What does it take to make your relationship or garden thrive? If you compare your relationship with others and aspire to be like them, you might be radically disappointed! This Insight is about growing the unique relationship that is possible with your partner, rather than some unreachable ideal.
Have you ever planted a garden? Especially as a young gardener? Did you read the seed-catalogues, go to the plant nursery, look at the wonderful things in fruit and flower? All that colour! And the bulb catalogues – what splendour! And the exotic species! Did you look at other gardens and think you wanted one just like that! It couldn’t be too hard! (You can tell this is a novice gardener.)
You are in love with the idea of a garden. (Just as we fall in love with the idea of a relationship.)
So, you dig a bit in your patch of soil, and plant your seeds following directions on the packet, and pack the bulbs into the soil and next to them you prop up the glorious coloured photo of their future selves. You take those exotics out of the safety of their pots and plop them into their new environment. Then you plant your seedlings in neat rows and water them in. Finally, you sprinkle rocket seeds and lightly cover them with soil.
Well, as your relationship is like a garden, at first you wait, and trust and hope, because you expect the best.
But strange things begin to happen.
Yes, the rocket pops ups really quickly, and you are eager for your first crop, but then something comes and eats it before you can.
The bulbs didn’t come up at all. So you research and discover that you really can’t expect to grow them in your climate. Or in your soil! But you loved them so much!
As to the exotic species, they are looking frail and diminished. You realize, after reading the label more carefully, they need full sun and you planted them in the shade. Rookie error.
You gave everything water, but then you wonder why they are shrivelling and failing to thrive. You do some research on the ailing plant and it recommends fertilizing. Fertilizer! You’d missed that bit.
So your relationship is like a garden and the only thing thriving are weeds! They come up without any encouragement at all. Just like all those niggling issues between you and your partner. The ones that you thought would never happen to you!
I must admit that some people seem to want a garden that looks like every other garden in the street, all repeat plantings and low maintenance. But how boring is that! Where is the colour? What about the unique fire that has been kindled between you and your partner? It’s made of more interesting stuff than repeat plantings and low maintenance.
The Jungian Eleanor Bertine, in her book “Close Relationships” puts it this way: Think of “the relationship itself as an organism, separate from both the people who participate in it. It is like a plant growing up between them, needing careful gardening from both.” (p135).
So, just like a garden your relationship grows and changes and needs tending by both of you. You discover that your partner does not fit the ideal, but is a unique person with particular needs.
It might take you a lifetime to discover all the possibilities of this uniqueness!
However, most gardens and most relationships do start out as a generic idea. You are full of hope that yours will be just perfect. You’ve looked around at other relationships and you think you can have one just like that. You are looking for a catalogue relationship. Something that looks good on the packet. But in time you discover that both you and your partner don’t fit the ideal, don’t fit the illustrations. Even more perplexing, you discover that you are growing at different rates! You are no longer exactly in step!
For example, do you measure the success of your relationship with how much closeness you have? On the other hand, does your partner measure the success of the relationship by the amount of independence she or he has? Just like plants, some people need a lot of space to thrive. Maybe you need to create more space for them. Or for yourself.
And just like the garden, your relationship will develop and change and grow in time, and become a different shape as it (and you) mature. The tree you planted together 10 years ago has now overtaken the garden and overshadows the delicate and treasured plantings of smaller things. In a similar way, one ideal can dominate your relationship at the cost of tender, more difficult to articulate values.
Some couples find the stages of relationship development a joyful adventure, and others fear the relationship is over when the honeymoon or ideal is outgrown. Some couples are so conflict-avoidant that the issues/weeds in their relationship do not get addressed. They need Courageous Conversations!
Plants thrive on organic matter, and making compost uses old plant material and manure to create a living, vital substance. I’m reminding you that nothing is ever lost, and is recyclable to become something supporting your growth as a couple and as individuals.
That really bad argument gets composted and emerges as insight into something that doesn’t work. You can use even really shitty stuff to ‘fertilise’ your future together. You learn from hard experience. As painful as it might be, respect that experience and put it to work. As you and your relationship grow you will outgrow past habits, behaviours and goals, and discard things that have no life in them any more. Like the hobbies you used to enjoy. Or the mutual friends who you no longer have fun conversations with. The idea of composting is that nothing is ever wasted. Nothing is ever lost. But it changes states.
The lessons of patience and perseverance we learned in that old hobby become part of your character and show up in new situations. Those worn-out friendships actually taught you a lot about empathy. For example, your expectations that your partner be a super chef are replaced by appreciating his reliability in producing healthy daily meals. Or your admiration of your partners lithe and athletic body is replaced by your wonder at her love and skill as a mother.
My training as a couples therapist has been with the Gottman Institute and the Couples Institute. The Couples Institute works with a Developmental Model, where relationships grow through periods of change and differentiation.
Like any garden you might create, relationships seen through this focus are unique, with variables based on climate (temperament) and learning to grow beside someone with very different needs to your own. It’s about discovering what is actually possible, not forcing something that is wrong for that climatic zone, for that relationship.
Let me know how the shape of your relationship has changed and developed over time.
Copyright © Kaye Gersch 2018