The idea of treating your partner like a stranger might sound weird, but the reason I think it’s important is because after a while, we all have this tendency to actually become complacent with how we speak to our partners. I notice it daily with myself, I’ll say things that I wouldn’t say to a stranger or acquaintance, or be snippy or lack courtesy in how I speak to my partner. For years I felt bad because it was compulsive, but my teacher Stan Taktin, really elucidated this for me — he told me it wasn’t a character flaw, it was actually my brain turning my partner into “deep family.”*
The brain is wired to automate.
In long-term partnerships, our brain is wired to view our partner as a composite of all of our previous close relationships (such as family and old friends.) It starts to treat our partner like them, and when this part of our brain is activated, we believe we don’t need to treat our partners with the kind of decency and courtesy that we would to anybody else. This may ring a bell if you consider your current or past partnership. Once you hit the six-month to a year mark, you’ll notice that you start talking to each other in a really different way. I bring this up to recognize that this is normal, and part and parcel with long-term partnerships. Still, it must be addressed. There needs to be some recognition that this is happening and we need to consider how to counter it with practices.
There’s a good side to this tendency to treat each other as family—the closeness and interdependence. But there’s a negative side to it—which looks like entitlement, disrespect, or just rudeness. I’ve noticed that when I tend to get rude, I get it back. Then it goes back and forth and it becomes, shall we say, a less-than-cordial experience.
Relationships struggle when they lack curiosity.
My brain comes up with all sorts of motivations that I project onto my wife—and some of them are really negative. So, I have to be aware of that tendency and actually be curious about what is motivating her. Was she late because she doesn’t care about me? That’s a pretty crude and inaccurate accusation. But, when I start to believe that story, I feel like I can treat her accordingly because she was inconsiderate to me. This is where a lot of relationships begin to go south. It’s a lack of true curiosity about each other—and a fundamental lack of kindness, forgiveness, and the benefit of the doubt. All of those things make a relationship sustain itself over time.
Practice viewing your partner like a stranger.
Sometimes I take a moment to look at my wife and just see her as her own person—not my wife—but a mysterious human being. I try to look at her as a stranger. I assume I don’t fully know what makes her tick, that I don’t know her motivations or the intentions behind her behavior, and it’s an arrogant delusion to think that I do know all of it.
This is a pretty simple, yet challenging invitation to you all. Pause more often and actually consider where you’re coming from. Ask yourself: what is your sense of entitlement to being able to say whatever you want, however you want to say it. Is that really you? Or, would your partner rather you treat them like you would a stranger—which would hopefully be with a great deal of respect and kindness. If you can see this every moment you’re in a relationship, then you can recognize that you’re at that choice-point. Are you going to bring those qualities of curiosity, forgiveness, and benefit of the doubt—or will you choose something else? Sometimes there’s a power to just recognizing that things can be that simple—and that it’s up to you to realize what you bring at any given moment.
If you’re struggling with these issues, feel free to reach out to me and book a free conversation to see if I can help: https://ryanginn.com/schedule/
*Deep family: Our brain likes to automate others to conserve energy and we all have this special place in our brain saved for “family”, our familiars. At a certain point we throw our partners into that category and reflexively treat them accordingly, based on how we feel towards are significant familial relationships (siblings parents, caregivers). The good, the bad, and the ugly patterns kick in.