• A relationship is a shared mental process.
  • A relationship has a presence, a personality and an emotional impact.  It can and will make demands on both partners. It shapes how partners see each other.  It is a lens through which partners understand each other.
  • It has a mind and a heart of its own but it doesn’t have a body. Instead of flesh and blood, a relationship is formed by the constant flow of the ten thousand messages, and reactions to those messages, that flow constantly between the two minds of the two partners.
  • In other words, a relationship is a spiritual entity.  Like an Angel?  Maybe Except its presence can be seen with scientific instruments. Brain imaging can observe how the neural activity in one partner is mirrored by similar neural activity in the same brain areas in the other partner, a visible marker of empathetic resonance. If it’s an angel, it is one that you can see on a computer monitor.
  • Despite the hard science evidence, a relationship doesn’t live in the concrete world. A relationship lives in the world of stories. Stories register in our brains and make us think and feel in various ways.  We humans are, maybe more than anything else, creatures who tell stories. We live stories and will even die for stories. The deeper, more intimate the relationship, further it sends its roots into both partners’ stories – into the heart of their lives.
  • Seeing a relationship as a semi-independent entity is a different way of looking at relationships. There is a “Me” and a “You” and there is also a “We.”  Sometimes, using this perspective, appreciating how things look to the “We,” the “You” and the “Me” can see opportunities and challenges we couldn’t see otherwise.


The ability to see the relationship as its own reality usually doesn’t develop in people until midlife.

Sometimes this increase in the scope of consciousness creates an inner crisis – people see themselves and their partners, and their partnerships – past, present, and future – in a new light, sometimes harsh, sometimes sympathetic, usually a bit of both.

Crisis or simple developmental process, once you’ve seen the “We” you will never again approach relationships quite the same way.

They started the session so pleased with each other and the promise of their relationship. They’d been through a lot and now it looked like they were in for a patch of fair weather. However, thanks to my careful questioning and comments I’d managed to bring her to the point of seething resentment and in response, he was on the cliff edge of committing himself to some way of expressing some kind of punitive and spiteful payback: He was suddenly more than willing to do exactly those very the things she feared, just make her eat her damn words and stew in her own fears until she choked. Based on that I figured the session was a success.

Perhaps you are wondering why? Let me give you some background and also let me see if I can persuade that this was a good exercise for both them. And also, perhaps I can persuade you that this exercise might be a good idea for you and your partner.

They’d had a hard ride, these two. It had been a difficult on-again-off-again relationship. Honeymoon became hell became break-up became make-up became honeymoon became hell and round and round. It had happened enough times that they knew and feared their routine. This in itself was great progress. Before this realization they seemed surprised to find themselves again and again in the same place.

Their routine reminded me of an old Bob Dylan song, “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” The last verse goes like this: “And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price, you have to pay, to get out of, going through all these things twice.” Hah. Twice indeed! What youthful optimism! Most of us have to recycle several more times than twice before we realize we are going in circles. This is a midlife realization, and this couple had reached it.

Now, after a promising honeymoon, they were contemplating moving in together, again. “Can we do this without repeating the cycle?” they asked. They had asked the Dreaded But Necessary Question: “What can possibly go wrong?”

“What can possibly go wrong?”

My dad made a comedy routine out of this question by performing this line as a naïve and enthusiastic fool. The way he delivered seemed to mean, “Well of course nothing’s going to go wrong.” He was able to say it in a way that made sensible people shudder and say, “Don’t say that!” But say it he did, and like bats in a cave reacting to a gunshot, the ten thousand things that could go wrong suddenly swarmed around in your mind. It was his personal version of “Murphy’s Law.”

Murphy’s Law, like my Dad’s question, is the question you have to ask because it tells you about baggage. When we take a closer look at Murphy’s Law we see why.

In their article on Murphy’s Law, Wikipedia offers an American newspaper in verse printed in 1841:

I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side.

Wikipedia also quoted Alfred Holt at an 1877 meeting of an engineering society:

It is found that anything that can go wrong at sea generally does go wrong sooner or later.

The same is true of an intimate relationship because getting involved in a long term intimate relationship is like crossing the ocean in a two person boat: Sooner or later, anything that can go wrong between two people who loving and living together will.

Eventually there will be a bad day. Sooner or later, they will bring out the worst in each other. Nothing will be hidden. That is the nature of intimacy.

Do you want the relationship to last? Then my dad’s horrible question is the one you have to ask: What could possibly go wrong? Except it’s not a joke, it’s a conversational agenda. That was what I tried to accomplish for this dear couple. I wanted them to understand where in their nest the snakes were hidden.

Psychologist Gary Klein, who specializes in intuition (which he defines as your sense of what will probably happen next based on your experience of what’s happened in the past) calls the “What can possibly go wrong” exercise a “pre-mortum.”

Pre-mortem. Post-mortem. You know what a post-mortem is. That’s the inquiry you do after something has died. It’s an inquiry that asks, “What went wrong?” and “What, if anything, could we have done to stop it?” It’s the sort of thing you want doctors, military people, and anyone with a position of responsibility to know how to do. A pre-mortem is like a post-mortem, except it relies on your intuition and asks you to imagine it’s several years from now and you are looking back at a failure, searching for lessons and early warning signs. Then you set yourself up to notice those early signs. It’s a form of prevention. And that’s what I did for this couple. I took them through the procedure.

When we were almost finished I wasn’t sure I’d done them a favor. She was, as I’d said, “seething.” She’d tapped a deep vein of resentment. How many times in her life had she given and given and given and yet what she got in return was so little compared to what she’d given. And here it was again. She’d been there. She could see it coming. She retreated into attacking sarcasm. “Go ahead. Treat me like shit again. You’re good at it.”

Her response was intuitive, from the gut, something she didn’t have to think about. She’d had her natural generosity exploited so many times in her life that she was on high alert for yet another rip off. He had an equivalent resentment. Partners in a stable partnership usually do. “Look at you rolling your eyes at me. There’s no way to make you happy. It’s never enough. You always fear the worst so what the hell, if I’m going to be blamed anyway, I might as well be guilty.” He expected to be misjudged. That’s where he was quick on the trigger.

All I could say at that point was, “I guess the counseling was a success. You wanted to know what could possibly go wrong and I showed you. It’s there lurking for you all the time. If you want your relationship to last, you’ll have to plan on dealing with just this particular kind of trouble. This is how your relationship tends to get nasty.”

We all sat in the stew for a bit. Then he said, “Okay. All right. We can deal with this. I’ll take care of you. We can talk about this.” They’d managed to get outside their own little game, to get a little perspective, to develop a little patience and forgiveness toward each other, to see the danger coming before it really got dangerous.

Here is a story from another relationship. They have a cartoon on the refrigerator: two birds on a sidewalk having an argument. The cartoon is from the New Yorker and done by Bruce Eric Kaplan. The black bird says to the white dove: “I can’t believe you symbolize peace when you’re such a bitch.” They’ve made the cartoon a private joke because she tends to have a temper. She always apologizes later. He always tells her she doesn’t have to apologize because he accepts that she gets very irritated with him and sometimes he deserves it. But they both know that her apologies really do matter. They’ve taken the “what can possibly go wrong?” issue and established a way of dealing with the inevitable.

Relationship problems are like weeds. You can’t prevent them. You have to manage them. To manage them well, you have to anticipate them. “Manage” is a kind of housekeeping. It’s related to the word, “manual,” and it means, you have to put your hands on it. It’s like hygiene, just something you have to do from time to time. It’s also the sort of thing where a little early attention to the trouble spots can save a lot of work later.

The premise of the Dating at Midlife research project is that as people go through a midlife transformation, they change the way they create intimate relationships.

It’s hard to catalogue all the changes. One of the big changes is that people become more honest with themselves. When I was younger, in a moment of supremely naïve arrogance I complained that I couldn’t understand why people found it so difficult to be honest with themselves. That was before I began my own midlife project.

Lying is a strange business. Many animals use deception for survival. A momma bird will pretend to have a broken wing to draw predators away from a nest. Many predators use camouflage to capture prey. Wild female birds will mate with one male but bond with another for child rearing. Among humans, there is no necessary connection between what is said and what is done. To deceive is natural.

And then there is television. Almost everyone you see on television including news people are actors. The more hours you watch television the fewer hours you are interacting with real people, people who aren’t always performing for you. Our infotainment culture has dulled our talent for truth detecting.

When we get honesty and fearless self-disclosure, we often aren’t sure how to handle it. We aren’t even sure we want it.

Most relationships are a cocktail of truth and lies. For example, less mature, and less honest people often perform a strange mental trick with their intimate relationships. They divide them into two opposing categories. Category one: predictable, but maybe dull. Category two: fascinating and romantic, but dangerous.

What’s dishonest about that? I’ll get to that question further on.

For now, I want to point out the contrast: a relationship that is both dependable and also slightly dangerous. It takes a lot of honesty to make one of those. It’s a true improvisation: passion and safety at the same time, in the same relationship. To do this you must take certain risks. Obviously, not everyone has a taste for searching and fearless (to use Bill W.’s phrase) conversations with their partners.

Here is an excerpt from a new play, Intrigue with Faye, which explores those themes. This was in the New York Times Sunday, June 08, 2003, Theater section, page 6.

Kean and Lissa have a problem. They live together but don’t trust each other. In Kate Robbin’s play, “Intrigue with Faye,” the couple decide to videotape their every word and move as a way of cultivating trust and intimacy. The MCC Theater production stars Benjamin Bratt and Julianna Margulies. Directed by Jim Simpson, it opens on Wednesday at the Acorn Theater on Theater Row. Appearing in the video cameos are Gretchen Mol (as the title character) and Swoosie Kurtz along others. In this scene, Kean and Lissa draw up a contract.

KEAN: You stop lying to yourself and I’ll stop lying to you.
LISSA: How do you suggest we effect that program?
KEAN: We just…stop.
LISSA: Your part seems a little bit easier, don’t you think? Since it’s conscious. I mean, what am I supposed to do?
KEAN: Be willing to accept that things are not always exactly how you want them.
LISSA: So what? Just accept the fact that you lie to me?
KEAN: No, because I’m going to try not to lie. You just have to…be open. Try not to sit in judgment.
LISSA: For how long?
KEAN: I don’t know. Until we change.
LISSA: Let’s give it a time frame. I’m not agreeing to be stupid for the rest of my life.
KEAN: That’s not a very open thing to say.
LISSA: We haven’t started yet. How long?
KEAN: Hey, let’s do it for Lent. Let’s give up lying for Lent.
LISSA: How long is Lent?
KEAN: Well, it already started, but it’s now until Easter.
LISSA: Who’s the judge?…I mean, with Lent, presumably, God is watching, right? Who’ll be watching us?
KEAN: We’ll have to watch each other.
LISSA: One another. It’s one another. When you’re only talking about two people. Each other is for groups.
KEAN: Whatever.
LISSA: What about when we’re apart?
KEAN: Maybe we should just give up lying at home.
LISSA: No, I think we should try to give up lying all day, and just be judged at home.
KEAN: Not judged. Supported.
LISSA: Whatever. Let’s sign a contract.
KEAN: Do you think that’s necessary? (She takes out a piece of paper and starts drawing up a contract.)
LISSA: I, the undersigned, do hereby swear to give up lying to others and/or myself for the remaining what is it? Thirty whatever days of Lent. After which time it will be determined whether or not I am capable of change.
(Kean starts to sign.)
KEAN: Wait. We need a witness.
LISSA: That’s a very dangerous attitude.
KEAN: I live on the edge.
KEAN: I’ll be your witness. You be mine.
LISSA: No, we need an objective party. Let’s put it on tape.
(She speaks into the tape recorder, while signing.)
Melissa Feld, in sound mind, signing the Lent Agreement. (He signs.)
KEAN: O.K. Go.
LISSA: It’s almost 12. Let’s wait for midnight.
KEAN: Six minutes. Maybe I should make a few phone calls before we start.

* * * * * *

Honesty is work, but so is lying. When you tell a lie to someone else, you have to keep two sets of books, one for the lie and another for the truth. It is the strain of doing this that makes lie-detection devices possible. A lie detector measures the small signs of the stress of lying, the slight sweat on your skin, and the tiny changes in pulse rate and breathing. A lie detector does mechanically what many of us do biologically when we are lie-detecting, we tune in and listen for the strain.

There is one good way to lie and avoid lie-strain; believe your own lie. Throw away the good set of books and keep the false ones. Pretend that the false story is the true one. Some say this is more dangerous than lying. I suspect it is more common.

Remember I mentioned earlier that less mature people tend to create two categories of relationship? I said that there were the “safe but dull ones” and the “passionate, but dangerous ones.” Which of the two types of relationship do you suppose is the more likely to be maintained by lies?

I would guess it is most often the dull one. And often the dullness of a relationship is a shared lie. Just under the surface of a dull, predictable relationship you will often find cold anger, seething resignation and shark-mouthed resentment with three rows of teeth.

When a lie surfaces in a safe relationship, it’s like a sea monster breaking surface. It scares all parties. When a lie comes out, suddenly the meaning of many little events has to be revised. Your whole sense of what this relationship was about needs to be revised.

But what should be done once the monster breaks the surface? End the relationship? What are the choices?

The bad choices are to deny you didn’t notice anything to minimize He’ll get over it; it’s an exception, she didn’t mean it or to kill the messenger.

All these are examples of colluding. Homer Simpson said, “It takes two to tell a lie, Marge; one to tell it and one to believe it.”

When a big truth comes out in a private relationship, what do you do?

Build on it. The main skill you need here (aside from the ability to get a grip on yourself) is the skill of self-disclosure.

Notice the difference between these two sentences:

A: “You are dishonest. You have lied.”

B: “I don’t know what to believe.”

Which is stronger?

Some would say statement A.

Statement A is an accusation. It can be argued with or defended against. It is an invitation to obscure the truth with smoke. Statement B is much stronger. Statement B is a self-disclosure. There is no arguing with it.

When truth surfaces, add to it. You never know where it will lead. You can see that there is great danger in doing this. It takes skill and maturity to do this well.

A conversation in which truth unfolds moves very slowly. Reactions are quick: “Oh yeah? Well, so are you!” Responses take time. To form a judgment based on your deepest feelings, to know what they are, to think about them and to state it all as your own personal response that takes some patience, self-knowledge and basic good will.

One time I did a computer search on the Bible and collected all the times someone was told “Fear not.” It was about 42 times and often these were the first words said by an Angel or some other manifestation of God. Apparently, when truth emerges, the most common initial reaction to it is fear. I’m old, but I suspect that one never gets over this initial fear. For me, that explains the paradox of how the search for truth can create both danger and safety in a relationship.