in: Intentional Living

Why Is It So Hard to Sustain Joy in Relationships?

Keeping the good juju rolling in any situation can be difficult, trying to sustain joy in relationships is a whole other challenge. Hint: kindness matters.

Another, and equally as accurate, title for this essay could be, “WHY IS IT SO HARD FOR MEN TO BE NICE?”

I was raised in the Midwest in an awfully traditional family. I’ve lived the last eight years in California with some awfully non-traditional people that are my family now as well. I’ve gone through radical phases, but I don’t currently believe I am anywhere other than dead-center. A modern hybrid. I like my wife to cover her boobs when she goes out and I think everyone on Earth should have access to free healthcare. My opinions are strong, I’m stubborn and passionate, but I consider myself eternally fair and constantly reflecting on how I can evolve my thinking and my behavior to be better.

But there’s one area that I, a man of the circumstances that I am, cannot move through any faster than I could a patch of hardening concrete in a suburban driveway—and that is sustaining joy in relationships.

I’ll tell you what prompted this whole article. I’m at work right now. We are traveling with a few new guys. It’s maybe their forth or fifth trip with us. The first few trips they stood up and delivered pieces and received massive amounts of praise from myself and my friends that I work with. And as the trips accumulate and the pieces get delivered with less novelty, I’ve noticed it is harder for me to give proper acknowledgement. Like it’s old news and I don’t need to speak up about how they did or how it made me feel anymore.

What used to be a, “Wow that was great. You’re a natural at this,” is now just a fist bump, a head nod, or a, “Good job.” And these are good people I work with, we all care about each other. I don’t think we are collectively aware of that fact that this progression seeps into every relationship in our lives. Or, if we are, we are not aware that it is the single most important reason why many relationships lose their joy.

I am an avid journaler. Not like I bought a journal on December 31st once and said I was going to write for a few days but like I know how many pages before a Uniball 7mm pen runs out of ink. I see the end of pens. And I see the last page of journals. I never miss a day. I’ve got years of Moleskins stacked on the shelves of our apartment. Combine all that reflection with an obsession for analysis and critique and I’ve very well pulled myself to pieces and attempted to sew them back more times than I’ve masturbated in the last year (to which I could tell you the exact number thanks to my journal).

The major pattern I noticed, and I’m sure I’m not even close to alone, is that I lose interest in things.

I start with a tormented passion and consume newness like a bag of cheese puffs from Trader Joe’s. I have thoughts in the moment—which, I now know are fleeting—that I have figured out the key to life and sustaining happiness. It’s such a glimmer of confidence that resonates through every inch of my body. I’m a fucking genius, I think. And then about a month or two later the first flaw shows up and rips a pretty deep gash into my glowing perception of reality. Then it’s like falling down a long flight of stairs. The drudgery hoards itself in my head and by the time the year is up I more than hate the thing that was supposed to save me.

Copy and paste for an entire life because that’s what we love to do: repeat the same shit over and over and over and over. Same shit, different day, we say.

It’s true.

happy, couple, love, fun, swimming, waterNow consider relationships. I’ll at least consider mine. I’ve been “in love” at least three hundred and nine times in my short life. It could happen as easily as walking outside on some days. Catch a person with the right look or an incredibly well photographed model outside a clothing store and I had already convinced myself of who she was and what our life would be like together. Undoubtedly perfect. In every way. And then there are the “inner-circle” relationships—the ones I’ve actually been in, in real life. All start out with incredible promise and over-the-top vulnerability. All end in blood-soaked flames. Pieces of shit. Me or them, doesn’t matter. Someone ruined everything.

But the journaling—it can be very objective. Very revealing. Very very horse-pill like. At some point you have to be OK with being the same person forever or you have to stop pointing the finger.

I’m getting married in October. No one would have believed it. Trading in my possibly self-proclaimed “man of mystery” persona for one single relationship with just one person. There’s no doubt she rules my heart like no one ever could and I’ve written stacks of articles about how in love we are to the point of it causing readers seasickness. But even our relationship is constantly overcoming this epidemic—that the longer you are with someone, the harder it is to be nice.

All we see are the things we want.

And once we have them all we see are the things that are wrong.

This plague doesn’t discriminate. It consumes all types of relationships.

I don’t know who invented this, probably the same people that decided to come out with a new iPhone every six months. But the more time we spend together the more my tongue gets stuck when a compliment could come in and really lift her up. My default brain has switched to identifying problems so it becomes an act of defiance to be sweet or vulnerable.

I’ve noticed this in other relationships, but not with such clarity. And never have I approached it as something I wanted to fix. But my current relationship has turned on a light for me. In order to change behavior we have to identify something we desire. And only when we aim our behaviors to realize our desires do we experience change. It’s a re-education of what we think we want.

I didn’t want a string of short relationships that all ended the same—completely lacking of joy with the blame falling one me or her or timing, or whatever the fuck was within arms reach. I wanted to sustain love with one person. And since that was my new goal, the thing I identified as desirable, I started to notice the moments I wasn’t doing the things that would get me there.

She always tells me that kindness is a muscle and the more you practice the easier it is. In my head I often think that’s some dumb Brené Brown bullshit but in my heart that is the person I want to be—a man who can overcome the disease of being hardened, stubborn, distant, and asshole-ish for no apparent reason and instead find myself in warmer waters more frequently with the woman that is always loving toward me.

That’s not to say I want to become an overly-passive dude with a manbun and suppress all my anger and opinions. I intend to carry my ancestor’s deep-seeded rage quietly in my heart for as long as I live. Because when the day comes that I have to protect my family, I will gladly plant my fist in someone’s solar plexus before driving my knee through the cartilage of their nose. Hybrid. But now I want to be more than that. More than a fearless and sometimes cold protector who only has one channel.

The deep thread here is the way our minds work. Our brain changes when we exercise new behaviors. But our mind stays rigid in moments we think we could fail. Even if we wanted to be better people some of us would never try because we can’t foresee the outcome. The fear in changing ourselves is overwhelming but the price we’ll pay for being stuck in our ways is a cold, barren loneliness in our hearts. This is the important work.

It’s my goal to be nice to Alexis every day, even when it’s hard (especially when it’s hard, right?). And the less I obsess over why it’s hard the more I can concentrate on creating my own, kind frame of mind.

End scene.

For those who like steps and further explanation, please continue reading.

Here are the steps that are currently working for me (note that my motivation is always to not turn into the couple I see at the zoo or a baseball game that consists of a very condescending guy undermining everything his lady says while she rolls her eyes and watches her world shrink, or, a parent that shoots their wishful kid down as soon as they share the ideas of their wild imagination):

*Note these steps pertain mostly to intimate relationships

  • Tell your partner you’re fucked up – I remember having such anxiety about not feeling anything when saying, “I love you” and thinking that I was affectionately dysfunctional and that I was going to hurt her very much because the words didn’t come easily for me. Before I could go much longer I broke down and admitted that certain things that are supposed to mean things to a lot of people don’t mean anything to me. And that I would do anything in the world to make her happy but it would have happen a little differently.
  • Find your own language – To build on the first point, I always tell Alexis that I don’t feel much in my body when I say, “I love you.” That it feels like something people throw in at the end of a conversation just to cover a base. I want to say nice things though because I feel them inside. Instead of, “I love you” I may call her a miniature sausage biscuit while grinding my teeth and squeezing her just short of a dislocated shoulder. That makes me feel overwhelmed with love and affection.
  • Write it down – I can’t always say it. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I didn’t grow up in an overly affectionate household, maybe because intimacy is incredibly uncomfortable to me. It’s just hard for me to say genuine things to someone face-to-face. So I write letters, and texts, and emails. When I’m feeling genuine I open up my journal or my notes or my messages and I try to say something meaningful.

There is not a person in the world who would rather be with someone that says and does all the right things even when they aren’t genuine than someone that is occasionally hard to handle but always honest. The best nights we’ve ever had have come after having really intense conversations about all the things we thought we weren’t supposed to talk about in relationships. And that leads to a level of closeness you don’t hit walking the streets looking at Brazilian bikini models.

Kindness is a muscle. Growth is a process. We’re not afraid of getting the latest phone so let’s stop being afraid of getting new behaviors.

About the Author

Kirk HenslerKirk Hensler was raised in metro Detroit on a steady diet of meat, potatoes and team sports. As a competitive athlete, he relied on his power and dominant attitude to excel. Years later, when he took up martial arts, he was tossed around a sweaty dojo for months by various women and children. This led to an exploration of ancient Eastern philosophies, which, in turn, led Kirk to Taiwan, where he taught English, studied martial arts and ate a lot of delicious and strange street food.

Kirk is the creator of Organizing Inspiration – A course for entrepreneurs and creatives to identify their brand, create a work process, and implement an intuitive working schedule. He is also the Director of Media for Seeds Training – the world’s #1 provider of youth training services. He travels with them around the world working with kids and creating videos on the effects of social, emotional, and leadership training.

Check out his blog, Kale & Cigarettes to keep dibs on his journey to becoming a hip-hop dancer, connect with him on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram and sign up for his bloody updates & contradictory life advice here.

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