The human body is an amazing machine. Use it as a model to maintain a healthy relationship with your partner.
What are you doing right now? Sitting? Standing? Waiting for your coffee to brew? Considering whether or not to keep reading this article?
Thanks to an intricate network of specialized cells in your body, you’re also doing a thousand other things. Your heart is beating — slowly if you’re feeling chill or faster if you’ve been moving around a bit. Your digestive tract is working to turn last night’s sushi roll into poop. Your diaphragm is contracting to bring fresh air into your lungs so that your brain has enough oxygen to remind you that you need to buy more K-cups.
The human body is the ultimate multi-tasker.
Thanks to the steady chug of evolution, most of the things your body does don’t require any conscious user inputs. And thank goodness. Imagine if on top of remembering your Netflix password, you also had to remember to tell your heart to beat every .84 seconds!
Your body is loaded with sensors that pass along information to your brain so that you can make constant, subconscious adjustments to your blood pressure, rate of digestion, body temperature and hormone levels. This process of maintaining normal, healthy conditions is called homeostasis.
Although our relationships aren’t physical, hot-blooded organisms like we are, they have many similarities. The very act of entering into a relationship shows that you understand this. When you take on a partner, which is an unromantic way to think of falling in love, you do it knowing that your life will affect them and their life will affect you.
Just like sometimes you have to drink water, and sometimes you have to pee, being in a relationship means sometimes you’ll have to give and other times you get to take.
The communication and consideration that it takes to make a relationship work is similar to how your body collects and processes information to keep you kicking and sweating through another day.
And just as an organism that cannot maintain homeostasis will die, a relationship that does not exist in homeostasis will die.
Consider this: when your hands are cold, it will do you no good to put on gloves or mittens, even the $250 pair I tried on at a ski shop yesterday. Your hands are cold because your body has sensed that your whole body is cold. And smartly, your body prioritizes certain body parts over others.
The body parts in your core are a high priority. It’s very important for your heart, lungs and liver to stay warm. So when your body stressed from the cold, it pulls blood away from the low priority areas so that it can swish and slosh around the high priority areas to keep them warm.
It sucks to have cold hands and feet, but you can easily survive with a few less fingers and toes, whereas it’s tough to survive with a frozen heart. That’s homeostasis, baby.
In order to send blood back out to to the far reaches of the body, your brain needs to feel confident that your more-important body parts are plenty warm.
When you put on a coat or wrap your torso in the pelt of a freshly killed bear, your brain will respond by widening your blood vessels, thus restoring blood flow back to your hands so that you can finally unlock your phone and request an Uber to drive you somewhere warm even if it’s going to cost you $1200.
You can apply this same logic to your relationship. Just like your body relies on important core organs like your heart and lungs to keep you alive, your relationship needs to be built solidly on core values and shared goals that keep you together.
These values might include honesty, loyalty, emotional support or a commitment to travel or fitness. They are the things that made you choose this person over that person. They are the reason why you forged ahead with each other and deleted your dating apps. It’s the birds-eye view, whether it’s working towards buying a house, pursuing creative careers, having a family or living out of a van for a year.
But relationships are a thousand things more than these big-picture items.
They are what you do with your shoes and your bag when you come home at night. They are what makes you laugh and what makes you cry.
They are how you react to a 45 minute wait at your favorite restaurant. They are how you speak to strangers, and how you speak to each other when you are hungry, tired, happy and stressed.
They are what you spend your money on, what you watch, what you listen to and how you want to spend your Saturday mornings.
All of these little things that make up your relationship are like the fingers and toes on your body. They are pretty important, but it’s not a deal breaker if one or two of them isn’t perfect.
When you understand how your body manages blood flow to keep you warm, you can do a better job dressing yourself for cold weather. Instead of a thin hoodie with thick gloves, you’ll wear base layers and a vest to keep your chest warm.
You can manage your relationship the same way. If you find that you are frustrated or arguing about little things, like dirty coffee mugs left around the house or getting takeout too often, the solution doesn’t lie in addressing these individual issues.
Creating a chore chart or a takeout schedule might mask the bigger issues for a short time.
But a better strategy is to consider how these smaller issues tie back to the core values or goals of your relationship.
Getting takeout too often might be a problem if one of your core values is saving money for a trip or a house. It might be because you are committed to making environmentally sustainable choices. Or it could be related to health, fitness or just prioritizing your time so that you aren’t too busy to cook.
So before you go ham on your partner about bringing home a steaming sack of hot sandwiches for the third night in a row, think about why this upsets you. If you spent the last month making plans visiting your Yaya’s village in Thessaloniki, then the takeout problem isn’t about takeout. It’s about saving money to pay for the trip.
When you start by connecting the little things to the big things, you’ll find long term fixes that will address multiple problems instead of tiring yourself out with short term, low-impact solutions to countless little problems.
If you ask your partner to get takeout less, they might oblige your request. But then they might also order a set of expensive teacups online or buy 25 boxes of Girl Scout cookies from a coworker’s daughter.
Instead, point out that it will be really hard to take that summer trip to Greece together if you keep dropping forty bucks a night at Wacky Waffle or Bud’s Burritos. With this perspective, your partner might ease off on the takeout and also start curbing spending in other areas, like cookies or collectibles.
Nobody ever died from having cold hands or feet. But plenty of people have frozen to death, when the cold sets in and the heart can no longer pump enough blood to keep major systems running. When a body loses its ability to maintain homeostasis, the result is death.
Similarly, a relationship will end if it can’t exist in a state of homeostasis.
I once had a breakup that started during an argument about a Scrabble game. We couldn’t agree about the terms of using a dictionary. But the breakup wasn’t about Scrabble. I wanted to go out more and be social with our friends. But he wanted to stay in and play board games every night. When we couldn’t align our core values, the relationship ended.
Fortunately, unlike freezing to death, ending an unsustainable relationship isn’t the end of the world, even if it feels like it at the time.
Time will pass, wounds will heal. And lots of times, you’ll find somebody new that rings your doorbell. When you do, remember how your body works to take care of the big things so that the little things don’t cause problems. Take care of the heart and lungs of your relationship so that the fingers and toes don’t suffer.
If you make this habit a regular practice, your relationship can happily hum along in a state of homeostasis well into the future. And just like your body can be a little too warm or too cold without falling apart, you’ll enjoy amazing times together and struggle through difficult times together. But you’ll survive. You’ll thrive. And you’ll finally get to go to Greece.
Just don’t forget to bring sunscreen.
If you’re less interested in relationships and more interested in dressing warm, try this:
If you never plan to go outside in winter but want to finally try some of the things on your Pinterest board, try this: