🔗 Link : Goodreads I recommend getting the 25th anniversary edition with the addendum.
⭐️ Rating: 10
🔗🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
This book phrases an affirming philosophy on relationships by stating that most problems can be solved through a shift in mindset. Our emotions determine how we see the world and how we deal with our emotional lows determines our happiness. It’s much easier to change our thoughts than to change our partner.
The book made me think a lot, and after listening to it in the gym, I listened to it a second time and got a lot more out from going through it with more attention and taking time to reflect.
🔗How I Discovered It
Suggested on Audible and later found on Derek Sivers list of highly recommended books.
🔗☘️ How the Book Changed Me
It reminded me to not over-analyze the relationship and instead focus my energy on enjoying it. I want to become more aware of when I’m feeling low and actively disregard negative thoughts and defer critical conversations. It also changed my perspective on seeing the other side when working through differences (i.e. compassion). It was eye-opening to see beyond the action of the partner and instead try to see how they are just going through a difficult emotion and don’t want to act this way either.
🔗📒 Summary + Notes
🔗Staying close during lows
The most common problem of failed relationships is not lacking communication or incompatibility; it is the inability to stay close in all situations. All of us go through high and lows and it’s especially in the lows that we feel insecure. Insecurity is the source of distress and all counterproductive behavior. Whenever we feel low, our thinking is compromised and we switch to automatic behaviors. Behaviors we have often engrained from our parents. Understanding that feeling low is just part of our human nature helps to step out of our automatic behaviors when we feel low ourselves; but also to feel compassionate when those around us act in irrational ways. It’s our insecurity when we feel low that leads us to act in ways we would normally not want to. On the bright side, thoughts of insecurity pass with mood and should be dismissed. A characteristic of very low moods is that every little problem looks like the tip of an iceberg. We feel that the situation needs immediate fixing.
Maintaining a sense of well-being is all it takes to make the relationship enjoyable and easy, and to feel warm and respectful toward each other, even in hard times. “Communication is a pipe through which feelings pass. If the feelings are positive, the relationship will be uplifted. If they are negative, the couple’s level of closeness will drop”.
Feelings come from inside: our thoughts, not the outside. Nobody makes you feel bad. It’s your thought about it. Emotions only have the power to affect us when we are actively thinking them.
Imagine you are engrossed in an intense discussion with a friend. You both feel upset and despondent. Suddenly, you are told there is a fire in the building. You rush to help put out the fire. Are you still upset? Of course not. You can’t afford to be. You need all your attention to concentrate on putting out the fire. When the fire is doused, would the despair return? Probably not; you would be relieved and exhilarated. The earlier discussion might seem silly. What happened to the emotions that were once so real and important? They were just dropped in the face of important matters. If emotions can be set aside during emergencies, can they be set aside anytime? Sure. They are only illusions.
Emotions do not provide information about the world around us - they are just a temporary state of how we see the world. They do serve as a compass that indicates the quality of our thinking and our present capacity to make sound judgments. When we feel bad we will see everything as very severe and that it needs immediate fixing. And we judge the situation very personally: “Why is this person trying to harm me”. Whereas with a positive state of mind, we would see the bigger picture and be more compassionate.
Our thinking is a mirage. In a sense, that it is real when you look closer; you see water. But when you have a broader perspective, you know that it’s not real; that it’s just diffraction that makes it look like there is water. The same goes for emotions. When someone steps on your foot after a bad day, you might first think “that idiot, who does he think he is”. Once you look up, you see that the man is blind. Suddenly you feel compassionate for that poor guy. And then someone in line behind you tells you that this man is just pretending to be blind and he’s actually a sadist, because he likes to hurt people. If you believe this, you will again have an upset reaction about this. And then someone from behind approaches you and says: “You’re on camera”. Your emotion changes based on your thinking, but not reality.
“When others are in a low state of mind, put everything they say or do in that context. Don’t hold it against them. Stay out of their way when they are low.”
🔗The connection of emotions and thoughts
Negative feelings are just the body’s response to indicate “Hey, something is wrong with your mental health” - just like physical pain. When you have lots of negative feelings, this is just signaling you that something in your thinking is wrong. The thoughts we indulge in determine how we feel. It’s normal that negative thoughts arise, but we decide how much attention to give to them.
🔗Getting over yourself
A common approach to grow in a relationship is the “How did that make you feel” / “Working things out” approach. We avoid the things that cause unpleasant feelings in the other. However, this requires high maintenance and is exhausting. The hyper-sensitivity leads to finding non-existent distress in each others tone and behaviors. “When setting the expectation that your partner should fix your feeling state, you are giving them an immense, impossible job and also disregarding your own power over your thoughts and feelings”. How often don’t we know what we need ourselves!
So, stop worrying if the other got upset. Stop trying to fix when the other has an emotional reaction. It’s less effort to get over our own reactions than walking on eggshells around our partner.
Getting upset and moody or resentful is part of the natural ups and downs of life. Rather than holding on to those feelings you can focus on enjoying your partners company.
It’s not about giving in but it is about not letting your mind get bogged down with negativity and emotional reactions.
It doesn’t need time or someones compassion to get over an emotional state. Your attitude can change it in an instant. Example: Grandmother and grandchild had a heated argument when the grandchild suddenly said: “Grandma, let’s forget about it”. (connect to the common desire to enjoy the time together)
You can change your feeling mid-argument. “It’s just righteousness and attachement to a certain position that makes getting over yourself difficult. People believe that when they feel strongly, then they must be right. In reality it’s just a strong thought. No matter the severity, any state of mind or feeling can and will change.”
Feelings are not imposed on us by what others do. Instead our feelings are created internally by our thoughts.
So, take ownership and responsibility over your own emotional reactions and don’t expect your partner to fix them.
There are two forms of relating to a feeling: sympathy and compassion.
Sympathy is relating to a feeling through a personal experience. It’s most often not helpful because we get caught up in our own past experience and feel it ourself. Especially when it’s about a negative experience, it doesn’t help your friend to feel down yourself.
Compassion means relating to the general human feeling. You see the struggle the other is going through, but don’t take it to heart. You don’t feel their pain, but instead acknowledge their situation and try to be helpful.
We have all gone through low moods where we have done things that we later knew were not right. You don’t even need to make sense of why that person act this way when they feel this. It’s enough to acknowledge that everyone acts in their own quirky way when they feel insecure / low. In practice, try to react to their emotion next time and not their action. It’s hard to not be taken up by the annoyance of the action, but the book gives a good example: When a dad get’s to the bedroom of her loudly crying daughter at the middle of the night, his reaction is hopefully that she must be in big pain and he will try to alleviate her pain. Arriving at the hospital, they are in the waiting room full of other sick people, when she starts crying out loudly again. People who focus on the annoyance of the noise will be much more irritated (state of discomfort) than those who feel sorry for that poor little to be in such pain.
Being compassionate doesn’t mean being everyones doormat. It’s the better attitude in lieu of resentment. Resentment is the reaction to a behavior. Compassion means seeing beyond the action and acknowledging the struggle / insecurity that led to the behavior. This makes it obvious why resentment requires more effort. Reacting to an action is the default. “How the hell is he bursting out like this” becomes “he must have had a difficult day to be so easily irritable”. Compassion doesn’t mean to always tolerate unacceptable behaviors (i.e. being a doormat), it just means being understanding that we all have our difficult moments from time to time.
It also helps to see that compassion is the better choice over resentiment for ourselves too. Feeling resentiment makes yourself feel agitated, upset. It hurts yourself to think that the action was malicious and ill-will.
Rule #1 in a relationship is to always trust that your partner wants the best for you. We tend to believe of ourselves that we always have the others best interest in mind, but don’t assume that about others. Always trusting in the good of your partner, makes it easier to be compassionate in face of at first sight seemingly adversarial actions.
Lastly, being compassionate helps being easy on yourself when feeling low.
🔗Differences don’t need to be problems
It’s our choice to focus our thoughts on the annoying little reactions and actions or to focus on the bigger good-willed, kind-hearted, but flawed human nature.
It’s often our own thinking rather than the other person that’s the bigger impediment in a relationship. For example, we feel bad about the clumpsiness of our partner because of what we think and conclude about that: “I shouldn’t have to deal with this. I deserve better”. When we don’t take it to heart, we might see that it actually doesn’t affect us so much and could maybe even laugh about it.
We cannot control our thoughts, but when being aware that our thoughts are highly mood dependent, it helps to catch ourselves in low mood and take ourselves less seriously.
Problems are bad thoughts taken seriously.
It’s reassuring to think that heavy conflicts are mostly negative thoughts taken to heart in a low mood. This perspective makes it easier to be forgiving and to not take strong words during a fight seriously.
It’s much easier to see the humanity in our partner and be compassionate about their flaws than trying to change them.
🔗Letting go of thoughts
Many couples and even relationship counselers have the philosophy that bad emotions need to be dealt with. That in order to get over them, you have to talk them through. It’s however often overlooked that most perceived problems are highly subjective to our mood and attitude. When feeling low, we see many problems and we feel urged to react to them immediately. We might feel upset that our partner has left the car without fuel and feel the urge to rant and complain about it. After letting some time pass, we calm down and see the context of her situation. Suddenly it doesn’t feel like such a big mistake on her side anymore. It’s often a good idea to ignore negative feelings at first. Do you feel the same after a few minutes? Most thoughts just pass if undealt with. Dealing with every perceived problem, creates problems where none are.
The author is convinced that negative thoughts are only as real as the attention you give to them. If you feel resentment toward your partners reaction and what your partner did, you can indulge in this thought and tell yourself “this is unacceptable and needs to be fixed”. As you know, discussions seldomly go well when you feel upset. If you really want to fix the problem, you need to let go and develop compassion first. Just defer those conversations in that moment. Quiet your thinking and wait for the bad feelings to pass. And we are capable of letting go of thoughts. That’s why we use todo lists. Just like we can get let go of distracting thoughts, we can let go of distracting feelings.
Never talk about sensitive topics when feeling low. Here is a great analogy of how little things can break down a relationship: A building has a solid foundation to hold it, but there are weak parts which are strong enough to sustain the weight, but that you want to avoid putting any undue pressure on. It’s normal to have topics where you have different views and that they might be sensitive. It’s important to be aware of these sensitive topics and to be sure to feel sufficiently emotionally detached when wanting to talk about them. We don’t see solutions to a problem when we are too involved and emotional about it. We can’t deal with all problems in the moment. In fact, many issues resolve themselves through feeling close. It’s only through feeling close, i.e. compassionate, that we can see ways to come together. You might feel a strong desire to have kids, to live in the country side, that differ from your partner and think that only fulfilling this desire might make us feel better. When we don’t fixate on our desire, but instead see how our partner sees things, it becomes easier to see alternatives to our rigid desires. When we feel close we have each others interest in mind and won’t insist on actions that go against our partner.
Thoughts of compatibility are counterproductive: they focus on then negativity of differences. They are often just a negative framing of a difference that we used to welcome as fresh and different from ourselves in the beginning.
In the beginning of a relationship we focus on enjoying each other. Over time, we start analyzing and become critical if that partner is right for us. The focus shifts from focusing on the positive to the negative. Doubts and critics are normal to come up. But notice if you only feel them when feeling low. Focus on enjoying each other and set doubts aside.
Many conflicts arise because we react to differences in what the other says instead of focusing on the common ground. We all see the world a bit differently and hence have differing beliefs and opinions. The problem is that we often take offense when someone disagrees with our beliefs and become defensive.
The solution is to embrace that we have differences and focus on the commonalities. Once you see that you both want similar things, it becomes easier to work through the differences.
It is easier to find common ground on a broader, fundamental ground than in concrete actions. Instead of “I think the kids should clean the house”, ask what’s the deeper philosophical belief for that. “Do you believe that kids should take some responsiblity, so they become independent and don’t get spoiled?” invites for a more productive conversation, because you are more likely to find agreement in this. Bigger picture conversations help to find common ground and to not feel too emotional from everyday conflict situations. You can then remind yourself about the common values, when faced with smaller everyday differences.
Some sensitive topics can only be talked about with the right feeling. It’s okay to stop a heated argument without resolution, looking for a better moment to discuss it.
Being forgiving doesn’t mean to be a doormat. It’s self-serving to get over past events to get rid off your own negative emotions. Of course you shouldn’t blindly forgive, but it’s good to remind yourself that being unforgiving often hurts yourself. When it’s hard to forgive, we most likely don’t see the root of the behavior but just its effect. The partners mistake is likely rooted in insecurity, dissatisfaction. No one in a right state of mind voluntarily chooses to get into trouble. The partner was most likely in a bad spot and feeling insecure when they did wrong. When you focus on the insecurity, you can work through it together.
Dissatisfaction is a mindset. In the book, the author mentions the example of how a manager’s introduction of a weekly “critics session” led to more and more problems week by week. Dissatisfaction had never been a big part of his employees reality before he began offering withhold sessions. Of course, his employees had had occasional gripes but they had dismissed them because they liked their jobs and wanted to get on with their work. When John introduced the idea of dissatisfaction to the group, his employees began to look for trouble.
“We can use the mind to enjoy life or we can use it to judge, analyze and compare what we see”.
“Once you drop seeing their ill will, your mate will feel more secure and will be likely to correct the conditions that concern you”.
The point is that you can always see problems when you look for them. It’s our choice to focus on the good and occasionally neglect the bad to feel happy.
🔗Intimacy through presence
Intimacy - the feeling of being close is created by being fully present and undistracted with our attention to enjoy the other. But too often we are distracted by other thoughts. Even if we are not having external thoughts, we are probably analyzing the situation. You enjoy a movie more when you are pulled in by it and feel like you are part of it, rather than when you are judging how it compares to the novel. Being focused on the present is key.
It doesn’t necessarily require deep conversations or special moments to feel close. When your partner complains about not spending time together, he/she most likely doesn’t mean being next to each other, but feeling close to each other. When being prompted to spend more time, the partner might feel under pressure and more insecure, leading to more distracting thoughts. When we feel insecure we fall back to habitual behaviors. The increased insecurity might even lead him wanting to escape and be more detached. Instead, being present yourself can have a strong pull on the other.
Commitment frees you from distracting options. Once you commit to something or someone, you can enjoy it a deeper level because you can easily discard any distracting thoughts about other options.
In a relationship, we might not want to commit until we completely feel that they are the one. Even little dissatisfaction leads us to consider alternatives and the unsettled mind make it harder to enjoy what we have. In consequence, we feel more detached from our partner - a downward spiral.
When one partner wants to marry and the other feels unsure, this can be taxing on the relationship. The insecurity and thought of rejection hurts the other partner and makes it harder to be loving. This might make the other feel even more confirmed about his/her doubts. What helps is to take the pressure out of it. When you decide to be warm and loving toward your partner no matter if they follow your desire, the resulting closeness makes it much more likely that you will come together.
🔗Phases of a relationship
Over time relationships necessarily lose excitement. You become familiar to each other and comfortable. However, what we trade for the wear off of novelty is deeper intimacy and contentment. Long-term couples report that they feel more themselves and that they start seeing their partner as their best companion. When novelty wears off and there is less to talk about, you can find different ways to enjoy each other. You will get to appreciate the differences of your partner and see how they shape you. In short, relationships don’t become boring if you keep a curious mind.