Relationships Don't Require Sacrifice; They Require Stretching

Some of my all-time favorite movies revolve around finding a relationship, falling in love, and living happily ever after (or until the movie ends). I can name so many great films with this premise. From Pretty Woman to Easy A, the stories in these movies have the ability to take us on an emotional journey which culminates in the two main characters (typically heterosexual) falling in love with each other.  Of course, hijinks ensue along the way, but romantic movies follow this same cinematic formula. What we don’t see in movies and television is the relationship after that final declaration of love. We don’t see what happens after Cher catches the bouquet during Miss Geist and Mr. Hall’s wedding at the end of the seminal 90’s hit movie, Clueless. What happens after that catch is the film we all need to see. I would love to know if they stayed together. My bet is no, but that doesn’t matter as long as we see them embrace and the illusion is upheld, right? So for this introductory post, I am going to be talking about what happens after the credits begin to roll and we go back to our daily lives.

One of the rules we often hear a lot about from the media, our friends and family, and even the fictional characters from our favorite television shows and movies, is that to make a relationship work, we need to be willing to make sacrifices. We need to be willing to potentially give up something that we hold true to ourselves to keep the relationship from falling apart and ending. In most heterosexual relationships, this tends to be the burden of the identified female, but it is present throughout all kinds of relationships. Now, here is the thing, and I am now speaking to the entertainment writers of the world, that is all bullshit. Giving up value systems or beliefs does not have to happen to make a relationship last long-term. When couples have been together for a long time, they can forget that empathy is crucial for effective communication and resolutions of arguments. They can become stuck in their own thoughts and their own viewpoints, disabling them from seeing their partner’s side. But if they can remember to be empathetic and take time to understand where their partner(s) is coming from, then their whole perspective can shift. They begin to realize that they do not need to sacrifice something to make the relationship work. 

“Stretching” is a term that was created to help couples understand one another’s perspectives. Think of a rubber band. In its standard form, a rubber band is nothing but an enclosed circular object. But when it is used for its intended purpose, you see how powerful it becomes. Its elasticity is its greatest strength. Like a rubber band, we humans are elastic and durable. We face challenges throughout our lives that test us to our core, and we find ways to survive. We consistently mold ourselves based on what we believe to be beneficial, and when we enter a relationship, that does not change. We fall in love with our partner(s) for a number of reasons (e.g. values aligning, physical appearance, personality, etc.), and it is here where we find ourselves shifting again. But as with all things in life, the relationship changes over time. Once the “Honeymoon Phase” is over, which typically lasts anywhere from the beginning of the relationship to up to 2 years, the real work begins.

Self-talk is crucial for this to work. You need to shift your thoughts from defense to curiosity. It is important to remember that you chose your person for a reason. All relationships are meant to change. People tend to forget this concept, but think about it, you are not the same person you were 5 years ago, are you? How do you expect to have the same relationship you had back then when you, yourself, have changed? Both people grow individually and if done successfully, can grow together as well.  When faced with a conflict, it is easy to think of yourself making a sacrifice for your partner(s). Over time it can seem as if disagreements can turn into a “you win” and “I lose” scenario, or vice versa. But that does not have to be the case.  This is where the concept of “stretching” comes into play. Instead of a “yes/no” argument, you use empathetic listening to open up a constructive dialogue. You ask questions of your partner(s) to better understand the feelings behind their viewpoint and how they came to that stance. You allow yourself to be present and non-judgmental. The great Esther Perel comments a lot about communication in both of her books, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. She talks about people needing to be able to call themselves out during an argument. Taking time to actually listen to your partner(s) and not just waiting for your turn to respond.

This is how you keep from falling down the rabbit hole again. But like a rubber band, if you stretch too far, you will inevitably break. It is important to look inward and take an inventory of what you are willing to “stretch” on and what you are not willing to, and talk to your partner(s) about it. Not having children for instance. Is that a deal-breaker for you? For some people, it can be. But remember, people change over time. Their views and values can shift. So, is it worth ending a relationship if your partner(s) does not want kids? I can’t answer this for you, but what I can say is that it is important to takes steps to lead you down a path of having a happy and fulfilling life.  This is where a couple’s therapist can come into play. You are not alone in this endeavor. There are people out there who can help you learn how to “stretch.”

At the end of the day, relationships are hard work. I am not going to spend time spewing out divorce statistics. This is not the article for that. We all know them and they can be disheartening. But we also know that there are relationships out there that are successful. Those stories they use as a framework for Hallmark and Lifetime movies. Although Cher and Josh may not have made it, I bet Miss Geist and Mr. Hall did. It is perfectly alright to want to have the relationships that we see in entertainment. Those ones that last fifty plus years. But it’s time to be realistic with yours and know that if you want it to last, it’s going to need a few things from you: an authentic outlook, more nurturing self-talk, and empathy towards your partner(s). If you can do these things, I believe you will be able to start stretching towards your partner(s) and more successfully handle obstacles as a team.