On Relationships (Part 2): Impermanence, Change and the Relationship Long Game

by the amazing Alison Brown
Many of us are afraid to accept that our relationships go through different phases. When there’s a bump in our relationship, we are overwhelmed with pain and are afraid it will never end. When there’s a peak, we think it’s permanent and want it to stay this way forever and are afraid it won’t.

In Part 1 I wrote about relationships and the concept of the third entity.

This week I’ll talk about how relationships change and how to better adapt to these changes. While this applies to every relationship in our lives, I’m going to focus on romantic relationships.

But first, to understand how relationships change, I’ll refer to Buddhism.

Relationships are always changing — a Buddhist view

Something that helps me navigate the changes in my relationship, and in myself, has been the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Impermanence (Anicca or Anitya) is one of the essential doctrines of Buddhism, it posits that:

1) Everything changes- All physical and mental events are in constant flux. Everything from our emotions, to our thoughts and feelings, to the cells in our bodies and all the plants around us, are changing and decaying all the time.

2) Nothing lasts forever — Enough said.

We are changing every moment. Nothing — feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc. — is permanent. While they seem real and permanent at the time, they are often not and will pass.

I’m angry in this moment, it will pass. I am feeling insecure in this moment, it will pass. I am happy in this moment, it will pass.

It’s natural to feel things. The problem is when we take these feelings and emotions too seriously. When we treat them as though they are permanent.

The same is true for phases in our relationships.

Just like individuals, and every other phenomenon in nature, relationships are changing every moment. They too are subject to seasons — to bouts of changing weather — to changing phases.

We know that two individuals in a relationship create the ‘third entity’ — the relationship between them. We also know that these two individuals (like ourselves and everyone else) are always changing — that their moods, emotions, experiences, feelings and thoughts are in constant flux.

It is therefore normal for the relationship itself to always be changing. To have different phases of ups and downs. To have periods of disintegration and disconnection followed by times of contentment, appreciation and warmth. *This is true for EVERY relationship in our lives, from our parents to our best friends.

Why? Because the emotional exchange between partners (individuals) is dynamic. Our feelings affections, thoughts and desires towards our partners (and theirs towards us) are always moving along a continuum, never static.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes:

When you love someone, you do not love them all the time, in exactly the same way, from moment to moment. It is impossible. It is even a lie to pretend to. And yet, this is exactly what most of us demand.

Relationships and Non-Attachment — Accepting Phases in our Relationships

While we understand that relationships change, it’s still hard to accept. It’s hard (or rather, scary) for many of us to accept that our feelings, desires and emotions towards out partners (and theirs towards us) are dynamic.

We have little faith in the ebb and flow of relationships. We want things to stay exactly as they are — for them to be permanent. Because permanent feels like security.

In Buddhist terms: We are attached to how we think our relationship (or a partner) ‘should’ be.

Attachment is clinging to an expectation. Not to a person, but the story you are holding about that person (and, in this case, a relationship).

And therefore non-attachment in relationships is not indifference or apathy to another person. It’s an absence of fear. Fear and clinginess comes from a sense of impending loss.

Many of us are afraid to accept that our relationships go through different phases. When there’s a bump in our relationship, we are overwhelmed with pain and are afraid it will never end. When there’s a peak, we think it’s permanent and want it to stay this way forever and are afraid it won’t.

This fear is suffering. Suffering arises when we expect our relationships (and our partners) to remain the same (or go back to the way ‘they were’) instead of seeing them as they are, right now.

In both cases we are resisting the fact that our relationships are and will always be changing. And that this change is perfectly normal. Not because we don’t love each other, but because we’re human.

In a brilliant post by Mark Manson, one of his readers sums it up perfectly:

“There will be days, or weeks, or maybe even longer, when you aren’t all mushy-gushy in-love. You’re even going to wake up some morning and think, “Ugh, you’re still here….” That’s normal! And more importantly, sticking it out is totally worth it, because that, too, will change. In a day, or a week, or maybe even longer, you’ll look at that person and a giant wave of love will inundate you, and you’ll love them so much you think your heart can’t possibly hold it all and is going to burst. Because a love that’s alive is also constantly evolving. It expands and contracts and mellows and deepens. It’s not going to be the way it used to be, or the way it will be, and it shouldn’t be. I think if more couples understood that, they’d be less inclined to panic and rush to break up or divorce.”

What would it be like if we viewed are relationships for what they are, not for what they were and what we want them to be, but for what they are, right now, in this point in time?

So what do we do about change? The Relationship Long Game.

If we know to expect changing phases in our relationship, then we can focus on the relationship long game.

Many of us panic when we’re in a ‘low’ phase, when something is “wrong” in the immediate here and now. We’re used to celebrating short-term successes and panicking from short-term failures. This is the short game.

The long game means that we start to look at these different phases in our relationships as part of a larger, ever evolving whole.

Gary Vaynerchuk talks about the long game in a business sense: The long game refers to the idea that you are not just in business for the next few months or years trying to make some cash, but that you are building your business (or businesses) for the long term. And a business is bound to have ups and downs, periods of wealth and expansion, followed by low seasons and constriction. That’s perfectly normal.

The same is true for a relationship. You are not just in it for the next few months or years, but for the long term. And you’re bound to have phases of expansion and constriction.

The long game is a change in perspective and strategy.

For example: This week we’re ‘off’ and we’re not communicating:

· First step: Remove fear and panic. See the relationship as it is, right now. Acknowledge that this is a phase.

· Second step: Ask yourself, what phase are you in? What’s really going on? Is your partner going through a rough time at work? Are you feeling particularly stressed about something in your life? How is this affecting the relationship?

· Third step: Be strategic (remember the long game) and think together: How can we mitigate these negative effects? How can we rebuild communication right now? How can we better plan for a more demanding period at work, for future ‘low’ phases?

The long game means seeing the big picture and past the immediate situation. It means clinging less to how we wish things were and making the best of whatever phase we’re in.

It means giving us and our partners a chance to be in the present phase and adapt, to flow with the ever-changing circumstances and situations of a relationship.

For example, it was difficult for me to come home from traveling with my partner. Our pre-travel time together and the traveling itself ushered in a peak in our relationship, a heightened level of closeness and connection. However, after our trip we both returned to a whirlwind of intensive work and pretty big changes. We are busier and more exhausted then we were before. This also meant that we had less time to actively engage or connect with one another throughout the week. I didn’t acknowledge or accept this at first — I wanted things to be exactly as they were ‘before’, so I panicked.

This is when I realized that there is no before.

That ‘that’ relationship doesn’t exist anymore and it will never exist again (exactly as it was then).

That we are in a new phase.

Our relationship changed; it is now something different than it was before. And it is up to me and my partner to adapt to this new reality, instead of resisting it. And we did this. We first talked about the changes and then created a ‘plan’ for adjusting to these new circumstances together.

As Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes: “Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was, nor forward to what it might be, but living in the present and accepting it as it is now. For relationships, too, must be like islands. One must accept them for what they are here and now, within their limits — islands surrounded and interrupted by the sea, continuously visited and abandoned by the tides. One must accept the serenity of the winged life, of ebb and flow, of intermittency.”

Nothing Lasts Forever — Even Relationships

If everything changes and nothing lasts forever — then it follows that our relationships are always changing and that in every moment, our relationship is getting closer to its end.

We are all aware (for the most part) of our mortality, but are we aware of the mortality of our relationships?

Did you every think that the relationship itself is going to inevitably end one day? The shared laughter, tears, experiences, etc. — all of that will end one day. The circumstances of life, the frailty of the human condition, the instability of emotions — all of these factors make relationships much less predictable than we usually believe.

This means that just like we’re used to exclaiming ‘carpe diem’ about our own lives, it’s also important to apply that thinking to our relationships.

It’s therefore important not just to appreciate your partner, and the blue sky and being alive, but also the relationship you have.

And even deeper — it’s important to appreciate whatever phase you’re in right now. To learn from it. To love it as it is.

Because whatever phase you’re in — it will never come this way again.

Exercise

Think of a relationship you have with a loved one — can be your partner or your parent or your best friend.

How has this relationship changed over time? How is it changing now?

What phase are you in? How are you feeling, right now?

Are you having any issues? How are circumstances affecting your relationship?

Is this a brief change, or a long term change — how can you adjust the way you are in the relationship right now to adapt to this new phase?

Are you happy with this relationship? Where do you honestly want this relationship to go?