Omega: What do you consider a healthy relationship?
Kate and Joel: A healthy relationship includes: mutual respect and care; willingness to listen and learn from one another; ability to empathize and put oneself in the others’ shoes; willingness to be self-introspective and look at one’s own faults; willingness to go within and soften whatever personal barriers one has toward intimacy; loving/being loved; the ability to work through conflict, apologize, make amends, and say “I’m sorry;” humor; and compromise.
Omega: Is there such a thing as an unhealthy relationship?
Kate and Joel: Unhealthy relationships usually include some sort of control, abuse, or extreme disconnection where the behaviors between partners are more damaging than life giving. A question we suggest people ask themselves is, “Does this relationship make you a better person?” If it’s not, take a look at what’s happening and find out how to make it better, or say goodbye.
Omega: Many couples stay in unhealthy relationships. How does someone know when to say enough is enough and leave a relationship?
Kate and Joel: Every couple is different. Many people aren’t interested in “working on a relationship” in a way that makes a difference. The key to working on your relationship is to work on yourself—take responsibility for what you can; learn what says, “I love you,” to your partner and do it; understand your own barriers to intimacy and loving; and be willing to change.
When one or both partners can’t change “enough” to create more connection, then often unhappiness will become chronic. There is no formula for the tipping point of when enough is enough. Each person has to evaluate what he or she can and cannot do. Love is not enough—you can care deeply for someone and not be able to live with them.
Often people come to us to figure this out. It’s a beautiful process when two people can be so honest and respectful that they are willing to hear and be heard about what is not working in the partnership. When this happens, a good decision can be made. Sometimes, it’s just a choice. Do we put energy into staying or is it time to say good-bye? Each individual has to be very honest with themselves.
Omega: Are there specific things you see many couples struggling with these days?
Kate and Joel: 1) Exhaustion and not enough time to spend together (careers/kids take up so much time, and the relationship suffers). 2) Built up resentments and hurt; lack of skill to talk through conflict, leading to more and more conflict, more and more stuff pushed under the rug. 3) Sex. This is epidemic but no one talks about it: Desire differences, lack of communication about needs and preferences, inability to slow down and be in one’s body so as to get pleasure out of every moment, physiological changes as people age, affairs, history of sexual abuse (which makes it difficult to open and trust), unrealistic fantasies about the “way it’s supposed to be.”
Omega: Why is it difficult for so many of us to compassionately communicate with each other?
Kate and Joel: This is a deep psychological and spiritual question. It can be answered on many levels. We believe the short answer is that one cannot be kind or compassionate to another if there is a lack of kindness toward oneself. If you have parts of you that are in conflict and you treat yourself harshly, consciously or unconsciously, you’ll treat others the same way.
In an intimate partnership most people have expectations that the other person will be “everything” and meet all their needs—real or imagined (perfect: lover, playmate, coparent, support system, conversationalist, intellectual equal, emotionally tuned in at all times).
When we come up against the disappointment that our partner is different, has their own inner wounds and aches, and cannot always respond to our needs, most partners become hurt, angry, and resentful. If two people cannot communicate vulnerably and responsibly, they will create more hurt. This eventually leads to anger. And voila: no compassion, no lovingkindness.
Omega: If someone has been hurt in a relationship, past or present, how can they turn that wound into something that serves them?
Kate and Joel: We’ve all been hurt in some way or another. Life is full of bumps. And we always bring our wounding as well as our magnificence into our relationships. We truly believe that a couple is more powerful, more connected, and can be amazing, when they face their history, talk about it with each other, and help one another with the tender places.
Usually we get into a power struggle over the protective behaviors that arise out of being hurt in the past. But when partners can become conscious and aware, without shame, of what’s hurting, then empathy is developed. Once there is empathy there is the possibility for compassion, support, and even personal growth. This is the great opportunity of intimate partnership: to become an intimate team working together to create growth and transformation.
Omega: Can you share some of your daily practices to stay healthy and nurture yourselves, both as individuals, and as a couple?
Kate and Joel: I’d say the core of our practice is good will and lovingkindness born out of liking each other a lot, being able to look inside and take responsibility for our mistakes, a skill base of communication tools to which we are deeply committed, and a commitment to our own personal growth. We also have a number of spiritual practices, including meditation, yoga, and mindfulness; practice healthy living (and have many of our own individual interests); spend quality time playing, making love, sharing the chores of daily living; never pushing anything under the rug when we’re upset; and have good humor.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies