Your perception of your partner will make or break a relationship. Unless you married a sociopath, how you view your partner is just as important as how that person acts; your perception even influences the way others act. If you want to save your marriage or bring back that special spark in any relationship, start by learning how to manage your perception.
You are essentially a manager in your marriage, and one trait that all exceptional managers share is the ability to bring out the best in people. Good managers don’t achieve the best results by expecting the worst from their employees and feeling validated when their expectations are fulfilled. Rather, they look for the best in others and give opportunities tailored to each individual to maximize the interest, engagement, and effectiveness of their employees.
One common need among all humans is the need for growth; without expanding our knowledge and capabilities, we become stagnant and fail to thrive. Can you imagine what would happen to the cells in your body if the function of growth were suddenly halted? You would turn into a cesspool, your organs would shut down, and you wouldn’t be the least bit happy before your very sudden death.
You are a cell in a much larger organism called humanity, and so your need for growth is much more profound than you may realize. Without growth and change in each member of its community, the organism of humanity becomes stagnant and fails to thrive. With war, poverty, and crisis around every corner, it can be safely presumed that change is needed. But this isn’t the change that comes through government policy; it is the renewal and growth of each individual cell in the collective human body, which includes you, me, and the rest of the naked apes. Our families and relationships are smaller organisms requiring the same kind of growth to thrive.
Growth and protection
So what does this mean for your relationship, and how does your perception make a difference? The body has two primary functions, according to Ph.D. biologist Bruce Lipton: growth and protection. These functions are necessary for survival in any organism at any level of organization, but the processes cannot occur at the same time. You can’t be in protection mode while expecting to grow; it is either one or the other.
Protection mode allows for the evasion of life-threatening environments or events so that growth can continue. For instance, if you were to be attacked by a silverback gorilla, it wouldn’t make sense for your body to allocate energy for growth when you could possibly die in a matter of seconds. When protection is needed, all of the body’s energy is shunted away from growth processes for the survival of the organism. So your adrenal system is kicked into full gear, and you escape the hulking threat — congratulations, you live to grow another day. But imagine if every street corner was lined with man-eating silverback gorillas? You would fail to thrive for being in constant protective mode.
Now imagine that the great gorilla infestation of 2015 was resolved by a massive worldwide meditation — hooray, we can all grow now. But while you were sleeping, some mad scientist implanted lenses over your eyes that made ordinary human beings appear as rabid gorillas. Though the threat would have passed, you would go about your day in full protection mode just as if the gorillas were actually present. This not only affects you but also the human beings that you perceive wrongly. Everything they do will appear threatening to you because you have a false image of what they actually are, and no matter how they act, they will fulfill your expectation. If they run away from you, they are damn dirty apes. If they come toward you, they’re going to eat you.
And now we come back to your relationship. How you perceive your partner impacts how you respond to them and how they respond to you. If you are looking for the best in your partner, at worst you will find a flawed human who is striving to love as best as he or she can. At best, your hopeful attitude will give this person the courage to give their best in every moment they spend with you. Conversely, if you are looking for the worst, even the best efforts of your partner can be misconstrued as attempts to disappoint you.
Changing to growth mode through communication
Your perception matters. If the energy that your attitude gives off says, “come and grow with me,” your partner can leave protective mode, step outside of the comfort zone, and be inspired to learn more about you and do more with you. But interacting with your partner with a “grow with me” attitude is inherently vulnerable. People can let you down big time, and you can be hurt. If you’ve had seemingly unforgivable rows with your partner, this is where effective communication comes in.
Talking about the need to grow with your partner may be the most liberating and productive conversation you’ll ever have. When this fundamental need goes unmet, a relationship stagnates and partners end up blaming each other for their miserable situations. But through all the attacks, let downs, and disappointments, the root cause of grief is rarely addressed.
If you can talk honestly with your partner about the primary need of growth, you can begin the next level of intimacy in your journey together. If you can summon the vulnerability to talk about behaviors that are keeping you in protective mode, then you can both let down your guard and come together to grow.
In the conversation it is critical to understand this component of effective communication: your needs and feelings. When you convey your message based on your feelings and needs, your partner can stretch outside of his or herself to meet your needs and feelings with empathy. “I feel this way when this happens” is a world different than “You never (or always) do this, and so you are an asshole.” If you express your feelings and needs without attacking your partner, you’ll have an open conversation on the ways you can meet the need to grow together.
Starting the conversation by admitting where your actions have led to protective responses is a vulnerable act that will invite reciprocity from your spouse. “I know these things I’ve gotten in a habit of doing are keeping us in protective mode and I want to change together. I want to grow with you.” Saying this is a great way to broach the subject with courage and conciseness. Talk about ways you can change your habits together and safeties you can build into the relationship to ensure you meet your goals.
Changes in perception will be gradual and require substantial effort. Schedule weekly or bi-weekly growth meetings within your first month of changing with your partner to talk about what’s working and to see what ways you can improve together on the journey. Keep a journal of your perception to track progress, and always keep a positive attitude about your goals. Growing with a spouse for a lifetime is an insanely difficult challenge that requires focus, determination, and commitment, but if you plan for it on a daily basis, it can be the most satisfying part of your life.
Stay tuned for part two of this series.