Updated: Jul 14, 2022
Part 10 in the What love is all about series
Fanfare please! Welcome to the final entry in our What love is all about series.
In case you need a reminder of what love is NOT all about, let me introduce Butch and Karen, who never met a problem they couldn’t—and didn’t—make worse. Here’s just one example. Butch has again failed to step up to one of Karen’s many needs: Karen needed Butch to help plan a family get-together, and she felt Butch wasn’t there for her.
So what happens?
Karen complains and blames. Of course!
Butch defends himself and somehow tries to make it about how it’s all Karen’s fault by pointing to some terrible flaw in Karen.
Karen leaps into the past with a litany of all the ways Butch has never been there for her.
Butch jumps in after her with a litany of all the ways she’s never been there for him and how even now she doesn’t understand all the burdens he bears.
Karen attacks Butch for being selfish and starts wondering loudly what she ever saw in him and how she’s stupid to be staying with him now.
Butch says, “No, I’m the stupid one for staying with you!” And he walks out of the house.
It would be the perfect marriage, if you just did everything the opposite of what they did. This dance Butch and Karen just performed is a great example of what love is NOT all about.
Simple. There was a hurt. Karen had a need. That’s what happens with people who come together in love. Needs come up. I have a need for myself: maybe I’m tired from working so hard. I have a need from you: maybe I need you to do more because I’m so tired with what’s been going on at work.
And we have needs about our needs. Maybe you haven’t seen how tired I am and haven’t jumped in to help and I’m angry about that and I need to deal with that anger.
This is all normal, inevitable stuff.
And love is all about healing this stuff as it comes up.
Through what we call the Relationship Immune System (RIS), which is exactly what Butch and Karen demonstrated a lack of.
The Relationship Immune System
is a couple’s ability to heal their wounds.
It’s just like the body’s immune system, which for most people is working just fine to keep us healthy. Germs enter our body through a cut or through the air or through something we ate. The body identifies the threat and goes to work to isolate it, attack it, and eliminate it. The vast majority of the time we don’t even notice this going on.
So what does the Relationship Immune System look like with a real human couple? Something like this, something very not like Butch and Karen.
Meet Andy and Lily. Lily needs something from Andy, a need based on Andy somehow already having let Lily down. So there’s an unmet need and an unhealed wound, which is how these things almost always start.
Now what? Just “sitting down and talking” is all too likely to lead straight into Butch and Karen territory. No, this is a special kind of talking.
It’s talking without any of the things that will get in the way of healing. It’s like solving a picture puzzle. How do you solve a picture puzzle? Don’t get drunk, don’t swipe pieces off the table, and don’t knock the furniture over, and you’ll be fine. Can you do that? Then you can get your Relationship Immune System in gear.
In the same way as solving a picture puzzle, here it’s that special kind of talking that takes you straight to getting your needs met and healing your hurts. Anything else is a damaging distraction.
It’s all about what you DON’T do:
You don’t talk about who did what in the past. Hey, even God can’t change the past. All talking about the past does is lead to arguments about what actually happened and to hopelessness about change being possible.
You don’t blame. You know how therapists talk about making “I” statements? Sounds lame, I know. But this idea serves one great purpose. It moves people away from saying things that sound like blame. Or attack. Or insult. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that I’m a half-way decent human being and that somehow at some point I “wasn’t there for you.” Now you surely felt hurt and abandoned. But I surely wasn’t intending for you to end up feeling hurt and abandoned. Yes, I have to understand your feeling hurt and abandoned. But if I feel blamed, I’ll feel you don’t understand how I could never ever in a million years have wanted this to happen. That’s why “I felt hurt when...” is so much better than “You did this to me...”
You don’t name-call or label. Yeah, you’re angry! I get it. Which means—believe me!—that pretty soon both of you will be angry. But remember when I said that the Relationship Immune System is “talking that takes you straight to getting your needs met and healing your hurts. Anything else is a damaging distraction”? Anger is that damaging distraction. And name calling, labelling, put downs, and so on are totally, completely against the direction of “here’s my need: how do we get it to me?” and “here’s my hurt: how do we deal with it?"
And perhaps most important, never lose sight of your partner as a real person, as fully alive, fully present, and as full of needs and issues as you are. Listen to great British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch. “Love,” she wrote in an essay called ‘The Sublime and the Good,’ “is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Typical British understatement, but pure gold. At this very moment—and at every moment—your partner is just as real as you are and in the very same ways. The more you forget this, the more love crumbles.
Now you might say, Wait! All you’ve done is tell me some things not to do! What good is that?
Well, are you bad people? No. Are you stupid people? No. Do you love one another? Yes.
Love is all about not doing those things that get in the way of the Relationship Immune System.
If you want some more hands-on, how-to stuff for putting the Relationship Immune System into action, do check out our latest book Why Couples Fight. It has all the answers.