The Happiness of Non-Human Friendships

I lost a very special friend over the Thanksgiving holiday. He and I had a 16-year relationship and we spent time every day cuddling, and sharing meals and walks. He was someone with whom I could share my deepest fears and secrets. He was there for me whenever I needed him. I learned so much from my friend about courage, generosity and strength. I loved him dearly.

My husband was not the least bit jealous or threatened by this relationship because my dear friend was my cat, Mistoffolese.  For over thirty years, Gary and I have shared our home with cats. All were at one time strays or kittens of a stray, or shelter cats. We’ve also had a few dogs, fish tanks, hamsters, gerbils and two praying mantis named Ramsesses and Moses. However many of these creatures lived with us, cats have always been big part of our life together.

Pets are good for your health and happiness. Researchers tell us that pet owners live a few years longer and visit the doctor less often. People who share their lives with a dog or cat have lower blood pressure and higher levels of serotonin. Dog owners in particular tend to be more active because of the demands of daily walks. (Although, I’ve had a few cats who insisted on having a daily walk, too.)

People who have animals in their life recover faster when they are sick and have longer survival rates after a serious diagnosis such as cancer or heart disease. Even something like a fish tank or a bird can help people feel more relaxed.

For all of these benefits and more, I choose to have stains on my carpets and tiny pricks in my grass weave wallpaper. I don’t even mind the claw marks on my kitchen cabinets. And when I put the tree up next weekend, I know there will be a few of the younger members of our household who will be sure to climb it and chase a few ornaments. I don’t care.  What I have, I share with the ones I love most and that includes my furrier friends.

My animal relationships aren’t limited to the indoors. I have friendships with some of the creatures that share the property I call mine. They were here long before this house was built. Perhaps they are the ones who share with me, so I try to be a good neighbor to them.

I plant extra herbs for the caterpillars and butterfly bushes for after the metamorphous.  I have blueberry bushes, but the squirrels and birds usually beat me to the berries every spring. I know when I plant the tomatoes and other vegetables; the raccoons and deer will probably get most of the fruits of my labors.  I have made peace with this. I can go to the grocery for more. They cannot. The relationship I have formed with the animals matters more to me than a tomato no matter how red and delicious.

I never look at these non-human creatures as my pets. They are my friends and guides to a deeper and truer love. They have taught me how to connect without words and how to sense the world around me. They have shown me how to see the world from a different perspective. (purrspective?) Each relationship has given me more than I gave in return.

This was especially true of my friend Mistoffolese. I have known very few people who knew how to love as completely as this very special cat.  I will miss him and all that he brought to my life.

This holiday season consider opening your home to a shelter animal. So many dogs and cats need a loving home and many shelters offer specials at this time of year on adoption and vet fees.

Building Stronger Relationships

It’s the rule of nature that all living things must grow to live. Relationships are living connections that require daily attention and nurturing. Like all living things, relationships must grow and expand in order to survive.

In the earliest stages of romance, lovers often wish they could freeze a perfect moment so they can stay in the embrace of those wonderful loving feelings. However, trying to hold on to love by freezing it in place is the surest way to kill it.

People change. Your life partner will not be the same person you married in five, ten or thirty years from now. He or she will constantly change to meet the demands of life. The key to a long and healthy relationship is to expect that change and encourage it by growing together.

The higher qualities of the Enneagram offer us a blueprint for exactly how we can nurture our most intimate relationship with the kind of attention that helps love grow:

Ennea-Point One: Goodness – Make a point every day to review the qualities you most admire in your mate. It is easy to fall into the habit of seeing only the faults. From the very beginning of your relationship, establish the habit of deliberately focusing your attention on the goodness in your partner. Find ways every day to let him or her know the many ways you respect and appreciate all he or she brings to you life. This is especially important for the times you are disappointed in your mate’s actions or choices.

Ennea-Point Two: Devotion – Make your relationship your highest priority. Strong relationships are built on devotion. You’ll have many demands on your time and attention throughout your life. Make it a daily habit to demonstrate with your actions that your partner is always number one with you.

Ennea-Point Three: Excellence – We can fall into the habit of taking our loved ones for granted. We start to relax our standards of dress, manners or simple courtesies.  We often reserve excellence for people we want to impress. Remind yourself often that the person you love the most deserves your best every day.

Ennea-Point Four: Depth – Strong relationships are built on intimacy. This is a willingness to share your vulnerabilities and ask for support. It’s also a willingness to listen and give support. It’s impossible to feel connected to someone who refuses to share his or her thoughts and feelings. Make it a habit to spend time with your partner every day talking and listening so the depth of intimacy can grow.

Ennea-Point Five: Clarity – Many people make the mistake of thinking a relationship is about getting all of your desires met on demand. Strong relationships are about building a life together. Develop a shared vision for what that life is going to be. Review your goals often to keep the clarity of purpose in your relationship. Be honest with your partner when your dreams start to shift so the relationship can grow and adapt with you.

Ennea-Point Six: Commitment – Being in a relationship is a commitment to the life you are building. Make a point to do nothing that will jeopardize that commitment. As you move through your life, many opportunities with present themselves. These include opportunities for career changes and new friendships. As you explore each one, remember that your relationship is your first commitment. Sometimes that means letting a few of those opportunities pass by.

Ennea-Point Seven: Joy – One of the greatest joys in your life will be your relationship with your mate. Find ways to express that joy with new experiences and challenges. Surprise your partner with small expressions of your love. Romance is kept alive by partners who never stop courting each other.

Ennea-Point Eight: Strength – In healthy relationships, partners draw strength from each other by sharing the responsibilities of the life they are building. Be willing to extend yourself without keeping a tally sheet of whose turn it is to do something. Be equally willing to ask for help when you need it. Relationships where one person is the “strong one” are out of balance and cannot grow as long as you are assigning roles to fill. Growth is only possible when both partners have the freedom to be strong sometimes and vulnerable at others.

Ennea-Point Nine: Healing – Expect that your partner will hurt you sometimes. No relationship survives, or grows, without hitting rough patches.  Be the first to say, “I’m sorry.”  Be willing to forgive mistakes when asked. Once a conflict is resolved, let it go and never bring it up again. Healing is essential for growth, but it only happens when mistakes are acknowledged, forgiven, and put away. The only thing you should remember about a mistake is the lesson they brought to your relationship.

In the first days of romance, the feelings are so strong it feels like your connection will last forever. Feelings change and as your relationship matures, love will also mature. When love is nurtured, each new expression is more wonderful and fulfilling than the last.

The mistake many people make is refusing to grow love beyond those first few months of connection. They mistake the excitement of a new relationship with love.

Love has many different ways of showing up in your life when you are open to allowing it. What the most successful couples know is that when you protect your connection to your mate by feeding your love with daily attention, everything else takes care of itself. No matter what is going on around you in your life, if the bond you have with your mate is strong and loving, even the worst problems are manageable.

Romantic Guidance from the Enneagram

My parents were married for 60 years. My father remarried recently, three years after Mom’s death. He and his new bride, both in their 80’s, had long, successful marriages and felt their life would be happier using those relationship skills again. They’re right. Most people are much happier when actively engaged in intimate relationships (romantic, family or close friends).

At the wedding, I was speaking with some of my nieces, who told me that it is nearly impossible to find a “good man” capable of the commitment my father has made twice in his life. A few days later, I heard the same complaint from some young men, who told me that there just aren’t any “good women” who are interested in marriage and raising a family.

The Unhappiness Myth of the Soulmate

Oh, the tortured quest for one’s soul mate that plagues young people. I’m glad those days are behind me.

I must confess. After being happily married for 32 years myself, I think the idea of a “soul mate” is a limiting, and in my opinion, a very silly belief. This happiness myth suggests that someone will swoop into your life, strike you dumbfounded, and magically complete you, filling all of the lonely corners of your soul.

Don’t misinterpret what I am saying. Marriage has been a wonderful experience for me and I can’t imagine my life without my husband. But, I think there are some strong misconceptions about how successful relationships work. These misconceptions will prevent you from finding and keeping a life partner until you decide to release them.

Marriage is about building a life together. It’s not some kind of emotional ATM that dispenses attention and devotion on demand. What people who have long and successful relationships know is that before you can be part of a happy couple, you must first be reasonably happy with yourself. In other words, the only person who can complete you, or fulfill you, is you.

Finding a Romantic Partner

That’s a nice thought, but most of us, both men and women, want to be part of a romantic couple. It’s no fun being complete all by your lonesome. When the relationship is good, we are happier being coupled with another. So, how does one go about finding the right romantic partner?

The way to attract someone to share your life is to develop good relationship skills. I know. That’s not a very sexy answer and it sounds a lot like work, but it’s true. When you fill yourself with fantasies of what should happen in a relationship, you overlook the genuine opportunities for commitment and companionship that come into your life. Before you can make room in your life for a mate, you have to be willing to give up the myths that interfere with successful relationships.

The Enneagram Guide to Avoiding Romantic Misery

The Enneagram offers guidance for building relationship skills. Many people read the Enneagram profiles to see how they match up. You can also use the defensive behavior patterns described by the Enneagram to observe your choices and actions. Each of us has the same psychological defenses described by the Enneagram Stress Arrows. Some are more dominant in your personality that others. You also have the seeds for all of the higher qualities of the Enneagram. By observing your defensive attitudes and behaviors, you give yourself the opportunity to choose a better, healthier way to develop relationships.

Here’s the nine ways we doom our relationships before they have a chance to grow. Does any of this sound familiar?

Ennea-Point One: The Myth of a Perfect Mate

Give up the idea of a perfect match. Finding a life partner does not involve a shopping list of “perfect” qualities to fit your fantasy. In reality, successful partners accept the weaknesses in themselves and their partners as part of the bond they share. Flaws are an opportunity to grow closer.

Ennea-Point Two: The Fulfillment Myth

Give up the idea that anyone will fulfill all of your desires for now and forever. Desires change as you grow. In mature relationships, partners share their dreams and desires, but it is your responsibility to fulfill your desires, not your partner’s.

Ennea-Point Three: The Myth of the Perfect Couple

Give up the idea that a relationship has anything to do with appearances. Successful partners focus on the priorities of the life they build together, and don’t worry about their image as a couple.

Ennea-Point Four: The Emotional Support Myth

Give up the idea that a life partner will always be there to help you manage, control, sort or otherwise handle your emotions. Successful relationships offer support, but the only person responsible for your emotional mastery is you.

Ennea-Point Five: The Best Friend Myth

Give up the idea that your mate must double as your best friend forever, sharing every moment of your life. No one person can fill all of your companionship needs. Successful partners have many friendships and support the friendships of their mate. They don’t limit their interests and growth to only what can be shared with their partner.

Ennea-Point Six: The ‘Monogamy is Unnatural’ Myth

Give up the idea that you can achieve intimacy with your mate if you are not willing to commit fully to the relationship. The happiest people are in healthy, successful long-term relationships that are based on trust and a shared commitment. Most humans, along with many other species in this world, fair better with monogamy.

Ennea-Point Seven: The Supportive Partner Myth

Give up the idea that your partner must be 100% supportive of everything you decide to try. Successful relationships thrive on respect and that includes differing perspectives. Support often means pointing out the flaws in your flight plan before you go jumping off a cliff.

Ennea-Point Eight: The Leadership Myth

Give up the idea that one partner is always in charge and the other follows. In successful relationships, both partners take the lead sometimes based on their strengths and skills.

Ennea-Point Nine: The Comfort Myth

Give up the idea that your mate will always make you feel safe and comfortable. No one is able to compensate for all of the unsettling things that happen in your life. In successful relationships, partners offer the help that they have to give without any expectation of being able to “fix everything.”

Cynical Romance

Romance is one of the great joys we experience in this life, and yet, I believe it is undervalued. We tend to focus on the flaws of our partners and how they don’t match up to the expectations we imagine in our fantasies. We talk about the 43% of first marriages that end in divorce, but what about the 57% who get it right? We cling to our relationship failures as evidence that “the good ones are all taken.” What about people like my father and his new bride who decide to find the good in another person after losing a long-term mate?

The Joy of Romantic Reality

Romance is much better in reality than in the realm of fantasy. It can make all of the difference to your happiness on days when life seems to be picking on you. It gives you someone to share the best moments of your life with someone who will genuinely rejoice with you.

However, no one is going to sweep into your life and take away all of your unhappiness with nothing but the sunshine of their presence. Next time you are watching a romantic movie, notice how the romance doesn’t really get started until both people give up their unreasonable expectations and start to connect to each other as people. Love has room to grow when we release all of our expectations of what should happen, and connect to the real opportunities for love that enter our life.

Next month, how the Enneagram can guide us through the troubled periods in our relationships. 

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