Can we trust our thoughts and feelings?

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#20 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

In an earlier post, you suggested that when it comes to romantic relationships, we’re capable of deluding ourselves. How do we stop from convincing ourselves that a relationship is good when it isn’t? How do we trust our thoughts and feelings?

The post referred to in the question above is about moving in together before marriage, and there I argued that despite a common belief to the contrary, living together doesn’t work as a trial run for committed marriage. That’s because the attitude that says, “Let’s give it a try, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll split,” is simply not a good foundation for learning to stick things out when the relationship gets difficult.

In that post, I said:

We as human beings are often spectacularly bad at knowing our own minds and predicting our futures. We’re quick to say, “Everything will be fine,” not on the basis of any good evidence, but merely as a projection based on how we feel at the moment and what we want to be true. Put simply, we can be incredibly naive in self-serving ways.

Thus, the question: if we can be that off-base, how do we guard against kidding ourselves into believing that things are better than they are?

First, we have to be willing to admit that our perceptions are biased, which is easier said than done. We don’t simply see people as they are. Often, and especially in more intimate relationships, we see others through the lenses of what we want them to be, or what we fear they may be in secret. And note that the distortions can be positive or negative, unrealistically optimistic or pessimistic.

To recognize this fallibility in ourselves requires the vulnerability to admit that we often come to our relationships as needy people. We’re not just interested in calmly learning to appreciate what makes the other person tick. We want to know if they’re going to fulfill a need for us, perhaps one that we have yet to acknowledge to ourselves. I need you to admire me. I need you to make me feel worthy. I need you to bring order to my chaos. And so on. At the very least, we need to know that they’re not going to hurt us the way we’ve been hurt in the past.┬áSuch recognition requires the commitment to be honest with ourselves, as to have compassion for what we’ve suffered in the past.

Beyond this, the question is whether we really have any concrete sense of what a good relationship looks like. We’re more likely to deceive ourselves — again, whether in a positive or negative direction — if the only evidence upon which we rely is how we feel about the relationship right this moment. The better alternative is to have a clear and firm commitment to what we believe a healthy relationship requires, and to be working toward this ourselves.

Here’s an example. In my own writing and teaching, I stress that our calling as Christians includes the embodiment of such qualities as humility and compassion in our relationship to others. One concrete way of embodying these character qualities is to be a person who listens to others with full attention.

Thus, instead of asking yourself generically if you feel that the relationship is “good,” you can ask yourself, “Does my partner really listen to me?” That does not mean that your partner agrees with everything you say. It does mean, however, that s/he wants to understand.

The relationship, of course, involves two people. To stand in judgment of the other person, to see if they measure up to your standards without a commitment to being that kind of a person yourself, is simply arrogant. The place to begin, therefore, is to know as concretely as possible what a good relationship requires of each person, and to be constantly striving toward that goal yourself. That will provide you with the perspective you need to know with greater clarity how your relationship is actually going.