When Do You Actually “Know” Someone?

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I recently read an interesting post over at Lisa Arends excellent blog, lessonsfromtheendofamarriage.com, where she discusses a number of misconceptions about marriage (and relationships in general).

Her first “misconception” really got me thinking, and it’s about how long it takes to “get to know someone” before you know the relationship is solid enough to consider something like marriage.

I won’t rehash her post as you can give it a read on your own.  But I do want to explore this idea of getting to know another person, and how long it can and potentially should take; not just for marriage but also before relationships “go through milestones”.

 

First, what are some of the milestones that relationships go through?   Off the top of my head, here’s a quick list (that I’m sure is missing some important things) in an order that is probably fairly common:

  • Holding hands
  • Kissing
  • Sex
  • Spending the night together (which may or may not include sex, but let’s be honest, probably does)
  • Introductions to friends
  • First fight
  • Meeting the parents
  • Living together
  • Making major purchases together
  • Marriage

 

Notice that I didn’t include “getting to know someone” as a milestone?

I left it off because there is no event or milestone for getting to know someone.  Getting to know someone is a continuous process that will probably go on for your whole life (or at least the duration of the relationship); I don’t think it’s something you ever finish.

You can never fully know another person, because they are always growing and changing.  Hell, I don’t think you ever fully know yourself!  I’m 43 this year, and consider myself to be a pretty self-aware guy.  But even now events occur that change me, in ways both big and small.  Sometimes things happen and how I respond surprises me.  So if I can even surprise myself sometimes, it’s a pretty safe bet someone else will never be able to accurately predict everything I will do.

We are always growing, and changing.  And our partners are too.

 

If accepting that continuous growth and change means we will never fully know our partner, the question becomes when do we know them enough (for whatever the next step in our relationship is)?

Going back to my list of relationship milestones, when do we know them enough to hold hands?  For the first kiss?  To have sex?  To meet the parents?  To get married?

Does it depend on the number of days/weeks you’ve known each other?  The number of hours you’ve spent together?  The things you’ve shared?

 

Looking at these milestones I’m not convinced there’s a “right” way to do this, or a “right” timeframe.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a fairly common flow here.  I would say in most cases, a couple will at least kiss and hold hands before having sex.  The time gap between those things could be counted in months, weeks, or it could be counted in minutes.

If you somehow are having sex before kissing or holding hands, then you’ve probably got some sort of Pretty Woman thing happening where you’ve fallen in love with a prostitute.  Probably not common, but hey – if it’s happened to you who am I to judge?

Meeting friends, parents, living together – these are all things you probably don’t do until you have a belief the relationship has a shot at lasting a while.

And marriage (for those who go down that road) is something you REALLY shouldn’t do until you feel you know the other person fairly well; and have a high degree of confidence the relationship will make it.

But looking at marriage – what’s the “right” time?  How long do you need to know someone before you can feel you know them enough to have that confidence and make that sort of decision?

A year?  Two years?  Twenty?

 

I’ve seen it recommended that you should wait one of two years before getting married, and I guess that makes sense.

But I know a couple who were engaged on their first date, and 50 years later they are still together.  I can’t say I would recommend that, and statistically the chances of success are pretty slim.  But for them it worked.

I also know a couple who dated for almost 20 years before getting married (and are still together).

I know couples who dated for the commonly recommended one to two years and are happy 20+ years later.  I know others who married after two years and divorced a few years later.

 

Here’s the thing …

Almost 50% of marriages end in divorce, and often the very characteristics that endeared people to each other as they “got to know each other” in the first place are ones that contribute significantly to the relationship falling apart.

So it’s not like there’s some magic way of measuring whether or not you know each other “enough” for things to work out.

Things sometimes go wrong.  Relationships don’t always work out.

 

So, what do you do?

It seems obvious that how well you know someone DOES matter.  But how do you best position your relationship to succeed?

 

Let’s start with you.

If you need to know someone, then it stands to reason that they also have to know you.  For this to happen I think you always need to be willing to be authentic; which means you need to be willing to be you – whoever that is.

Of course this means you actually have to have some idea of who you are (which isn’t always the case).  Are you self-aware?  Are you accepting of yourself and your faults, and are you willing to let someone else see them?

A common paradox in relationships is we want to be accepted for who we are, yet at the same time we are afraid of being rejected for who we are.  So we often try to be who we think the other person wants us to be.

Some people will play a role and try to become someone else.  Other will be themselves, but will be careful about which sides of themselves they show – hiding the parts that they don’t feel will be accepted.

 

In the short term, these strategies may work.  But if they do, what have you really accomplished?  You’ve succeeded in convincing someone to like…

…umm.

Not you (at least not the real you).

Help me understand, how exactly is this a good thing?

Because eventually the real you will surface.  And if your partner doesn’t like the real you once they see you, then all you’ve done is waste time.

 

So being always being true to you is the best approach.  And if someone doesn’t accept you for who you are?  Then they probably aren’t someone you want to be with anyhow.  That doesn’t mean you should never change – because change in the form of self-growth is a positive thing.  But any changes you make need to be because you want them, or see a need for them yourself.

 

Let’s say you do everything right.

You accept yourself for who you are and go into a relationship being honest and authentic.  That’s great, and is (in my opinion) the best and healthiest way to approach things.

But YOU are only half of the equation – and you have no control over how the other person is approaching things.  For the best relationship to occur, both people need to be honest, authentic, self-aware, and willing to be vulnerable.

When that does happen and two people are being authentic and are willing to let each other in, I think you can know each other well enough to know if things can work pretty quickly.  Within a few days you can get a pretty good sense of each other’s core character and value.  Within weeks, you should have a strong idea if the two of you are compatible.

And within a few months you should start to see if there are any “red flags”, showing that perhaps the other person isn’t being as authentic as you think they are – because it’s hard to keep a mask up over extended periods of time.

 

Looking at relationships, what are the things that actually matter?

  • Are your core values aligned?
  • Do your personalities complement each other?
  • Do you accept that a relationships is about more than just you?
  • Are your love languages in alignment with your partners, and if not are you willing love your partner in the way they need to be loved?
  • Do you know enough about each other’s hopes and dreams that you can see the two of you growing, building and sharing together?
  • Are you both willing to accept that periodic issues in relationships are normal, and are you willing to deal with them when they occur?
  • Are you both self-aware – willing to accept that you each have faults and willing to take responsibility for your own contributions to the relationship?

 

If you can answer yes to at least most of those, then I think you have a pretty solid foundation and everything else should be pretty easy.

 

Thinking back to the question of when do you know each other enough; it doesn’t matter what the milestone is – whether it’s holding hands, living together or getting married there will always be risk involved in taking that “next step”.

But there is no magic timeline.  What works for one couple may not work for another.  I believe that if both people are self-aware, authentic and open with each other, they will quickly know enough about each other to know with a high level of accuracy if the relationship can work or not.  When things feel natural and easy, you know that it’s a good fit no matter how long it’s been.

After that, it’s up to you.

Because the success of a relationships is less about how well you know each other than it is about how well you accept that you will need to grow together and choose to continue to choose each other each and every day.

FeelingofLoveAsChoice

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What do you bring IN to your Relationship?

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When I hear people talk about relationships, there is a lot of talk about compatibility, and how important it is to find the right person.

Compatibility does matter (to a degree), but I think it’s much less important than most believe.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

 

I see/read/hear men and women who are “unable to find the love they want”, and they complain, saying things like “all the men I meet are X” or “all the women I meet as Y” (insert stereotype of choice for X and Y).

Sometimes we run into so many similar problems that we start to lose faith in our gender of preference completely, and start to convince ourselves our experiences are representative of all members of that gender.

Here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you:

If you have had a number of relationships, and they all turning out badly or you are struggling to even find a relationship, what’s the one common link?

You.

 

Now, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here.  I’m not saying that you are a terrible person, or you are unlovable or anything like that.

I simply think that anytime life isn’t working out quite the way we want it to, the WORST thing you can do is think of yourself as a victim.

How your life goes is not “just the way things are” and I don’t believe in “if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be”.  Those ideas, and the idea that you “just need to find the right person” paint yourself as a passive participant in your own life.

Rather, I believe that life presents us with different opportunities, and it’s up to us to decide what to do with them.  We can’t control how things will turn out, but we ALWAY control our own choices, and how we respond to the events that happen to us.

So if a relationship (or life in general) isn’t working out the way we want it to I think it’s important to take a look in the mirror, and try to understand the ways you might be contributing to things.

 

If people you meet aren’t treating you the way you want, ask yourself what are you attracted to?  How are you presenting yourself (as the energy you give off influences what you are attracting)?  If you are interested in a “certain type” and things work out the same way, maybe it’s time to expand your horizons and look at something different.

Are you respecting yourself and properly enforcing your boundaries?  Do you even know what your own boundaries are?  Unfortunately, many of us don’t really know what our boundaries are.  We know when they have been violated because of how it makes us feel, but even then, we often don’t know how to enforce them.

 

Another big question you I think people need to ask is, what are you bringing IN to the relationship?

Yourself obviously, but what does that actually mean?

As people, we are the sum of our experiences – both good and bad.  The experiences shape us, and shape our expectations of what we are looking for, and how people will treat us.

What are your expectations in a relationship?  Are they realistic?  I find that one of the biggest sources of unhappiness for people is that their life hasn’t turned out quite the way they thought it would.  Frequently by all objective measures those people have a lot to be happy about, but it is the comparison to the expectations they had for live that lead to their disappointment.

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One of the things we bring with us into relationships that can often be damaging is our coping skills.

What are your coping skills?  How do you deal with conflict, or respond when things get hard?  How do you fight?  Do you shut down and pretend things are alright?  Do you get angry?  Petty?  Passive aggressive?

Lastly, what baggage/insecurities do you bring into your relationship?  We all damaged in some way, and that’s okay.  We all have our own baggage, and although that baggage can seem like it’s part of who we are, it’s up to us to deal with it.

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Part of dealing with it involves allowing our partners understand our baggage, so we need to be willing to let them in enough to understand it.  We need to be willing to tell them how we have been hurt in the past, what are triggers are, and why we feel the way we do about things.  This can be difficult, because these are often some of our most personal and sensitive memories/experiences.  However by opening up and communicating these things to our partners we are allowing them to understand us.  When someone can understand why we feel the way we do about things, it allows them to approach those triggers with empathy and care.

 

If we are not careful, our personal issues and insecurities can easily start to poison our relationships, so an important question is what are you doing about them?

If you take the approach “this is just how I am”, you are expecting the other person to accommodate you, and that’s not fair.  And they should be understanding/empathic, and try to accommodate you to a degree.  At the same time though, you need to work on your own issues (own your own sh*t as some would say).

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I believe taking a hard looking in the mirror, and trying to understand what you bring in to a relationship is very important to the health of any relationship; as it allows you to understand how you contribute in both positive and negative ways.

Understanding your own role in something gives you a degree of power.  Because you can’t change other people, at best you can influence them.  However you are always capable of recognizing parts of yourself you may not like, and working to improve them.

Saying “this is just the way I am” is just as much of a cop out as “I just need to find the right person”.

It’s more accurate to say “this is just the way I am – right now”.  But it doesn’t have to be the way you are tomorrow. 

 

I opened with the idea that the quality of your relationship often has much less to do with your partner, and a lot more to do with you.

What you are interested in, the energy you give off, how you enforce your boundaries, how you cope, and how you deal with your own baggage.  These are all things that influence the success of your relationships, and they all come from you.  And you are the only person who can change these things.

So instead of “I just need to find the right person” maybe a big part of thing is “I just need to BE the right person”.  I’m not suggesting you should ever change for someone else.  But you are never a victim, and you can always strive to be the best version of you.

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What is more important to you – Commitment or Personal Happiness?

I was talking to my brother in law earlier today, and we were talking about the fun filled topic of divorce.  I mentioned how sometimes it feels like the legal system penalizes people for doing the right thing, and he made a comment about how the right thing is actually subjective.

I asked him what he meant, and he said:

It comes down to your core values.

If your core values tell you commitment is more important than personal happiness, then you are more likely to stay and work on a relationship that is struggling.

If your core values tell you personal happiness is more important, then a struggling relationship means it’s time to move on.

Divorce can be a bad thing or a good thing, it just depends on your core values.

 

This really hit me.

For years now, I’ve been writing about relationships.  And from the beginning, one of my main premises has been that one of the fundamental struggles in relationships is finding a balance between “me” and “we”.

There has to be a balance between these.

 

Too much “we” and you risk losing sight of who you are.  And this is often a big issue, especially with parents.

I’ve talked to so many people who have kids and then put their own interests on the backburner.  Life becomes all about the family, and there is very little time/opportunity to be “you”.  As much as people love their children, when the kids get a bit older there is often a of sense of relief when people are able to start doing some things for themselves again.  Of course this is a prime time for divorce, because if there has been too much focus on the family and not enough on the couple, this is a time that a husband and wife will look at each other and realize they don’t really have anything in common anymore.  They have the kids, and that’s it.  Some are able to rediscover each other and “fall in love” all over again, while others just decide it’s better to move on separately.

 

On the other side of the equation you have couples who focus too much on “me”.  When they do this, they are often two people living completely separate lives, and their relationship is more like being roommates – living under the same roof and sharing bills.

 

I have always subscribed to the notion that although a balance between “me” and “we” is important, for a healthy relationship it is always better to have the pendulum swing slightly towards “we”.  To me, relationships are all about connection between two people.  That connection ideally will exist on many levels; physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual.  And I don’t really see how this connection can happen when your focus is on yourself first.

For me, my core values have always told me that “we” is more important that “me”. 

Don’t misunderstand this, I’m not suggesting that “I” am not important in a relationship, because I clearly am.  But the notion of sacrifice for the relationships has never really been a challenge for me.  It’s never been a struggle, because it simply fit with what I believed.

Due to this, when I would see people who were focused more on themselves and what they get out of thing, I have never been able to understand it.  It just seems selfish to me, and really, it is.

To me, selfish is wrong.  It’s the wrong way to be, and the wrong way to live life.

Here’s the thing though, one of my other beliefs about relationships is that often there are different approaches to doing the same thing, and one isn’t necessarily any better or worse than the other.  My way is just my way, and part of having a healthy relationship is learning to understand and accept your partner for who they are.  To accept their way as valid, even if it’s not my own.

 

This is where today’s conversation really hit me.  Maybe I’ve been a hypocrite here.  Maybe what I consider selfish isn’t really wrong.  Maybe it’s just different, and wrong for me.  Maybe it’s just a difference in core values.

 

If so, then maybe a lot of the struggles people have in relationships are actually simply a collision of core values.

I’ve always believed that conflict between couples is actually a positive thing, because it’s how you learn each other and are able to grow to understand and accept each other.

I still think that’s true, but when the conflict is due to a collision of core values?  Well, in that case a couple probably is in quite a bit of trouble.  Because while you can often accept differences between people, differences in core values are significantly more problematic.

 

Commitment and personal happiness are two concepts that should both be important in a relationship, but they are also concepts that can sometimes conflict.  So the question becomes, when it comes to core values which one is actually MORE important to you?

Because answering that question for yourself and then understanding how your partner would answer that question may have a lot to do with the nature of the conflicts you face.

Showing your “True Colors”

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I’ve been blogging for around 3 years now, and in addition to writing I try to follow a number of blogs.

One of the blogs I follow regularly is another relationship blog, written by a guy who went through a divorce a number of years back.  His divorce broke him; so he started writing about all the things he did both consciously and unconsciously that ultimately led to the breakdown of his marriage and his divorce.

It’s refreshing, and self-aware.  Like myself, the guy who writes it seems to believe most relationships can be improved by looking inward at the things you are doing as a person, and BEING BETTER.  And a big part of being better is gaining an awareness of what often goes wrong and trying to better understand and accept the other person.

Anyhow, his blog seems pretty successful, and has a really active community in the comments section.  Great group of people by and large, but like any “family” it sure has its own dysfunctions.  And a few months back the comments section broke down.

A new reader came along with a very different set of beliefs compared to most readers.  Beliefs that were frequently offensive and hurtful to others.  These comments started to disturb what had been a pretty happy/healthy commenting community, and many (myself included actually) became upset that this one commenter was, for a lack of a better term, poisoning the comments.

Some asked for this commenter to be banned, or at least something to be done.  But nothing was, and things became worse for a while.

Eventually, when multiple requests to do something to improve the comments section were ignored, one readers suggested that by not doing anything the author of the blog was “showing his true colors.”

Communication can be difficult and frustrating at times; so I can’t say exactly what was meant by that.  But my interpretation of that assertion was, in writing his blog the author talked about things like equality and improving relationships between men and women.  However by allowing dysfunction in the comments section he was showing inconsistency with this.  So perhaps the reality was, he really didn’t care.

This post really has nothing to do with the issue with the comments section story.  Similar to how my last post opened up with a story about renewing a mortgage, and then went on to actually be about how people can place differing values on the same thing; that’s just a backdrop to a larger idea (or at least that’s my intent).  And that’s the idea that in life, there are always nuances.  And things are rarely as straightforward as they may seem.

 

Patterns of Behavior 

I like to think I am a good person.  I have a strong moral compass, and I try to live my life with integrity.  Truly, I try to do “the right thing”, whatever that is.  And I would *like* to think I’m a fairly empathetic person, who does his best to think through the consequences of his actions before he does them.

But you know what?  Sometimes I hurt people.  And sometimes it’s a lot.  In fact, even for the people I care about the most, I PROMISE I will hurt them.

I hurt people in different ways too.  Sometimes by something I do, and sometimes by something I don’t do.  Sometimes I do things that get interpreted in ways I never meant.

Does that make me a bad person?

 

If I do 50 “good” things and 5 “bad” ones, do those bad ones show “the truth” about me?  Do they show that I’m actually a bad person?  That my “good” actions were just a show?

Yeah, I’ll acknowledge there are differing degrees of what good and bad are.  So yes, I suppose it’s possible that one bad action (particularly in the case of extreme behaviors, which again is subjective) can completely undo the good.  But by and large, I say no.

 

In statistical analysis, there is the concept of outliers.  Outliers are values that “stand out from other values in a set of data”, because they are aberrations in some way.

We are all going to have good days and bad days.  We are all going to do things that hurt others sometimes.

What REALLY matters is not each discrete individual action.  A bad action is a bad action.  A bad choice is a bad choice.

What matters is the PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR, and it is these patterns that speak to a person’s true character.  How you consistently act is a much more accurate measure of who you are than any specific action.

 

All or Nothing Thinking 

Cognitive distortions are broken thinking patterns that are often found in mental illnesses and mood disorders.  They are commonly found in anxiety disorders and depression, and are also believed to be part of why it’s so hard to break the cycle of anxiety and depression – these thinking patterns reinforce negative thoughts and emotions, “feeding” the issue (as an aside, one of the most effective ways to deal with/manage depression and anxiety is cognitive behavior therapy, which is intended to rewire the brain to correct these thinking patterns).

There are a number of different cognitive disorders found in anxiety and depression, and perhaps the most damaging is Splitting, or All or Nothing Thinking.

 

All or Nothing Thinking is kind of self-explanatory.  It is a form of thinking where we look at things in extremes, or as black and white.  You are a success, or a failure.  Someone loves you, or they hate you.  Something is perfect, or it is broken.

To be clear, we ALL fall into this sort of thinking once in a while (so when I reference the “comments” situation at the top I am in NO way suggesting anyone there is mentally ill).  But although we all do this sometimes, this type of thinking becomes a HUGE problem when it becomes a common or default form of thinking, or a pattern of behavior.

 

A while back I talked about the primal brain, and how the primal brain overrides reason and logic.  Well one of the big issues with all or nothing thinking is that it’s rooted in emotions, and normally extreme emotions.  It’s part of the automatic fight or flight response that you generally see with depression and anxiety.

 

Impacts on Relationships

Hopefully it’s clear that an automatic form of thinking, which overrides rationality and is rooted in extreme emotions is unhealthy.  But just in case it’s not, here’s a common way it impacts relationships:

In the early days of relationships, we all have a tendency to idealize our partners.  We see them as we want to see them (not as they actually are), and are often blind to their flaws.

This is normal, and science has shown that in the early days of love, brain chemicals are actually altered, contributing to this.

Eventually though (generally between 6 months and 2 years), this altered chemical state goes back to normal and we are able to see the person more clearly.  Normally we see a few rough edges, but are still able to accept the other person for who they are.

With all or nothing thinking however, these “flaws” often become proof that “something is wrong with the relationship”.  And if something is wrong, then this person is not “the one”.

 

All or nothing thinking has a perfectionist view of relationships; where there is a belief that if you can just find the right person, everything will be perfect and you will be happy forever.

But no one is perfect, and not being perfect doesn’t mean someone is a failure.  A relationship isn’t good or bad, rather it will have good and bad elements.

 

Popular dating site eharmony even talks about this thinking pattern and what it can mean to relationships:

Rather than seeing people as having both positives and negatives, overly critical people hold their romantic partners to an unrealistic expectation of having no faults whatsoever. Sadly, this type of “all-or-nothing” behavior can repeat over and over in one relationship after another until a person realizes that they themselves are the problem.

 

Basically, all or nothing thinking does a lot of damage to relationship.

 

And in addition to doing damage, it also makes is so people fall into a sense of hopelessness and a belief that things can never get better.

I’ve talked about loss of hope before and how destructive it is to improving a relationship.  With all or nothing thinking, the mere existence of problems shows that the relationship is flawed.  And if it can’t be perfect, what’s the point?

It makes it hard to see or appreciate incremental improvements, as the relationship is all or nothing.

 

 Seeing Shades of Grey

All or nothing thinking puts tremendous strain on relationships.  And unfortunately, people who suffer from it usually don’t even realize that their way of thinking is unusual and damaging.  It’s a thinking pattern, so for them, that’s their reality – or just who they are.

A question to ask yourself is, do you often think in terms of extremes?  Do you get caught up in thinking that things have to be perfect, and if they aren’t they are ruined?  Do you give up on things easily because you “know” you can’t do them, or you feel they are impossible?  Do you think in terms of “always”, or “never”, “terrible” or “awful”?

If those sorts of thoughts are common, you may deal with all or nothing thinking.  And it may be doing a lot of harm to your relationships, and your personal life in general.

 

Life isn’t all or nothing.

You can love some parts of your life and not others, and still have an amazing life.

You can be terrible at something, but still be able to improve it.

Your partner can love you, but still be a bit of a jerk sometimes.

 

And nothing in life can ever get better, until you can accept that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Empty Love

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Relationships are hard.

That’s a simple fact – borne out by divorce rates which continue to hover around the 50% mark.

And then there’s that additional question – for every relationship that “makes it”, how many are actually happy?

How many people get up each and every day, and actively CHOOSE their partner?  How many are grateful for what they have?

Instead of that, I really wonder how many are just going through the motions and living day by day.  Still married on paper, but no longer in mind or soul?

 

All couples are different, but I think the story of a failing marriage is all too familiar.

A couple meet, and fall in love.  Everything is great, or at least good enough that they decide to get married.  And those first few years they are pretty happy.

Then over time, life starts to get in the way.  Jobs, mortgages, bills, kids, extended families.  All the stresses of “everyday life” happen, and this person who started as your friend and lover morphs into something more like a business partner.  Instead of fun and exciting, things become safe, and mundane.  And instead of actively showing each other how much we care about them, we often start to take each other for granted.

Fact for you – MOST couples don’t do a very good job of keeping the romance and the fun alive.

And then one day they wake up, and realize the passion is gone.

 

What Makes a Couple a Couple?

Let’s rewind a bit, to the early days of a relationship; and think about what it actually is that makes a couple a couple.

Is a couple defined by two people who live together?  No, you can live together and just be roommates.  Conversely you can be in a relationship without living together.  So living together has nothing to do with it.

Is it because you are close friends?  Again, no.  Yeah, friendship is an important *part* of a relationship but being a couple implies something more than that.

The term “friend zone” is used to describe when one person is looking for a relationship with another person, but in return they are just viewed as a friend.

When you have feelings for someone and you are stuck in the friend zone, this is seen as a bad thing.

Having it happen with someone you are hoping to have a relationship with is one thing – if things don’t develop into anything more you can just move on.  But when it happens when you are already IN a relationship (or worse, married)?

Well, that sucks all around.  And realistically, I’m pretty sure it’s not what anyone thought they were signing up for when the relationship started.

No, when you are a couple it is implied that each person views the other as something more, something special.  There is a degree of connection that exists, and often this connection is tied to feelings of closeness, affection, and trust.

 

Triangle Theory of Love

A while back I came across the idea of the “Triangle Theory of Love”, and I think it’s brilliant.  Love is a really difficult concept, and if you ask people to describe love, you are liable to get a different answer from every person you ask.  That’s because there are different elements to it.

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This diagram breaks love down into three basic components:

  1. Passion
  2. Commitment
  3. Intimacy

 

When we look at “romance novel” or “movie” love, the focus is always on the passion.  THIS is the part of love that people are often led to believe IS love.

But it’s not.

It’s a starting point, and a component of love.  But passion on its own does not make a sustainable relationship.  If a relationship is based only on passion, eventually it will burn itself out.  So there has to be more.

 

Although passion is great, I think Intimacy is actually a MUCH more meaningful part of love.  Intimacy is vulnerability.  This is where you have let down all the walls, and truly let the other person in.

Passion is a physical connection, which often seems emotional as well.  Intimacy however is something deeper.  I think of intimacy as almost a spiritual connection.

 

Lastly you have commitment.  People talk about commitment as if it’s this great thing, but I’m not so sure if it is.  Commitment is simply saying “I will always be there for you, no matter what”.  It’s the “in good times and in bad times” part of a relationship.  And that part IS important, because there will always be bad times.  There will always be challenges.  So commitment is what keeps you together, even when it’s not easy.  Even when maybe you don’t even want to be.

 

Empty Love

Common complaint for couples in trouble is that they feel like nothing more than roommates.  They are still together, but they are more two individuals occupying the same space.

The passion is gone.  The intimacy is gone.  And the connection is gone.

All that’s left is commitment.  And when that’s all you have left, it’s a very hollow and lonely way to love.

 

Robert Smith (The Cure) sums it up beautifully in the song Bare

 

But holding onto used to be

Is not enough

Memory’s not life

And it’s not love

 

Think about that for a moment – memory is not life, and it’s not love.

When all you have left is commitment, you have empty love.  You have history, memory, and nothing more.

I think THIS is the biggest challenge in long term relationships.  THIS is the problem that happens to SO many couples.

And THIS is why so many relationships fail.

Empty love.

Commitment, when both the passion and the intimacy have gone.

 

Choosing Love

When you have Passion, Intimacy AND Commitment all together, you have a beautiful, incredible thing.

But it’s something that is SO easy to lose.

How does this happen?  WHY does this happen?  And what can we do about it?

 

A while back, one reader (apensiveheart) gave me this comment, and I think it sums things up beautifully:

Love isn’t a feeling. Love is a verb. It is action. It is work. Part of the reason it is so successful and feels so good in the early part of a relationship is because we are willing to put in the work and make the effort to do what our companion desires. Over time, we lose that need or that desire to put that same level of effort in, and things begin to deteriorate. I think we forget just how hard we tried in the beginning simply because the feelings made it feel so easy and natural. We go from asking what can I do for you, to instead asking what can you do for me. The whole dynamic changes because our perspective changes from caring about them to caring more about ourselves.

This is one of my core beliefs about love – it’s an action, a choice.  If we want to maintain intimacy and passion, we need to work on it.

And I guess this is the real value of commitment.

Commitment ISN’T about staying together no matter what.  Commitment does not mean accepting empty love.

Commitment means always choosing your partner, each and every day.  And not just choosing them, but also putting IN to the relationship.

Working on it – working on intimacy.  Working on passion.  Making ALL aspects of love a priority in your relationship, and doing your best to prevent it from failing.

 

When relationships fail, couples often say that they “fell out of love”.  Or they still love each other, but they were no longer “in love”.

I think they are talking about empty love.  Commitment, without passion or intimacy.

When that happens, I think the fault lies with the person who fell out of love.  Because love is not supposed to be passive.  It’s not just something you “feel” one day, and not another day.

Instead, I believe each person in the relationship is responsible for their feelings of love for their partner.  Part of that commitment involves nurturing that love.

Waking each day, and looking at the good side in the relationship.  Appreciating their partner for who they are, instead of who they aren’t.  And working together to improve the things that need to be improved.

When people “fall out of love” they often believe it’s some sort of incompatibility with their partner.  Or it’s a sign that something is wrong in the relationship.

But love isn’t just a feeling.  It’s not supposed to be passive.

So if they aren’t actively choosing love, each and every day; the person they should really be blaming – is themselves.

Happiness is Overrated

asian young Couple not talking after  fight  in living roomThere seems to be a huge focus on happiness these days, specifically in relationships.

I’m at an age now where a lot of long term relationships/marriages are failing, or people are starting new relationships (after their marriage has failed).  And in these failed relationships, unhappiness is almost always cited as the main reason.

I hear things like:

  • I just want to be happy
  • Everyone deserves to be happy
  • Lifes too short to not be happy
  • I’m happy now (in the new relationship)

This focus on happiness worries me a bit, and in fact I think happiness is kind of a dangerous and even subversive concept.  And although I understand what people are getting at, I think they’re often missing the point.

Of course people “want to be happy”.  Really, does anyone actually go around and claim the opposite?  Unless you’re Grumpy from the seven dwarves, I don’t think anyone really wants to be unhappy (though I will admit there are some people who almost seem to thrive off negativity).

Yes, there are different emotions and generally the positive emotions are seen as preferable experiences to negative emotions (which is probably why some are classified as positive and others as negative).

I totally get all that.

Here’s my problem – what exactly is happiness?

Do you know?  Because I sure don’t; and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff.  I do however know that happiness is more than just a feeling.  Further no one is always happy, and even when someone IS happy, they aren’t going to be happy in every aspect of their life.

Happiness is not like a light switch that is “on” or “off”.  You can be happy at home, but not in your job.  Or happy when you get a bit of down time, but feel overwhelmed when faced with all the things that need to be done as part of domestic life.

Happiness is complex, and the aspects and levels of it aren’t consistent over time.

 

“Unhappy” Relationships

So what does this really mean to relationships?

When people leave (or thinking about leaving) a relationship because “they aren’t happy”, I don’t think it’s really about happiness.

Instead, I think it’s about conflict that a couple has been unable to resolve.

Over time, unresolved conflict creates an environment of hurt, and likely resentment.  That in turn creates tension in the relationship, as one or both members feel their needs aren’t being met and they aren’t being heard.  A few posts ago I talked about connection, and a big component of connection is feeling valued, heard, and seen.  So if you feel you aren’t being heard, this will cause the connection to break down.

Over time this leads to a perpetual state of tension within the relationship, which is emotionally draining.

With broken connection and a state of tension, a couple will have a harder time finding joy even in the good parts of the relationship and instead will often focus more on the problems as they become magnified.

And THIS will result in…

(ready for it?)

…unhappiness.

 

I know what you’re thinking –“but ZombieDrew, isn’t that the same thing?  Doesn’t it still boil down to the couple being unhappy?

Nope, and the distinction here is really important.

 

First, it’s important to remember that having conflict doesn’t mean you have a bad relationship.  It means you’re normal.  Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes, and is a byproduct of two different people building a life together.  You won’t always agree and you won’t always get along, and that’s alright.

Another important thing is unhappiness isn’t the problem, it’s a SYMPTOM of a different (and truly, a larger) problem.

And understanding that?  THAT really matters.

Because you can’t solve a symptom, you can’t solve unhappy.  You need to understand the actual problem.  And if you can understand the actual problem, THEN you can do something about it!!!

 

The Search for Happiness

My issue with people leaving relationships because they are unhappy (or searching for happiness) is that often they don’t really know WHY they were unhappy.  They stopped at the symptom, the feeling.

They knew they were “having problems”, and found themselves in a situation where they were unhappy for so long they believed the only way out was to leave the relationship.

They want to be happy again (after all, everyone “deserves” to be happy, life is too short to not be happy, blah blah blah).  So they leave, in order to find that feeling again.

(Actually often they go in search of the feeling before leaving the relationships, having emotional and or physical affairs that provide the “feeling” of happiness, which only solidifies their belief that there was something wrong with the relationship they are/were in.  But that’s a topic for another day.)

In any case, pursuit of a feeling leaves them looking for something they will likely never find.

 

Building Relationships

One of the big fallacies of relationships is that you just need to find the right person.  I absolutely hate this thinking, because it absolves people of responsibility in relationships.

Oh, our relationship failed because he/she wasn’t the right person.  I just need to find someone more compatible.

Sorry, that’s a load of crap.  Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of compatibility involved in relationships (though I believe it’s a much smaller factor than most people would think).

But here’s the thing – relationships are a skill.  And like any other skill, we can always improve the skill side of a relationship.  No matter how bad (or good) your relationship is right now, it can get better.

And THAT should be good news.

The catch is, you need to be willing to work to develop that skill.  And both parties need to be willing to do this.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be equal (no relationships are), but both people need to be trying.  And if they are?  Then ANY issue can be improved upon.

Notice I didn’t say fixed, some things can’t be fixed.  But all problems can get better.

 

Believing Change Can Happen

Its really important to believe that all problems can get better, because sometimes a couple DOES look at why they are having issues, they start to understand the problems; and then they give up.  They feel overwhelmed by the issues and take the attitude that they are “too big to fix”, or they can’t be changed because “this is just the way I am”.  And as a result they don’t really try.

This approach of quitting without really trying is called Learned Helplessness, and unfortunately it is a common approach for people who struggle with conflict resolution, people with mental health issues, as well as people who just aren’t very happy.

It’s a belief that someone has no control over the situation they are in, so why bother trying.  But it’s a broken thinking pattern, because people ALWAYS have control over their own choices and their own actions.  As I said, ANY issue can be improved.  But you have to be willing to put in the work.

learnedHelplessness

 

Going back to the “unhappy relationship”, this is almost always a question of conflict resolution.  Problems can’t be ignored, avoidance never works.  And you are NEVER helpless to make change.

It’s may seem easier at first to ignore things and avoid them, because dealing with things has an emotional cost.  But avoidance is a short sighted approach, because nothing gets resolved and the long term emotional costs of trying to deal with things when they’ve hit a critical mass are always higher later.

Plus, even when you are “avoiding” issues, they are always there.  These issues find ways to come out, normally through passive aggressive behavior by one or both parties, and that will only deepen the environment of hurt and resentment (making things worse).

 

The way out of this mess is through communication.  REAL communication.

When people talk about communication being the key to successful relationships, they aren’t just referring to talking.  Communication is about actually listening, trying to understand each other, and dealing with conflict in ways that are beneficial to the team.

If you aren’t actively working on making things better, then you aren’t really communicating.

CommunicationIssue

 

 

Happiness is Mostly About You

One thing I don’t like about this focus on happiness is, it’s an individual act.  It’s a focus on what a relationship does (or doesn’t do) for YOU.  While that is obviously important, I personally don’t think any relationship can thrive if that’s the focus.

Relationships should never just be about what one person is getting out of it. Both people’s needs and wants have to be respected and valued, even when they don’t completely match up. There has to be compromise.

For relationships to be successful the focus needs to shift from what the relationship does for me to what it does for us.  It needs to be a partnership that is mutually beneficial; and where people are just as interested in what they can add to it as what they get out of it.

unhappy-person-quotes-1.jpg

Communicating and building your relationships skills is difficult, because it can’t just be about you.  It requires facing the mirror and accepting your own part in the relationship issues.  It also requires truly letting go of past hurts and resentment in order to move forward.

But although these skills are difficult to build, they are the most important skills you will ever build in your lifetime.  They are worth the effort, and worth the stumbles that will happen along the way.

In my mind, as long as both partners are showing consistent effort towards building them, and being conscious about sliding back into avoidance and passive aggressive behavior, ANY relationship can not only succeed, but thrive.

 

Built to Last?

Happiness is a feeling, and feelings come and go.

Healthy relationships on the other hand have a number of components to them; pleasure, joy, appreciation and contentment.

And importantly, an acceptance that negative emotions are normal, and that conflict is a natural and even needed part of trying to grow both individually and as a couple.

Sometimes happiness is missing, and that should be alright.  Because if you can communicate, and resolve conflicts together without holding on to anger and resentment you will always find it again.  In fact it’s working through these difficult times that ultimately brings a couple closer.

 

So when people leave a relationship because they aren’t happy, I think it’s a cop out.  An excuse.

I understand leaving the relationship because you had communication issues and unresolved conflicts that were creating a toxic environment, and you reached a point that you gave up hope that things would ever improve.

I even understand leaving a relationship because you realized that addressing the issues was scary, and you weren’t prepared to do the work to make things better.

At least those reasons are honest.

They involve a level of self-awareness, and a realization that there is no magic wand or perfect person out there.  That those issues will still come up again, and will need to be addressed in the future or they could happen again.

 

But simply saying it’s because you were unhappy without understanding why, and chasing that feeling?  That simply sets you up to repeat the same mistakes again, and all but guarantees more unhappiness in your future.

 

meantToBe

Are You and Your Partner Compatible?

Fit-together.jpg

I’m a big believer in marriage, and I’m pretty sure most people go into marriage with the belief that their marriage will succeed.

Yet roughly 50% or all first marriages fail.

And in the vast majority of divorces is North America (and presumably more of the world), the reason given for the divorce is irreconcilable differences.

So, what exactly are irreconcilable differences?

Yeah, the words tell you this means the couple has differences they can’t figure out, but what does that even mean?

I tried to find a good explanation for irreconcilable differences, and at this site (a divorce law site of course) I found the following:

 

What that this means is that you and your spouse’s basic fundamental differences make it impossible to stay married. For some couples, arguments over child discipline, politics, finances, or religion are severe enough to drive a permanent wedge in the marriage. Other couples may want a divorce because they fight a lot, have personality conflicts, or simply don’t trust each other. Whatever your differences with your spouse, they must be permanent enough that your marriage has become irretrievably broken.

 

So basically, at some point in time a couple comes to a determination that they aren’t compatible, and this incompatibility is significant enough that they can’t handle being together anymore.

 

How Does Compatibility Break Down?

You know, I’ve never gone to a wedding where the couple said things like “I’m looking forward to the start of our next few years together, until we realize our differences are so significant we have to hire lawyers to break down the life we will be building together.”

Guys supposedly aren’t very good at listening though, so that could be on me.

Realistically though, when a couple gets married they believe they are compatible.  I’m pretty sure they know they have differences, but when they stand up there and pledge forever to each other, they believe they have what it takes to make it.

Yet almost 50% of marriages fail.

What the hell are we doing wrong?

How does compatible become irreconcilable?

 

I guess at least part of it is change.

People are constantly growing and evolving, so the couple who stands there and exchanges vows is likely quite a bit different from the couple who later find themselves dealing with divorce lawyers and legal fees.

They changed.

They may have believed they were compatible on the marriage day, but as the years went by they were no longer those same people.

Another problem could be they knew they had differences, but thought they could “get past” them.  On the wedding day they figured those differences weren’t a problem, but over time they were proven wrong.

Thing is, people are different, and people change.  Those two things are among the few constants in life.  So unless we are willing to accept the idea that the institute of marriage is broken (and I’m not willing to accept that), we need to figure out how we can do a better job of accepting change, and find ways to stay happy together in spite of it.

 

Accepting Influence

A little over a year ago I wrote a post called Accepting Influence, and although my thoughts on it have changed a bit in the past year I think accepting influence is probably the most important thing you can do in order to have a successful relationship.

In fact, I think accepting influence is what relationships are really all about.

A marriage isn’t just a way of sharing living expenses, or having someone there to take care of you.  A marriage is not just about having your needs fulfilled.  In fact, it’s not about a “me”, and it’s not about a “you”.

It’s about an “us”.

When two people meet, it’s often some of their shared interests that bring them together.  They have some things in common, and these common interests give them things to talk about and experiences to share.

When talking about compatibility it is often these common interests that are talked about.

Hey, we both like to travel, we both like similar foods, movies, music… whatever it is.

But no matter how similar you are, people also have differences.  AND, they change over time.

 

Accepting influence is all about learning to navigate those differences, and expanding your world so that you start to care about things you normally wouldn’t have – BECAUSE they matter to your partner!

At a superficial level this can be things like activities and hobbies.  You aren’t trying to become your partner, or force yourself into all aspects of their life.  But you ARE trying to understand them, and have more common ground to share with them.  Maybe to be able to hold a conversation with them about one of their passions, even if you don’t share it.

At a deeper level this is something as important as love languages.  Couples don’t always share the same love languages – the things that make one person feel loved and valued don’t necessarily match their partners.  But it’s important to try and understand what matters to your partner and give them what they need to feel loved – even (and perhaps especially) when it doesn’t match your own.

This is a form of accepting influence.  Really, it’s about saying to your partner YOU matter to me.  I care about you.

On the flip side, refusing to accept influence is kind of like saying “Sure I care about you and your needs – as long as they line up with mine”.

Relationships shouldn’t be just about your needs.  You should derive happiness from seeing your partner happy and from contributing to that happiness, even when it doesn’t line up with something you personally need.

What if the happiness of your partner doesn’t matter to you?  Well, if that’s the case you probably shouldn’t be in a relationship.

 

Building Compatibility

The reason given for most divorces is “irreconcilable differences”.  Aka “we weren’t compatible anymore”.

However compatibility doesn’t just happen, it’s something you build into the relationship every day.  Every time you accept influence from your partner by putting their needs at the same level as your own and trying to do things for them, you are building compatibility.

And every time you put me ahead of we, you are building in incompatibility.  I’m not saying you should do everything together or never have time to yourself, as individual time and space is important to the health of a relationship.  But the needs of your partner should always matter.

 

When people cite irreconcilable differences, I think what they are REALLY saying is “I was no longer willing to work with you and try to meet your needs.  I was no longer willing to try and find a solution that works for both of us.”

Personal boundaries are good, and are a healthy part of relationships.  When those personal boundaries collide however, often the inability to find a solution together is more a testament to one or both sides wanting things their way.  To putting me before we.

Sure, they want to get to forever and they want the happy ending.  But they want it on their terms, and aren’t willing to move their position to meet their partner and find a place where both people can be happy.

And if you are in a relationship for you?  Then you’ve already failed.

 

Successful relationships aren’t about you, and they aren’t about me.  In successful relationships there is a recognition that both you and me matter, and the only way to do that is by putting we first.

If requires communication, negotiation, and accepting influence.

I think it’s best summed up by a line in this article:

Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

We start with a certain degree of compatibility, but after that it doesn’t just happen on it’s own.  It’s up to us to maintain it, and it’s up to us to build it.

So irreconcilable differences doesn’t mean there was an inherent problem with the couple. A lack of compatibility really means the couple couldn’t, or wouldn’t, build it in.