By Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW
Marriage—or any committed relationship—is not for the weak or timid.
Without even trying, you and your partner will both naturally rock the boat of your relationship. Sometimes this will be uncomfortable or painful. Sometimes it will seem almost unbearable. Yet this is exactly what is supposed to happen.
We’ve all been taught that the best thing to do in relationships is not rock the boat. Let things alone, don’t push, and everybody will calm down, and your situation will become comfortable and familiar again.
With many small, daily issues, this is exactly the right thing to do. But when it comes to matters of integrity, there will be times when you need to rock the boat—or let it rock you.
When you and your partner first got to know each other, you were curious about each other, and you focused on and responded to your similarities. Your relationship felt new and open, and its possibilities appeared infinite.
At some point a commitment was made. Then, suddenly, life started to get more and more difficult. The two of you, just by being who you are, somehow created conflicts. You tried your best to be loving, but your efforts often led to disaster. At times, you may have been tempted to resort to manipulation or cruelty.
This didn’t happen just once. It’s happened over and over. The two of you became confused and miserable. You often felt like you were drowning.
You may think this is because you don’t communicate well. But most of the time you communicate extremely well, through a resonance field of vibes and signals. You just don’t like the messages you’re getting from each other
Now you sometimes look at your partner and think, What the hell is wrong with you? Your partner looks at you and has the same thought. Looking in the mirror, you sometimes think, what the hell is wrong with me? Your relationship, or your lover, or you, have become the thing you most fear.
But the reality is, nothing is wrong. This is exactly how committed relationships work.
We think that when people have a problem in their marriage, it’s because of an issue. Your different backgrounds and views of the world get in each other’s way. Or your masculine energy conflicts with your partner’s feminine energy. Or you’re Muslim and they’re Jewish.
This is most people’s understanding of how the world works. This is also most therapists’ understanding of how the world works.
But it’s only part of the picture. If it were the whole picture, gay couples who practice the same religion and who talk to each other regularly about their feelings would live charmed lives. But they’re in my office, too, asking me, “What the hell is wrong with us?”
It’s my job to tell them, “Nothing is wrong. Everything is happening exactly the way it should.”
A committed relationship has its own rules—and these rules are not bound to stability and security. In committed relationships, we naturally create one interlocking conundrum after another. Each crisis challenges both partners to stand in their own integrity. Each crisis forces them up against each other, grinding them together, pressuring and squeezing and pulverizing them, until they completely block other’s moves. This creates what is often called an emotional stalemate or emotional bottleneck, and it hurts like hell.
What each of us needs to do is grow. We need to learn to become responsible for soothing the aches and pains of our own heart, rather than ask—or expect or demand—that our partner soothe them for us.
The conflicts you have with your mate aren't just about differing backgrounds or needs or communication styles or approaches to life. They are about each of you becoming the person you most want to be. That’s the opportunity of the relationship.
The pain you feel in your partnership isn't something to tamp down or medicate or avoid. Instead, you need to work through the hurt. You have to get ground and squeezed to a point where, if you stay in the relationship, there is no choice but to grow up.
In choosing to stay and grow, you have the possibility of becoming the person you’ve always wanted to be. If you take up that opportunity, it will naturally create the possibility for your partner to do the same. This work is done both separately and together.
These transformations are more than mere change. They’re visceral and elemental. When a transformation happens to us, we feel it in our body. When it happens to someone else, we know it by the look in their eyes, or the sound of their voice, or the way they hold their body.
Growing up is a continuous process of one transformation after another.
Marriage—or any committed relationship—is a human capacity-building system, but only if you allow it to be. It’s designed to make you challenge your own limitations, even when a limitation is wrapped in a virtue.
If you’re like almost everyone else, you got into a committed relationship without knowing how to handle all your anger, disappointment, anxiety, and fear within that relationship. The relationship itself will teach you these skills, by forcing you up against yourself, time after time.
In practice, this often means that you and your lover will each need to maintain your integrity and as much loving connection as possible. Each of you needs to honor and balance both.
In your own partnership, you and your partner will each be given a choice, over and over: Are you going to be your best right now, or not? That is the challenge, the value, and the promise of a committed relationship.
About the Author
Rock the Boat is not about ideals, or what we hope or imagine relationships to be. It's an honest, unflinching look at what actually works.
Resmaa Menakem, MSW, LICSW, is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in couples therapy and domestic violence prevention. He has served as the director of counseling services for Tubman Family Alliance, a domestic violence treatment center, and as the behavioral health director for African American Family Services in Minneapolis. He is a former radio talk-show host who has appeared on Oprah and Dr. Phil as an expert on domestic violence and couples in conflict. From 2011 to 2013, Resmaa was a family counselor for civilian contractors in Afghanistan, managing the wellness and counseling services on fifty-three U.S. military bases.