I have many friends old and young, gay and straight and asexual and polyamorous, every color, from every culture, and above and beyond them all being humans, there is another characteristic that unites them—they are all searching for someone (or multiple someones) to be with. And even deeper than that? They are looking to be understood by this someone(s), understood and most of all accepted for who they are. As most of you reading know, this can be a very messy and painful process.
I want to disclose that I’ve been married for four years and been with my husband for almost nine years. I was lucky- lucky to find my “someone” as young as I did, lucky that we’ve been growing in the same direction, lucky we are willing to learn alongside each other about who we are and who are evolving to be. I’m also lucky to have not been jaded by any extremely painful relationship breakups previous to the one I’m in now and have been in since I was 18. I realize that this disclosure may make some people think I have no credibility to offer them advice with their more advanced years and experience in dating and relationships. Admittedly, maybe I don’t…but, let’s be honest- I’m not still searching, so maybe I’m doing something right. My parents met in their teens and have been together for 35 years and both sets of grandparents were together for more than 50 years until death did them part, so I’ve had my fair share of great role models when it comes to relationships. I’ve also witnessed many of my friends in relationships that didn’t work out (and some that did of course) and have observed some patterns of positive/successful and negative/unsuccessful relationships. Without further adieu, here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1) Figure out who you are first.
That sentence makes it sound so simple, but believe me- I know it is not. One reason figuring out who you are is difficult is because we seem to always be in flux, changing from one moment to the next. And yes, it is true- the me ten years ago is in my opinion a totally different me than I am now. However, when I look deeper than my friends and hobbies and interests, there are aspects of me that have not changed. I have always been a pessimist, for instance. I have tried to change that, but it has not been fruitful. I have always felt as though I was an old soul in a young body, and throughout the years, I continue to feel as though my mind ages quicker than my body. I have thus always been attracted to others who feel similarly. I have always yearned for central stability- financially, emotionally, physically- and repelled any act of impulsiveness (though it does sound like a more fun way of living sometimes). I saved my money for months and years in order to comfortably afford what I wanted even when I was a child. I had no trouble delaying gratification or having extreme amounts of self-discipline. I could keep going with this list. I’m sure if you meditate on yourself- the deeper traits that make up who you are- you will soon come up with a list as well of things about you that have not changed through the years.
This list is essential to understanding 1) who will best understand you and 2) who you will best understand. The reason for this is because though opposites attract in terms of more superficial traits (like being organized or messy, homebody or life of the party), the more fundamental character traits need to complement each other or major problems are likely going to crop up. For example, how many times have you seen a happy couple where one partner’s religion is very important to them, but the other partner was brought up in a different faith and going to religious functions is the last thing on their to-do list? I only know of one. Another example: One partner who wants children and one who does not. Both of these examples portray two people whose image of their future and world outlook is inherently different and is more likely to cause problems than two people who are, for instance, not complementary in their desire to be tidy or messy.
2) If you have one bad relationship, it might be a bad apple. But if you have a string of bad relationships (especially with similar failures)…hate to break it to you, but it’s probably you.
I’m not trying to be mean, but the above statement is true. Don’t we all have a friend who we want to support, but part of us just wants to tell them “Look, you keep dating the same guy!” I’ve noticed a pattern of women (young and old) who continue to be attracted to the “bad boy” and continue to be wooed by the impulsive money spent on them, extravagant gifts and vacations, and constant sense of thrill and mystery. Many of these women expect the impulsiveness, fun, and thrill to continue through a dating relationship and then to morph into perfect husband or father material. They think a naturally impulsive person will suddenly want to begin saving when a ring or a child comes into the picture or that the fun will continue to be the same while throwing up with a stomach flu. I understand that there is a time for fun, impulsiveness, thrill and mystery. But what I’ve found is that far and wide, people don’t change very much (unless they really *really* want to—and not because you want them to either). So before going into a relationship and expending time and energy and pieces of yourself on it, consider who this person is now and who they will continue to be in 10,15,20 years and whether that is a person you think you will still want to be with at that time given what you want for your future. When we accept a long-term relationship as a commitment, we are saying to the person “I love you as you are and I will continue to love you and see and understand you- warts and all.” If you can’t say that to the person you are dating (and keep dating), find someone you can.
3) No one is perfect, even you.
Did you really need it said? When you are in love, love goggles make you think the person in front of you is perfect. You ignore the things that grow to bother you later in the relationship, once the “honeymoon phase” is over. This love is only the initial phase of love, the blinding love. The best kind of love, the real love, is the love that sees you at your most vulnerable, your sickest, your most hurt and hurtful, and understands who you are and why you are the way you are- and accepts this. Does a person who loves you love everything about you? I guarantee you that the answer is no. They just know that you as an entity are the package- and that inherently comes with baggage. They take the bad with the good, because the good is perfect for them. That aside, our partner also has a view into us that no one else in our life has. So if they tell you to consider another viewpoint or tell you something that feels very painful and raw…maybe it’s true. You aren’t perfect. Neither are they. But as a partnership, you can help each other be the best people you can be as mirrors of our best and our worst traits.
4) Don’t compromise. (Really!)
I had always been advised by others in relationships that the key to relationships is compromise. But when I looked up what the word really meant, I was confused. I had always thought these people meant that sometimes someone “wins” and other times they “lose.” The definition of compromise is “an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.” So compromise means that both people lose. It isn’t what sounded or felt right to me. If we are both unhappy in order to resolve a fight, what good is that? I decided to never compromise on the big things, but instead to figure out who the fight is more important to and discuss openly what each person hopes to gain. And unlike all those people who say “don’t go to sleep angry”….well, we sleep on it. It gives my husband and I time to process our disagreement without being swept into emotions. If it’s really an important fight, it requires some thought to resolve. If you wake up and can’t remember what you fought about, it wasn’t important enough to continue. In order to decide how much a fight matters to each of you, you can either discuss it openly or last resort- each rate it on a scale from 1-10 and talk about it. Communication is obviously key, but make sure you do not give up things that really matter to you and also consider the other person’s needs and wants to make a decision that everyone is *happy* with. You may even determine a hidden third option that doesn’t remove anyone’s desires from the equation.
5) Love Hurts.
Hollywood romances are not real. We all know they aren’t real (logically), but emotionally, we all want a partner like those on the screen. We want a beautiful and sensuous love/lust to propel us through an entire lifetime without ever having a fight or hurting each other. We want to be seamlessly accepted into one another’s families and friend groups. We want to have amazing sex, take luxurious vacations, and never consider finances. But love is not enough, finances are always a concern, family and friends will not love your partner as much as you love them, sex will not always be amazing…and worst of all, you will hurt each other. Do you know why? Because in order to have someone understand and accept you, you have to show them who you are. And in showing them who you are, you are providing them with weapons- weapons they may use against you when they are weak and vulnerable against you. If there is a couple in the world who can say they have never had a fight or hurt each other, I will show you a couple who has not put their whole selves on the table. And I will also show you a couple who is missing out. Because you have to put it out there- you have to show them- to get real love, real connection, and real strength. Without this, you are just two people living in two worlds, sharing bits and pieces of a life you have created under a facade. You work to keep up the facade instead of risking rejection or hurt. Instead, you hurt all the time being someone you are not… Real love is worth hurting for. I promise.
6) Real love grows with the years, while lust is quickly extinguished.
People talk about “real” love, and I suppose everyone’s opinion of real love is different. My opinion? Real love is one that has always felt natural, from day one. It is a love that never makes you question your partner’s commitment to you. It is a love that becomes something much much deeper over the years. As you watch your partner’s face changing, real love allows you to keep seeing them in new ways- and smile more because of it. Real love is when you’ve finally accepted that your partner’s dirty socks will always be on the floor in the morning- and there is no point in bringing it up again because that’s obviously just who they are. It is also picking up one’s dirty socks because you know the other partner gets pissed every time they see it. Real love is making each other grow as individuals and asking the hard questions. Real love is making the hard decisions. Real love is sometimes hating your partner’s guts, but knowing in the same moment you still love them as much as you want to kind of kill them right now. Real love is not always happy; in fact, real love is there in the saddest of times and the silliest of times too. Real love involves embarrassingly telling your spouse that you have a crush on someone else and them smiling and saying “It’s okay, sometimes I have crushes too, but you’re more than a crush and you are important.” Real love is being with someone for 50 years and still thinking “There are never enough years in my life of being with you.” Real love is a constant, something that doesn’t need to be questioned or explained or justified. It just is.
I spent 18 years of my life entirely single. I know that isn’t long and relationships in middle school and high school rarely work out anyway, but for the longest time, a relationship is all I really wanted (and of course, always with unattainable people). The most amazing thing happened when I got to college. I didn’t care anymore. I was having way too much fun with my new friends and auditioning for plays and dance companies and learning new things and taking on new hobbies and finally for once in my life- being accepted as myself. I stopped thinking about dating or relationships and decided I would just enjoy myself and having someone else didn’t matter. I was a means in myself; I didn’t need another to complete myself. My now-husband was meanwhile in the same boat. He had been working on himself: learning tai chi and understanding himself better. We both had profiles on Match.com which had been sitting there for months to years (years in my case, months in his) without success and were both very close to cancelling our accounts. And then, on a whim, I winked at his profile. He looked cute and his profile was thoughtful (as opposed to 99% of the other profiles); I thought nothing of any follow-up. And then I received a response from him that took my breath away. And there went my not caring about being in a relationship. The right person came along, and there we were…attached. There were no fireworks, no blind dates, no romantic meeting in a coffee shop. It took both of us feeling “complete” to bring us together.
I’m not using any scientific method to prove my point, but I’ve certainly met a number of other people who actively searched for many more years than I did for a partner, and the minute they stopped caring and decided they could honestly be alone in life and be happy, they met someone that turned their world upside down. I know that the last thing someone wants to hear after they have been searching for so long is “Stop searching (emotionally) and work on you.” But I think it’s true. It doesn’t mean give up. It means find completeness in you. The person who finds you attractive in this state will love who you truly are, not the persona you wanted people to see while you were actively searching.
8) You can’t expect one person to complete you or fulfill every relationship role (ex: lover, friend, person to go to the clubs with, etc).
It used to be a long, long time ago that relationships (specifically marriages) were merely contractual agreements to be bonded financially and have children. Love did not enter the picture. Therefore, people would very regularly have other “love” relationships outside of their marriage in addition to friendships with others. In this construct, it was easy to have a more logical and responsible relationship with one’s husband/wife, while also having a less responsible but more fun and impulsive relationship outside of this. Friendships were also very important to a person’s happiness, as this is where a person could be most themselves. Nowadays, it seems we keep heaping more and more responsibility, expectations, and roles onto our partners. We want them to provide and be responsible with finances, take care of children, take on household tasks, be our best friend and confidante, be fun and carefree and impulsive, and also want us all the time as lovers. Not only is it hard to accomplish all of these roles in general, some of these roles conflict. For instance, when we watch our partner being strong and sufficient (or just plain dirty/tired) in taking care of children all day or doing the dishes or telling us about their warts they went to the doctor for, it may be difficult to want them in bed. Instead of wanting our partner to “complete” us, it may be better to pick and choose what roles are most important and necessary for them to take on. If they don’t enjoy comedy clubs but you love them, for instance, give them a night to themselves and go out with some friends who can share the experience with you. Make some nights all about being fun, some nights about finances and serious talk. When allocated, it becomes easier to compartmentalize different roles.
9) Find a passion you can both appreciate.
My husband and I discovered rock climbing together, but I don’t think rock climbing is the only avenue where a shared passion will help to continue sparking a relationship. Though it is of course important to have your own passions separately, when you share in a passion together, it is easier to continue growing in the same direction. It also provides for built-in “together” time where you are both engaged and involved with each other (or at least with whatever the shared passion is side by side) and shared friendships.
10) Don’t “need” your spouse; choose them.
I’ve noticed many people stay in relationships they are unhappy with because they feel they need the other person emotionally or financially. Though my mom has been happily married for 35 years to my dad, she always instilled in me that I should be able to be financially sufficient on my own “just in case.” Though I didn’t like the “just in case” concept (because I didn’t like the idea of planning for a possible divorce), I did take the idea of being sufficient on my own financially to heart and extended it to emotionally as well. I think that whether or not it is actually needed, it increases the confidence of people in relationships if they know they are not dependent on each other emotionally or financially. In this light, both people are in the relationship only because they love each other, not because they at some point feel obligated (though I do understand adding kids into the situation changes things slightly).
11) All great relationships are work.
With the divorce rate close to 50% in 2014 per the CDC, it always makes me wonder what it is that causes people to split up so frequently. Is it cheating, illness, financial issues, the stress of kids, generally “growing apart,” or something else? Based on my very unscientific experience, it seems like very often it is just generally “growing apart.” I am convinced (again, through my very unscientific analysis with an “n” of friends and acquaintances in my life) that many of these relationships could be brought back together again if only their perspective was altered slightly to realize that all good (especially great) relationships require feeding and work. What you inject into the relationship is very much the product you will get out, so if you think love alone is what will keep you and your partner growing in the same direction, you may be in for a surprise. Growth also requires work, so you can deduce that stagnancy will lead to the “same old, same old,” which many people take as “I’m not in love with this person anymore because they aren’t ___ anymore.” Not to get too metaphorical on you, but a flame also requires feeding or it dies too. If you are not feeding your relationship like the flame it is, it’s intrigue will continue to degrade with your love..or at least lead to a very boring relationship.
12) You only need one to work out.
Dan Savage (sex ed columnist) once responded to a person complaining that they’ve had X number of failed relationships with “Every relationship you are in will fail until one doesn’t.” It sounds so obvious, but it does seem like people think they have failed themselves or are doomed to die single when they haven’t concluded their search after dating a certain number of people. You haven’t failed; you’re just working through the pool of potential people. Perhaps you are looking in the wrong place if you aren’t finding enough potentials, but yes, they will all fail…until one doesn’t. That one is the only thing that matters. So keep kissing the frogs (and keeping an open mind) until you find your prince.