There are basically two kinds of couples: Those who have strong enough character and enough emotional maturity to work at the inevitable difficulties of marriage and long-term relationships. And those who don’t.
Being in love and being loving are two different things. The first is a passive experience that happens to us and can, just as easily, stop happening. The second is an intentional act. It is something we decide to do. And our ability to do it consistently depends on our level of emotional maturity. With enough emotional maturity we can become people of character, loving people who create and maintain good relationships.
It takes emotional maturity to be able to consistently live out the qualities of goodness involved in strong character. Emotional maturity gives us the ability to build solid character, to be a person of principle, and to be a good person. One of the primary reasons we fail to be good people with good relationships is personal anxiety.
We all have problems in living caused primarily by our emotional immaturity and shortfalls in courage. We all do things we could have done in a much better way, and with less negative repercussions. We all have room for growth. What we are all up against is how to fulfill in our daily lives the things we say we are committed to.
The honest acceptance or acknowledgement of self as we are is, paradoxically, essential to this change. To keep desired relationships and to achieve what we truly want in life, we have to change, we have to become better. We are all still works in progress. Character is something we all have to work at and develop throughout our lives. No one is born with character.
Character—good character—is the essential ingredient in good relationships. People of good character tend to be happier people in the sense that they are more satisfied with their lives. People who have strong mature character, tested in the crucible of difficult circumstances and challenging issues over time, are going to create better relationships. Relationships that last and that are satisfying and happy will inevitably be lived by people of good character—they can call on their character in the difficult times and in the emotional intensity of close relationships.
A relationship is not a thing. It is simply a process that results from the way two people interact with one another. It is no better or no worse than they are.
The human mind is such that the worst in us (our personal immaturity) will never be at a loss for finding ways to excuse and justify our unloving behavior and re-present it to ourselves as something justifiable, excusable, and even “reasonable” and “mature.” Our personal immaturity—the worst in us—is very clever and likes to play fast and loose with the truth and stay one step ahead of us, keeping what’s best in us in the dark. As Martin Seligman put it: “The human brain has evolved to ensure that our firefighting negative emotions will trump the broadening, building, vulnerable, and abiding—but much more fragile and delicate—positive emotions” (“Authentic Happiness,” pg. 76). Yes, only the best in us can talk about the worst in us, but it can only do so very sporadically, because what’s worst and weakest in us not only lies about itself and its own existence, it’s also constantly on guard and in control most of time. Which also means that what’s worst in us even lies about what’s best in us.
It takes so much honesty, courage, and emotional maturity to truly begin to face up to ourselves and see ourselves as we are and for what we are and own up to our own anxiety-driven self-protective behaviors and accept the consequences of these behaviors.
Rarely do I get a person coming into therapy saying, “I don’t like the way I am behaving in my marriage and I want to change. I want to be a better person in my relationships. I want to improve my character. I want to be less immature.”
Few of us like to own up to it, but our own personal immaturity is a major part of the difficulty in our relationships. We tend to be other-focused instead of self-focused when it comes to issues of character. We are often experts at critiquing others and ignorant of our own foibles. In other words, to what extent do we think about our own character? To what extent do we think about what we bring (or contribute) to a relationship, not just good, but bad? To what extent do we think about how we contribute to a relationship’s “goodness” and “stability”? To what extent do we focus on consistently being the most loving person we can be (and improving our ability to be loving) in a relationship? How often do we ask, “In what ways am I difficult to live with? How do I create and or contribute to the problems in this relationship? How am I failing to live up to the standards I apply to others? What is it that I am most often giving this relationship and the other person—the gift of my best or my worst self?”
Likely we do not ask these or similar questions nearly often enough of ourselves. Likely we do not monitor or observe or scrutinize ourselves nearly as intensely as we monitor and keep track of our partner and his or her foibles. Likely we do not hold ourselves as accountable or to as high of a standard as we hold our partner. The window to ourselves is just not naturally open.
Having character changes all of this. As does being loving. Having character—being loving—asks all of this and more of ourselves, more so than of our partner. Character is what opens the window to ourselves and to honest self-observation and self-knowledge. Character is what gives us the humilty and courage to meaningfully endure the unpleasant and embarrassing things we’ll see about ourselves.
Character is about our approach to all of life and all our relationships, and the level of emotional maturity we bring to these.
As James Hollis put it: “What do we each the owe the world? Simple: respect, ethical behavior, and the gift of one’s own best self. Our capacity to deliver on this—as well as our quality of life—will ultimately be a direct function of the level of awareness and moral courage and clarity we bring to our daily choices.”
(The vast majority of this was abridged and adapted from “Becoming Your Best: A Self-Help Guide for Thinking People,” by Ronald W. Richardson)