Reaching Back When Your Lover Falls Behind

by: Gary Stokes

In marriage, one of us is at least a bit ahead of the other at any particular moment. And some of the time, one of us is quite a bit ahead.

The partner who is ahead needs to reach back and help the other catch up.

It’s the nature of the love relationship that one partner has more awareness,

more love, more skill in the marriage, more energy, or more joy for life, at least right now. 

I remember a point in my marriage when I was behind my wife, Mary. I was miserable as I wrestled with a work relationship that had gone awry. I was angry at a colleague, not noticing my own self-pity and not able to see through the victim story I had concocted to explain my angst.


Meanwhile, Mary was enjoying her life, light-heartedness, living in the moment with joy and gratitude.

She was on, and I was off.

I observed enviously how well she was doing compared to me and said, “How come you’re so happy and I’m so depressed?”

I was feeling humble and asked her to help me learn whatever I needed to learn so I could be happy like her.

She reached back, spent many days and weeks patiently talking to me about my self-pity, and helped me emerge into a new level of awareness. Thanks to her generosity and love, I caught up with her.

If we don’t reach back, a Grand Canyon can open between us

There are several reasons why we don’t reach back when our partners fall behind:

  1. We don’t know what is happening. We may think our partner is just going through a challenging period. We think we should be tolerant. Or we may think our partner is being difficult for some reason that we don’t understand.

We’re worried and confused, and we wonder what happened to the happy person we married.


  1. We have the mistaken notion that we should not try to change our partner.


  1. We don’t know how to approach our partner. We’ve met resistance when we tried to probe the problem, so we backed away. We don’t want to seem critical, and we’re unsure about how to talk to our partner in a way that avoids an argument.

The art of reaching back

Reaching back to a partner or spouse is an art.

Our high divorce rate suggests that many of us haven’t practiced this art, so one partner gave up on the learning capacity of the other and moved on.

Or couples stay married, the marriage now a blend of neuroses and reluctant accommodations.

To become masters of reaching back in your marriage, focus on:

vGaining agreement that the highest purpose of your marriage is learning how to love. In my interviews with married couples all over the U.S., I ask, “ What is the purpose of your marriage?” The most frequent answers are companionship, raising a family, and creating a happy life together.

A small percentage of married people say that the top purpose of their marriage is to grow and develop together.

Once we agree that we are together to learn how to love, we embark on a great adventure together, a dynamic partnership in which we shine our light into each others dark corners.

We need this feedback and we invite it, even though it will be very uncomfortable to expose our lack of consciousness about certain things.

Some of the time, we want to change each other because we both have unrealized potential that we want to bring into manifestation.

I know Mary loves me when she sees my potential to love more fully and goes after it.

vPracticing the art of giving feedback and receiving it. We would all love to have a partner or spouse who is so courageous and open that he or she says, “How can I be more loving? What do I need to learn? What patterns of thinking and behaving need my examination, growth and development?”

But most of us have not arrived at this enlightened stage yet, so we have to practice.

In reaching back to your partner when you’re ahead, you will be gentle, but clear and persistent. Years ago, Mary had to tell me every time I was critical of her or other people.

Even though I made excuses or insisted on some other explanation for the critical remark I had just made, she trusted her own perceptions and refused to back off.

Luckily for me, because my slow learning about criticism must have discouraged her. But she kept shining her light into my dark corner and I finally got it.

We are learning the art of reaching back. This is love in action.

Gary Stokes was founder and CEO of a national laboratory testing new strategies for the development of children and families in poverty. He has coached hundreds of leaders who are working to build stronger families, including Presidential appointees and other top executives in government and education. His recent book, Poise: A Warrior’s Guide, charts a path toward a vibrant life of joy and practical advantage. He maps the universe of poise on his blog, http://thepoisedlife.com/

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