There is a proverb in Japan that goes: “Even monkeys fall from trees.” (Saru de mo ki kara ochiru.) It means that even if you are very good at something, you can still make mistakes. I was thinking about this proverb in the context of relationships. Sometimes it seems that a person with whom you normally have a good relationship is behaving badly. It is difficult to know when the other person is just having some kind of bad day or perhaps they are engaging in ordinary bad behavior. Each person is, and should be, the star of their own life, and we can expect that people will occasionally be focused on their own experience and do or say things that are thoughtless, or, as the Buddhists would say, unskillful.
When we engage in therapy, we often talk about relationships and how to be in them in a constructive way. We may notice that we are doing something that is creating the relationship problem, but we may also become aware of problems in the ways the other person is treating us. It is extremely difficult to sort out who is doing what in any interaction, of course, because it is a combination of the two. We are always reacting to what the other person did or said, did not do or did not say, and they are reacting to us. So it is a tennis game of volleys back and forth.
At the same time, we each have our own internal state, including our physical condition, our emotional state, and our meaning structures–what is important to us and how we understand it. This unique constellation of factors which makes up our internal world also affects how we understand and react to the communications or lack of communications from other people.
In close relationships, we have invested a lot of feeling and thought in order to be actively involved, and that investment makes the relationship more valuable and more difficult to view objectively. Sometimes close relationships contain so much bad behavior, we believe they are no longer viable. Sometimes a relationship begins to feel destructive to us. And sometimes we feel we have invested so much, we are reluctant to leave it.
Other times, we see a relationship as a more substantial structure of constructive mutual engagement over time and that carries us through the times when one of us is not in top form. In other words, sometimes we recognize the other person is off base, and we let it pass. Or we see that we are off base, and we forgive ourselves. The helpful and fascinating micro-understanding that arises from a serious, long-term therapy relationship can amplify our experience in ways that make bad behavior, on our part or the part of others, seem intolerable. And sometimes it is. But sometimes we can step back, check in with ourselves, think about the whole picture of the relationship, what we know of the other person, and their intentions, and decide that, while improvement is necessary, and possible, the relationship itself is too valuable to abandon. This decision is based on judgement, a vital skill for building an optimal life.