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Relationship Maintenance: Little Mistakes, Big Consequences

Consider for a moment the universal law of details. Specifically, how critical details are to success, even survival. The law applies to everything in nature and perhaps even more importantly, everything human beings create that entails moving, dynamic elements. For example, where airplanes are concerned, no detail is too small to consider when it comes to maintenance, since one loose bolt can send an otherwise perfectly functional machine operated by supremely proficient pilots spiraling to the ground. In competitive figure skating - not to mention virtually every other form or athletics and art -- a single hand held at an improper angle for even the slightest moment can mean the difference between a medal and an early ticket home. One tiny typographical error on a resume can derail an entire career before it begins. Where the human body is concerned, even the fittest of us will end up in the ICU if someone doesn't notice a tiny anomaly during an otherwise routine physical exam. Many of the details of life are beyond our ability to understand or influence, but where our relationships are concerned, especially those in our immediate family, details often define the fine line between fully functional bliss and the rocky road of dysfunction.

Two other natural laws come to bear on the role of details in the success or failure of relationships, and they are the reasons most relationships fail. They are the natural tendency of the familiar to (as the saying goes) breed contempt, and the illusion that maintenance is not required because everything is going along just fine. Little things that bother us - from the proverbial toothpaste cap issue to an unhealthy or self-serving habit - can seem too inconsequential to mention, so we file them away in a dark little folder labeled "It happened again," and try not to let it bother us. Bringing it up would make us seem petty, or might trigger some form of defensiveness that dredges up other issues, so it's best and certainly easiest if remains unacknowledged. Over time, though, this nasty little file gets thick and bears destructive weight, the result being a strain on the infrastructure of the relationship. The only alternative to facing these issues is to turn away from them, which contributes to a whole new set of consequences that erodes intimacy and self-respect, which are the lifeblood of healthy family relationships.

The roster of little relationship-eroding details is long and varied, with different slants relative to spouses, parents, grandparents and children. Double standards, selfish thinking, issues of health, hygiene and common courtesy, money management, time management, careers, sexual proclivities, tone, and a world view in general, are all things that rarely exist in a vacuum, each touches the lives of those who live with us. Less important than the specifics of what the things that bother you are is the commonality of their consequences - in a word, resentment. Resentment is the great poison of relationships because it festers over time. Children resent their parents for what they perceive is hypocrisy. Parents resent their children for what they perceive is ingratitude. Spouses resent spouses for so many things you'd need an entire season of a primetime soap opera to cover them all. But in each case it is the accumulation of unacknowledged, acidic details that casts a shadow over the household -- what was once an easily-faced and quelled issue becomes, over time, an element of character, and history has proven that it is far easier to fix an issue than it is the corrupt character of another. Relationship details are a can of worms, one that benefits from regular attention and the courage to not simply file them away.

Just as resentment is the common poison that leeches joy from relationships, there is a common fix, as well: communication. Families must proactively make the time to work on their relationships, to talk about them openly, with equal parts love and courage, and to do what is necessary to tighten the nuts and bolts that holds the family machine together. When an issue is larger than the ability to deal with it successfully, there are plenty of resources out there to help bring clarity and comfort, and to mend the tiny wounds that tended relationship details can inflict. Resentment is a wound that can be healed, but left untreated it is a wound that festers.

Very little about the human experience is as complex as the nature of our relationships, yet they are built upon a foundation that is nothing if not simple: commitment, bound by love, and honed over time by wisdom. Fortunately, the nature of primary relationships is such that, hopefully, a small defect won't send the ship to the bottom (large cracks, however, are always potential deal breakers). It's called forgiveness, something that airframe dynamics, figure skating judges and temperamental resume readers don't have in abundance. But where relationship details are concerned, time is the enemy, because it can turn the molehill into a mountain and the un-lowered toilet seat into a date with a divorce lawyer, because it symbolizes something the unhappy partner no longer believes can be repaired.

The fix is easy. Just open the file and start talking, and trust that the equity of what you've built together will cushion the impact of whatever truth it is you are facing.

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