I’m a systems thinker, which means I spend a lot of time trying to understand the root of a problem, rather than dealing with it’s symptoms.
When we attempt to solve problems without first understanding the system that created them, it’s like bailing out a leaking boat. It may provide temporary relief, but the problem will ultimately return.
This is especially poignant when addressing relationship problems.
We are constantly fixing our relationships, only to find that nothing really changed. We go to therapist after therapist, workshop after workshop, and while we may experience moments of temporary success, it often leaves us in the same place as before.
It’s because we aren’t addressing the root of the problem.
While it’s never as simple as saying “here is the root of all problems, the end” it is useful to consider a deeper layer, which is what I’m going to suggest in this essay. That layer — is community.
Relationships Are Built On Community
One of the things people in the modern world suffer from is something I’ll call “couples isolationism”. It’s the practice of operating your romantic relationship inside a box that’s separate from the outside world.
While it may feel good to do this for the first couple months, or even up to a few years — this habit eats away at long term satisfaction.
Over time, the pressure of being the only source of companionship and intimacy for each other will build resentment, foster feelings of loneliness and cause a rift in your relationship. It doesn’t matter how well matched you are, no one is built to be everything for another person.
To be clear, I’m not simply suggesting that we need friends outside of our relationship — all of us have that. What I’m suggesting is we need friends that we consider family. We need people who have seen us at our worst, who understand our deepest flaws and love us anyway. And we don’t just need one or two of these people, we need a handful. They might be our actual family, they might be our chosen family, or both.
Who You Gonna Call?
Lately when I talk to people in relationship crisis, I always end up asking them some form of these questions at the end of our conversation.
How many people do you feel completely comfortable opening up to?
How many people can hold space for whatever is going on in your life?
I ask for a number — for them and their partner. The answer is usually very telling. Often it’s only one or two, sometimes none.
Sometimes we have people in our lives that we know would be there for us, but we’re afraid to call them. We’re afraid to look bad, or show them that we’re in pain.
Some may argue that these people are available if we need them, but I disagree. If we’re afraid to call them when we’re feeling okay, what are the chances we’ll have the courage to call them when we’re even less resourced?
In my experience — when I’m feeling down — it’s harder to reach out for help. At times it even seems impossible, so having grooves and pathways of connections I’ve nurtured over the years is essential so I don’t wallow in misery for weeks. Intimate friends help regulate us. They can’t stop bad days from happening, but they can prevent bad days from turning into bad weeks, or bad months.
When to Not Process With Your Partner
The other thing that happens when we don’t have anyone to reach out to is we end up processing our relationship problems with the same person who we’re upset with. It’s worth pausing to consider how unproductive that is.
If I’m blaming my partner and making her wrong, how effective will she be at holding space and helping me work through my upset? Even if she is capable of that black-belt task, is that experience enjoyable for her?
Now compare that to calling a close friend. That friend doesn’t see me every day so it’s a welcome chance to connect. The friend also has no stake in the game (won’t take my situation personally) and can listen objectively. I can process my feelings, then return to my relationship complete and at peace, instead of dumping all my negativity on her.
Are there times when processing with your partner is a good idea? Sure there is, but if your upset is even remotely related to them, a friend is a far better option.
I’d love to see this become more commonplace. Currently, it’s not strange at all to process an upset about your partner, with your partner — but consider how different things could be if we didn’t.
Fights would be almost non-existent, because as soon as someone gets upset, their first reaction would be to call a friend. Their partner could also kindly remind them that they are not the right person to bring this upset to, and they might help them take the conversation elsewhere.
I’m a huge fan of improving our communication skills, especially in romantic relationships, but we put way too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect communicators, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Laying the Foundation for Love
Western culture is notoriously individualistic, and the United States takes it to a whole new level. We are constantly encouraging people to seek answers within and to solve problems without needing other people — but that only takes us so far.
Especially when it comes to relationships, if we don’t have a cluster of close friends to lean on, we’re destined to suffer. But this isn’t just about picking up the phone more often. When we understand the importance of community as a foundation for relationships, we start making that a priority.
This is something many religions are great at. They employ a community-centric model versus a couple-centric model. They understand that healthy, loving relationships are created and sustained through community, so they emphasize it and foster those connections. This really is one of the original intentions of marriage — to increase the amount of family you have. To increase the support for your relationship.
While we may have gained some autonomy from embracing individualism, we’ve done it at the expense of our happiness. We believed the lie that we could do it ourselves, and when the car starts to break down, we push it harder, and harder, until it eventually dies or explodes.
We weren’t wired this way. We can work all day to solve our relationship problems, but if we are living in isolation they will keep coming back, because we haven’t addressed the root of the problem.
We’re tribal animals, and the foundation of our relationship isn’t the depth of our love, it’s the depth of our tribe. It’s not that love isn’t important — of course it is — but love is not the foundation, it’s the byproduct.
The foundation is community.
The picture above is the ten men and women (and their families) who founded The Emerald Village, the community I currently live at and participate in.
To hear more about The Emerald Village, watch this moving and inspiring TEDx talk from Bianca Heyming (one of the founders) entitled Intentional Communities—50% Less Hippie Than You’d Expect.