One of the things I’ve noticed is that a lot of people seem to think that if they could just figure out the perfect setup, or find the right communication patterns, or create the ideal situation, their relationships would be stable. In fact, I used to believe that myself. And I eventually came to see that that’s exactly the wrong way to go about it because relationships don’t stay stable. They’re constantly changing, growing, and shifting. So instead to striving for stability, I’ve found that it’s more useful to develop my skill at calibration.
Think about what you do when you drive. The situation keeps changing as cars speed up or slow down; the road curves, rises, and falls; traffic lights change color; new lanes merge and others disappear. When you drive, you’re constantly calibrating and adapting to new information and to new situations. At least, if you don’t do that, you’re going to be in trouble.
Relationships are much the same. We’re always growing, learning new patterns, shedding old ones, and responding to our ever-shifting circumstances. Each of us is different from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year. Any stability we have in our relationships is either illusionary, temporary, or both. So rather than trying to hold onto the constancy that we often imagine or hope for, what if we could think of relationships as a practice of ongoing constant calibration?
We can develop more skill at communication, at building trust, at asking what our partners need with open hearts, at stating our desires and expectations, at setting boundaries, at requesting what we need. We can improve our capacity for apology and amends when we make mistakes and act thoughtlessly. We can increase our willingness and ability to assume good intentions, and to demonstrate our own. That’s a lot to ask ourselves to do.
Learning to calibrate our relationships takes time, just like driving. With practice, it can become much easier, and we can often get to the point where we can put some of it on autopilot, but not too much or we risk our attention wandering so much that we get into trouble. We need to calibrate each relationship we have to different levels, just as driving a Mini Cooper is different from driving an SUV or a pickup truck. Sure, most of the basic skills transfer over, but we need different settings with each person in our lives.
I find this a useful metaphor because it helps me stay present when a relationship needs some attention. I used to think that processing was a necessary hassle that had to happen to get to the good stuff. And for a while, I thought that the processing was the point. But now I see processing as the investment of my time, energy, and attention that allows the relationship to get where it’s going. When things need to recalibrate, it’s not a sign of failure. It’s a measure of our ability to adapt to the new situation. Recognizing that makes it easier for me to not get caught up in my own reactions, triggers, emotions, and attachments.
When I think of it as an act of calibration, I become more willing to explore, to try something and see how it works. We can adjust a setting and step back to see what effect it has. If it doesn’t work, we can try something else. I can approach it as an experiment, and even if something doesn’t do what I wanted, it offers new information that allows for a different direction. This metaphor helps me keep away from the shame spiral of “we tried it, it didn’t work, nothing will ever work.” It helps me make the relationship a place for play, for love, for getting messy, and for cleaning things up. It gives room for the relationship to be a growing, living thing like a plant with its roots in the soil, rather than a statue that we hope to finish and set on a pedestal to be admired.
It used to be that when I became aware that something in one of my relationships needed to change, I would sometimes feel resentment. I thought that if only things would stay calm and stable, the relationship would be good. Now, I understand that the success of my relationships rests on our ability to recalibrate. And that gives us much more room for love, joy, pleasure, and passion.