I once dated a man who always seemed, it felt, to find me lacking.
Needless to say, the relationship not only fizzled, but it exploded spectacularly — in part because I was so caught up on everything I thought he was unhappy about, and he was so caught up in everything he was upset about because I was thinking all of these things. It was a cycle, and my pre-existing insecurities certainly didn’t help. I felt pressured to try to live up to insane standards — standards I bitterly fought because I didn’t think they were standards that applied to my life — and it doomed us.
Maybe I was projecting. Maybe they were all my fears — all my worries that I was inadequate, that I wasn’t enough, that I wasn’t pretty or funny or engaging or the right girl — and I was simply too hedged on the idea that the person I was with would soothe those fears and placate me, remind me that I was good enough as-is. It was a juvenile notion, and a codependent one at that — after all, even just typing it out, I’m aware that it seems awfully wearisome to be with that kind of person who needs constant reassurance that yes, this is something good and real and they are good enough for you.
The inverse of this, you’d imagine, would be someone with whom you feel comfortable, and secure, and safe. Someone who you know loves you, who you know thinks you’re beautiful and witty and charming and attractive, someone who thinks they are lucky to have you. But herein lies the danger — such adoration can go to someone’s head very easily, and you can grow from comfortable to complacent in a heartbeat. Because when the compliments never stop coming and when it feels like the other person will forgive any number of your sins, that is where you can grow reckless and a little careless. After all, they love you no matter what, right?
But this is not something good people do, much less admit to. Maybe I’m not such a good person. Maybe none of us are at the outset. Maybe we’re constantly working towards the good, towards being better. And so, in working towards it, we try, at the very least, to be good and we do what we can.
So where is the happy medium, the fine line between feeling inadequate and taking someone for granted? There’s that old theory that every relationship involves a settler and a reacher; it may or may not be true. If it is, it suggests that one person might wind up feeling guilty for holding someone back, while the other might feel guilty for taking advantage of another person. Guilt and its corollary, resentment, are not what builds solid relationships, so where do we wind up? What happens? Sure, it’s easy enough to say to find someone who is your equal, but dating apps and blind date horror stories and romantic comedies and all the jokes ever penned about a person’s love life can tell you that doing so is rarely ever as simple as it sounds.
When you date someone who makes you want to be better, something funny happens. It’s not that they’re guilting you into being better — that they force you, or suggest with so many underhanded insults, or try to change you into something that you’re not. When you meet someone — whether they’re your equal or someone who, at first glance, you think falls somewhere on the settler-reacher spectrum — who drives you to want to be better, it’s not just because you think they deserve better. After all, who’s to say what we each deserve?
Wanting to be better doesn’t indicate that there was ever anything wrong with you, just that life is a process. We are constantly learning, constantly loving, and constantly applying the lessons we earn from the former to the latter. And so loving someone and helping them become better is not inherently a selfish endeavor. Love helps you realize potential. And if you can help someone recognize their own potential and then be their support system as they reach it, well, that’s love in action. That’s a partnership.
And when someone who loves us sparks that drive in us, it’s still something that we have to do. We have to provide the follow-through. We have to do the hard work. We have to want to be better, too — not just for them, but for us. For ourselves. For our own lives, for the knowledge that we’re being not only the best boyfriend or girlfriend or partner or lover that we can be, but also the best version of ourselves, too.
After all, if someone is with you, you’d hope that they like you, for all the cliches and trite song lyrics, just as you are. As is. No assembly required. But even the things that are complete all on their own — even the most self-sustaining and stable single people among us — can be made better. And that’s what a good relationship does. It takes two people who are good, and good for each other, and lets them lean one one another so that they can both grow to be better. And just like so many pairings throughout history, sometimes things really can just be that much better together.