The Secret to a Good Relationship? Discomfort.
Having spoken with hundreds of couples on applying meditative wisdom to their relationships, I have some bad news and some good news.
The bad news, you probably know already: relationships are uncomfortable, from beginning to end. Whether you’re on a blind date, worrying if you’ll like each other, or have been married for twenty years groaning yet again “Why are you doing that thing that I’ve asked you eleventy billion times not to do?,” there is discomfort.
The good news is that this can actually be… comforting.
Because discomfort does not mean you or your partner is doing something wrong. It’s the nature of human life and human relationship. Life is uncomfortable.
In fact, every phase of a relationship has its own special flavor of discomfort.
Meeting someone for the first time is uncomfortable (What if your date likes you? What if they don’t?). Falling in love has its own special discomfort, with great, heaving waves of emotion, some of which are quite beautiful and some of which are terrifying. And should you settle into an ongoing relationship, it is inevitable that you will discover things that you do not like about each other that often cause discomfort.
I remember after one night of ecstatic lovemaking, I came downstairs to find my boyfriend in the kitchen, removing all the dishes I had placed in the dishwasher in order to replace them in the “correct” manner. There was something about the juxtaposition of transcendent love against what I viewed as persnicketiness that made my heart sink. How did my passionate lover turn into this guy who has opinions about the dishwasher? Does this mean I have to learn a new way of loading the machine? What if I don’t want to? What else am I going to have to change about myself?
It is uncomfortable to imagine that in order to create a happy household, we will have to pay attention to such minute details. Incredibly ridiculous power struggles begin to emerge and, honestly, from my observation it is these teeny-tiny, utterly inconsequential disagreements that end up eroding a perfectly good relationship. That these things accrue is pretty ridiculous, but nonetheless true.
The fact is, there is something about continual proximity to another person that is irritating. They put their coat on the chair instead of hanging it up. They buy the wrong kind of pasta at the market. They lose their keys again after you have told them again and again to put them in the same place every time they come home. I know these things are truly first-world ridiculous but no “I will rise above this pettiness” mindset is going to save you from this particular form of discomfort. The truth is, we are sensitive and small-minded and very easily hurt. That’s okay. We’re only human.
Of course, there are some forms of discomfort that are absolutely not okay: any form of physical abuse; addiction; emotional abuses such as stonewalling or being constantly insulted or demeaned. These things are in a different category, and no one should feel that they ought to tolerate them. Promise me you will not forget this.
But for the everyday problems, the annoyances, and irritations, tolerating discomfort is actually a gateway to intimacy. Instead of constantly working to get comfortable in my relationship and feeling that something is wrong because I can’t ever quite get there, I can relate with the discomfort as a strange invitation to remain awake in love.
With mindfulness, ordinary relationship-discomfort is just… yet another feeling to notice, accept, and practice with. Just as, in meditation, we train ourselves to feel into the reality of back pain or an irritating voice in the head, so we can gradually learn to turn toward discomfort and begin to make friends with it for what it is.
Moreover, there is something magical—yes, magical—about this discomfort. You are right there, never quite in your comfort zone. There is no possibility of falling asleep. You are always a tiny bit on the edge, as if you are trying something new for the very first time. When it comes to love, this is not such a bad approach. Brilliance and inspiration and everything fresh are discovered on this edge, including how to open your heart beyond what you ever thought possible.
I’ve come to think that the most deeply loving gesture I can make within my relationship is to tolerate my own discomfort; to recognize my feelings and leave the story behind; to cease and desist from threatening my husband with consequences should he fail to be the person I need him to be rather than the person he is. This is the noble experiment of love.
Susan Piver is the New York Times bestselling author of nine books, including The Four Noble Truths of Love. In 2012, she founded The Open Heart Project, the world’s largest online-only meditation center.