While traveling this year, I met a couple in their sixties who invited me to share a dinner with them. They had married 8 years ago — second time for him, first for her — and were writing a book about marriage. How it ‘happened’ to them, even though it was not in their plan at first and how long of a process it had been, too. They talked about how necessary it is for them to recognize the importance of God in their marriage of spirit as a third party who guides and unites them, so that they don’t lose their way when fighting. We talked about how having a force to humble to was critical in the balance of a relationship.
I did not grow up in a religious environment and it was a novel idea to me, one that we did not speak about with my friends or family and I could not shake the idea that my relationships — and those I saw around me — were sometimes missing this component of humbling one self to meet the other.
Our culture pushes us for individuality in a way that easily promotes an inflated ego. It tells us we have to outperform and shine brighter than others in order to be loved, recognized and perhaps admired. Fame and achievement are indicators of how well we are doing for ourselves. But really, how could this NOT impact our relationships?
When we develop such an ego and pride, when vulnerability and failure are seen as weaknesses — are we able to humble ourselves and open our heart?
Can we switch naturally from daytime warrior and competitor to putting someone’s well-being before our own and gently soothe their bad moods when it screwed our day up? How many people in our millennial tech-oriented social media imbued generation can sincerely say: I accept someone exactly as they are and love them, baggage, failures, shortcomings and all, and will stick by them?
We all want the best for ourselves and for the ones we love. We have an infinite swiping power at our fingertips and filters of preferences in our apps. We can always meet someone who will offer a feature in an area the previous person lacked, we don’t have to deal with red flags or inconveniences because we know someone out there, in the great pool that are modern cities, will be more compatible on a particular dimension. So yes, we look for the best possible person, because we are worth it. We were told we could be anything, that we deserve the absolute best, that we deserve happiness. We were sold a Disney romance and horse rides on the beach, anything less seems unfortunate or a poor choice. And if the person has things to work through, horrible taste in shoes or a narcissistic mother, then maybe we don’t have to put up with it.
But in the end, why isn’t good enough, good enough?
We are taught and pushed towards perfection, towards a projected image that conforms to a societal definition of success. I’ve often felt paralyzed by this projection, both because I felt I didn’t — couldn’t possibly — fulfill my partner’s expectations of being the perfect girlfriend he had in his mind; but also because I realized I saw my partners as the sum of their parts. I would notice what I like, what I don’t like about them and would pursue a further relationship based on the results of this imaginary checklist. When I felt let down or mistreated, I heard ‘you deserve better’ from my friends and family. I was deeply entrenched in a mindset of expectations where I deserved better without questioning what the person was getting in return.
Only when I fell in love as an adult did I understand what it is to truly love someone as a whole entity — shortcomings, failures, warts and all, and wanting to stick by them through the toughest times and even if they didn’t feel the same for me. But that wasn’t automatic and it took a heartbreak and time to understand. I was frustrated for a time that I had been taught to be individualistic in my expectations and that my surrounding had put little value on introspection and growth. I had been rewarded for outward achievements but my teachers at school, my parents or my boss had not been very vocal in encouraging me to unlock a deeper level of self knowledge or to understand relationship dynamics.
A painful heartbreak made me wonder how to create relationships based on authentic connection and openness. How can we open a heart that has been closed for so long? I learned about the topic for a year like it was my job, I read books and articles, listened to podcasts, exchanged with friends, teachers and strangers and went to therapy. In the end, I think it comes down to one simple notion: self-compassion. It might sound counter productive to combat ego with more focus on self, but I am talking about acceptance, love and kindness — a healthy type of self love which enables to receive and to give even more to others, without judgement or expectations.
Being open and vulnerable takes courage. If you have ever been hurt before, you know it is a reactive defense to simply shut down to avoid being hurt again — much like you wouldn’t touch a hot stove once you’ve burnt your fingers. In an age were not caring is cool, dating several people at the same time is normal and where we cover our want of a serious relationship so as to not be perceived as needy, I don’t blame anyone for not putting their heart on the line.
Developing self compassion is crucial to opening our heart, it strengthens our core, allows us to create meaningful relationships and to take more risks because we know that no matter what happens, we will have the nurturing and love we need — from ourselves. And we don’t depend on anyone else.
And suddenly, it is easier to open up and create real and deep connections with our loved ones, because we always have this safety net.
My theory is that we treat our partners as well as we treat ourselves. Highly self critical individuals tend to criticize their partners and feel criticized in return, as they are used to. The answer then is: treat yourself better. Treat yourself with love, acceptance and compassion. Then you will be able to open your heart and treat your close ones better too, to create meaningful and loving, equal relationships.
I thought about the couple who turned to God when they were fighting. The man had also said: ‘it is better to spend one day with the right person, than a lifetime with the wrong one’.
I came to the conclusion that a long lasting loving relationship is not necessarily a question of finding the right person who will fit our mental checklist, or of bowing down to a spiritual entity to keep a relationship on its path. It is a question of whether we can love ourselves enough to take the risk of quieting our ego and opening our heart to someone else — as an equal, and being treated back as an equal rather than someone to compete against.
The right person we want to spend our life with and the first one we should open our hearts to, is our own. The rest will follow.