

I usually resorted to my dysfunctional private behavior. I suppose I figured that the only way I could deal with it was not to deal with it; otherwise, I felt I would lose control and say things I shouldn’t say. There were times when I did slip and say something negative, and I had to go back and apologize.

What bothered me the most was not that she liked Frigidaire, but that she persisted in making what
I considered utterly illogical and indefensible statements to defend Frigidaire which had no basis in fact whatsoever. If she had only agreed that her response was irrational and purely emotional, I think I could have handled it. But her justification was upsetting.

It was sometime in early spring when the Frigidaire issue came up. All our prior communication
had prepared us. The ground rules had been deeply established — not to probe and to leave it alone if it got to be too painful for either or both.

I will never forget the day we talked it through. We didn’t end up on the beach that day; we just continued to ride through the cane fields, perhaps because we didn’t want to look each other in the eye. There had been so much psychic history and so many bad feelings associated with the issue, and it had been submerged for so long. It had never been so critical as to rupture the relationship, but when you’re trying to cultivate a beautiful unified relationship, any divisive issue is important.

Sandra and I were amazed at what we learned through the interaction. It was truly synergistic. It was as if Sandra were learning, almost for the first time herself, the reason for her so-called hang-up.
She started to talk about her father, about how he had worked as a high school history teacher and coach for years, and how, to help make ends meet, he had gone into the appliance business. During an economic downturn, he had experienced serious financial difficulties, and the only thing that enabled him to stay in business during that time was the fact that Frigidaire would finance his inventory.

Sandra had an unusually deep and sweet relationship with her father. When he returned home at the end of a very tiring day, he would lie on the couch, and Sandra would rub his feet and sing to him.
It was a beautiful time they enjoyed together almost daily for years. He would also open up and talk through his worries and concerns about the business, and he shared with Sandra his deep appreciation for Frigidaire financing his inventory so that he could make it through the difficult times.

This communication between father and daughter had taken place in a spontaneous way during very natural time, when the most powerful kind of scripting takes place. During those relaxed times guards are down and all kinds of images and thoughts are planted deep in the subconscious mind.
Perhaps Sandra had forgotten about all of this until the safety of that year of communication when it could come out also in very natural and spontaneous ways.

Sandra gained tremendous insight into herself and into the emotional root of her feelings about Frigidaire. I also gained insight and a whole new level of respect. I came to realize that Sandra wasn’t talking about appliances; she was talking about her father, and about loyalty – about loyalty to his needs.

I remember both of us becoming tearful on that day, not so much because of the insights, but because of the increased sense of reverence we had for each other. We’d discovered that even seemingly trivial things often have roots in deep emotional experiences. To deal only with the superficial trivia without seeing the deeper, more tender issues is to trample on the sacred ground of another’s heart.

There were many rich fruits of those months. Our communication became so powerful that we could almost instantly connect with each other’s thoughts. When we left Hawaii, we resolved to continue the practice. During the many years since, we have continued to go regularly on our Honda trail cycle, or in the car if the weather’s bad, just to talk. We feel the key to staying in love is to talk, particularly about feelings. We try to communicate with each other several times every day, even when I’m traveling. It’s like touching in to home base, which accesses all the happiness, security, and values it represents.

Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again — if your home is a treasured relationship, a precious companionship.

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

There are people who contend that such a relationship isn’t possible, or doesn’t work for them, or isn’t what they really want. That might be.

For me though, and I think for most people, it is a profoundly, deeply, soul-yearningly appealing idea to find the kind of partnership described here. To be so deeply seen by and connected with someone, to bare yourself in ever deeper ways and find that instead of being judged or rejected, you are cared for, loved more for it, and find healing in that process.

You are truly understood.

When I talk about relationships on this site, this is what I mean. This connection and this depth of intimacy and ever-deeper closeness and love. This truly, deeply understanding and being understood by another human being. I know of nothing else more worthy of aspiring to.

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