Choosing a life partner has a lot in common with buying a house.
Both are high stake, difficult-to-reverse decisions. Things get a lot more straightforward when you are clear on what you value. And whatever you end up with, there is always going to be some maintenance work involved.
Attention grabbing comparisons aside, in reality, the two decisions don’t really rival in significance. For most of us, choosing a life partner is the most important decision we ever make.
And advice doesn’t come much better than the following, click-baitely titled article which came into my view earlier this week:
The article, written by Psychologist, Duncan Riatch is rich with insights for everyone who has ever suffered inside (or outside) of a relationship.
Here are some central lessons from his experience, which I interpreted through the lens of my own.
1. KNOW YOURSELF REALLY WELL FIRST
If the article could be summarized in a single message, it would be this.
I recommend not getting married, which is, by definition, a life-long commitment, until you’ve done a lot of inner work.
The author explains how he changed drastically during his twenties, which meant that the whole relationship dynamic changed.
I was a child when I got married, and even more of a child when I got engaged. Not only did I not know what I wanted, or even who I was, but I didn’t have the ability to be aware of my emotions, or to know what I felt about my thoughts.
He describes how his self-understanding raised a level once he begun to to do personal growth activities. Previously the problem solver, he stopped wanting everything to go smoothly anymore and just doing what his wife wanted.
In any relationship, the partners mesh together like a pair of cogs, with teeth interleaved. When one of the people starts to change, it can wreak havoc on the relationship. In that marriage it did.
My own take: change isn’t bad – it’s necessary in fact. We emerge from the childhood and teenage years with specific mental limitations (war scars!) Part of our growth is becoming aware of those, and rediscovering who we are.
Relationships that are established during those formative years in our development are by definition based on individuals acting out roles that have been influenced by those war wounds. And so any personal change inevitably causes significant friction.
And unless we learn to embrace the changes in each other, a relationship can’t stay healthy.
IF IT’S TOO LATE FOR THAT – DECIDE WHETHER YOU’RE WILLING TO RECOMMIT TO THIS PERSON AS THEY ARE AND YOU ARE
I used to think that getting your wedding vows reaffirmed was an unnecessary exercise in narcissism. Now I totally get it.
If a partnership does survive changes in both people, there is probably no point in trying to go back to how things were. As with life after a disclosed infidelity, the relationship has to be established anew.
I believe that everything worth salvaging is salvageable. And that intention and commitment trump easy compatibility and attraction every single time.
2. DON’T DO WHAT YOU ‘SHOULD’ DO
True partnership is based out of choice and not need. That’s something we don’t even know how to do until we learn to choose ourselves. And we choose ourselves by being selfish for a while – figuring out what we like and don’t like, and how to make ourselves content. That is how we develop emotional self sufficiency and responsibility, which is the only base from which to cultivate healthy interdependence.
Before we can take care of anyone else, we have to put our own feelings first. How do we get our own needs met? How do we ask for that? Although everyone struggles with this, some personality types have a more challenging time; they naturally want to place the desires of their partners ahead. However, doing so sets the relationship up for defeat further down the line, as repressed desires and needs bubble over into resentment.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MAKING ROOM FOR FEELINGS
If you read this blog a lot, you’ll recognise this as a reoccurring theme. We all need to make room to feel what we have to feel, no apologies. It is fundamental to wellbeing.
Being honest with ourselves about our feelings extends a lot further than helping us with relationships. That said, it is the only way to create relationships that have integrity and authenticity. The opposite is just living lies. Here’s Duncan:
If I had stood my ground, if I had spent time feeling what I wanted, validating it, and enjoying the empowered feelings associated with that, I would have made very different decisions. The outcomes would have been very different, and probably much more in alignment with what I truly wanted. Perhaps the outcomes would have been less destructive for everyone, including my son, and including myself.
“Right” is just a dead mental concept.
There is a brutalising effect to living according to external values – especially of the religious variety. ‘Shoud-ing’ on ourselves inevitably creates the kinds of internal conflicts that make sustaining a relationship – which is already challenging enough – even more challenging.
3. SUCCESS IS HIGHLY, HIGHLY SUBJECTIVE
The author makes the point that he views his failed marriage as a success, a point which resonates with me as I reflect on my own romantic history. Even though some stuff has been hard, I genuinely feel fortunate for the lessons and learning that have contributed to my own self understanding and contentment now.
All relationships have a natural end. For some relationships the end comes with death. For others the end comes with separation or divorce. It might seem that some relationships would have been even more successful had they ended sooner, with less suffering and hurt. However, relationships always end when they do, and when they do turns out to be when one or both people understand that they should.
This is reminiscent of the Taoist principle of ‘going with the flow’; a sort of active passivism of not resisting too hard against the natural cycle of things. Relationships, too, have a natural cycle. And the less we resist that, the more peacefulness we can experience during whatever changes happen.
And we all know change is inevitable.
4. CULTIVATE EXCELLENT FRIENDSHIPS
Having quality friendships is really useful in providing perspective when inside a relationship. Our friendships (hopefully) set a standard for what love that is based on choice and not need feels like and how it looks.
I began to realize that I didn’t want to be with her either. It was like I was waking up from a deep sleep. I hadn’t realized how unpleasant it had been for me to be with her. It had been constantly painful for years.
Our friendships are also a source of strength when it comes to ending relationships. Having good friends helps ensures that the decisions you do make aren’t fear led.
The world is full of people who are waiting to give you love and compassion. Seek them out, enjoy them, and celebrate them. Don’t waste your life being stuck with people with whom you’re not compatible, with whom you don’t mesh.
5. BEWARE OF LIMERENCE (EXAMINE YOUR ATTRACTIONS)
Limerence is just another word for infatuation. Realistically, I’d say that relatively few of us marry based on limerence. You’d have to be really unaware for that to happen.
Sometimes though, there is dysfunction at play when it comes to our romantic attractions. And the more attraction situations you have faced, the more easily you can start to distinguish those. Here’s Duncan:
What’s happening is that your unconscious, disowned parts see an opportunity to get into a protracted battle with their unconscious, disowned parts.
One of the main things I have learned from starting and ending many relationships is this fundamental truth: this one is not “the one” (there is no “the one”). No matter how special they might seem, no matter how much I put them on a pedestal, sooner or later I’m going to learn the truth that they’re just another human. They’re struggling through life too, and I’m going to be challenged to love them warts-and-all. I’m going to be challenged to love the parts of myself that I have disowned. I’m going to have to learn to love the parts of myself that I have projected onto this other person.
No one is guaranteed, or entitled to, relationship success. However, we give ourselves the greatest chance of that when we know ourselves to the best degree possible. Including all the ugly stuff.
I’ll leave you with this parting shot from Duncan:
Spend your twenties getting to know who you are and what you want. If your twenties are in the past, then start now.