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.

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Your Life is Not Your Own

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One of the biggest things that shapes my world view is a belief that my life is not my own.

In some ways, that statement seems completely nonsensical.  Because of course my life is my own.  I mean, if it’s not mine then whose is it?

Am I not an individual?

Don’t I make my own choices?

When I get up in the morning, I decide how my day looks.

I can go into work, or I can call in sick.  If I go to work, I decide how hard I want to work during the day.  I choose what I want to eat – I can eat pizza pops and candy all day if I want.  I can flirt with co-workers, come in to the office drunk or high, and pick up prostitutes.  Hell, I can head into my bosses office and defecate on her desk if I really wanted.

I have those choices.  I have that *power* (if you can call it that).

Based on all of the above it seems obvious that my life is my own, and I can do with it whatever I want.

 

Thing is, although I COULD do whatever I want, I don’t (fine – I’ve probably had days that I ate nothing but candy and pizza pops, but they’re rare.  Never more than once a week).

Generally there is some thought process behind my choices; and 99% of the time this involves weighing my choices against my core values.  Values that tell me doing things like flirting with co-workers, coming into the office drunk or high, picking up prostitutes and defecating on my bosses desk are BAD decisions.

I can’t say that I’ve ever wanted to do any of those things, but even if I did, they are choices that would potentially have long term implications on my life.  And these implications don’t just affect MY life, but also the lives of the people around me.  The people I care about.

See, my life isn’t just about me.  My actions may be my own, but they impact other people.

 

I’m a father, and virtually EVERY decision I make has the potential to shape the lives of my children.  Some decisions can radically affect their futures, but even for smaller decisions I need to model behavior to them that shows them how I believe they should live their lives.

In my mind, when I became a parent I gave up the right to focus primarily on me.

 

Even without children, the same rules apply in relationships.  It’s one thing if all you want is to casually date.  Casual dating is all about you, and what you get out of it.  It’s the easy part – the “fun” without any responsibility.  You see someone only when you want, and on your terms.  You can focus on what you get out of that “relationship” and not actually care about the other person (side note, I don’t consider casual dating an actual relationship).  And if they don’t like that?  Too bad for them, you can move on and find someone else.

That approach to relationships works for some, but most people want more out of their relationships.  Most people want at least some commitment from the other person.  For that person to be faithful to them; and maybe to start building something with them.  I think most of us like the idea of growing old *with* someone, and sharing our life with them.

For that to happen, things need to change.  It can’t just be about you anymore.  Relationships are about both people, and both people matter.  Both need to feel valued, and heard.  And for that to happen, the other persons needs/wants have to matter just as much as our own.

In a relationship, your actions are still your own.  You are still an individual, and you can choose to do whatever you want.  But your decisions impact your partner, and as a result you need to take your partner into account in the things you do.

You can still choose to do whatever you want, and not take your partner into account.  But if you do that you are not respecting that other person, and you are not respecting the relationship.

 

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Even if I don’t have children and I’m not in a relationship, I would still contend my life is not just about me.  I still have parents, siblings and friends.  I still have co-workers who rely on me.

There are ALWAYS people who are impacted by my actions and my decisions.

That doesn’t mean I have to live my life for those people.  That doesn’t mean I *can’t* do what I want.  But it DOES mean I should take them into account, and realize that my decisions may affect those people adversely.

 

Pretending I’m an individual who can do what they want without realizing my actions impact others is self-absorption.  Thinking we are special, and we can do what we want because the regular rules of life don’t apply to us is entitlement.

In reality we ALL have moments of self-absorption or entitlement.  It’s just a question of how often do we do these things, and how do we respond when we’ve realized what we’ve done?

To me, I am in control of my own life.  I make my own decisions, and I do my best to deal with the impacts of those decisions.  And I do that recognizing that while I control my own life, it impacts others.  So I need to take others into account.

And in that regard, I accept that my life is not my own.

Doing What You Want

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In life, we are individuals first and foremost.  And as individuals, we are able to do anything we want.

Other people can suggest things to us, and they may have a level of influence over us; but we ultimately control our own choices and actions.  No one can force us to do anything we don’t want to do.

So my question is should we ever have to do anything we don’t want to do?

 

At first glance, the answer seems obvious:

No, of course not.

If you don’t want to do something, why in the world would you do it?  Right?

Unfortunately things aren’t that simple.

 

Your Life is Not Your Own.

We are individuals.  And yes, we CAN do what we want.  But we do not live in a vacuum.

Our choices and decisions impact others.  If you are in a relationship, or have children; your actions often have a significant impact on those people (whether you like it or not).

There’s no escaping this.  Even if we are single, living on our own and fully independent – there are still going to be times that our actions impact others.  Maybe it’s co-workers, or neighbors, or even just friends.

So no, I don’t think it’s fair to say that someone can ever just do what they want.  Short of removing ourselves from civilization, moving to an isolated island and returning to a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, our actions ALWAYS impact others.

 

Most of us don’t want to live on an island by ourselves though.  We are social creatures, and we all crave social connection.

Actually, even if we WERE on an island by ourselves we would still desire/need connection.  In the movie Castaway, Tom Hanks was stranded for years, and the only thing that kept him sane was having his volleyball buddy Wilson to talk to (for those that haven’t seen it, Wilson actually was a volleyball).  Yeah it was a fictional movie, but it struck a chord because people are social animals – I suspect that’s why solitary confinement is considered a form of punishment.

So we seek out connection.  We look for people who we can talk to and listen to.  People who make us feel valued, seen, and heard.

And for many of us, this is what leads us to look for a partner in life.  Someone to build a life with, and someone we can envision one day “growing old” with.

 

Building a Relationship

Looking at romantic relationships (marriage/partner), one of the unwritten rules is that the other person has to matter to you.  Your choices affect them, and their choices affect you.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change anything about the way you live or the choices you make.  After all, for the relationship to work you still need to be you and your partner needs to be able to accept you as such.

Being in a relationship doesn’t mean you aren’t an individual anymore, but it does mean you are more than just an individual.

Because of this you need to keep in mind how your choices will impact your partner.  Relationships require caring, empathy, and accepting influence.  And taking your partner into account is part of that.

 

This brings me back to my initial question:

Should we ever have to do anything we don’t want to do?

If your partner wants you to do something and you don’t want to do it, should you be willing to do it for them?  Or do you just say I don’t want to, or that’s not my thing?

It’s a difficult question.

 

Clearly that depends on what it is, and on the perceived expectation from your partner.

If your partner wants you to be their getaway driver for a bank heist, then it’s pretty easy to just say no.  If they want you to have an orgy with the neighbor and a goat, again, pretty easy to say no.

But what if it’s a fairly reasonable request?

 

Let’s say your partner loves opera and wants you to join them, but you don’t like it.  Should you go with them?  How about if you are planning a vacation and struggling to find a place you both want to go, or even just trying to pick a movie to see?

Are relationships only about finding a person with similar interests, and then only doing things together that you both enjoy?  Or are there time that you should do things you may not really be interested in doing?

 

In my opinion, for a relationship to be successful there HAS to be give and take.  You need to be able to go outside your comfort zone and do things with your partner that isn’t necessarily your thing.  If I go to the opera with my partner (and I don’t enjoy opera), it has nothing to do with opera.  Instead, it’s about sharing moments and experiences with your partner that are important to them.  You aren’t showing interest in opera – you are showing interest in your partner.

It doesn’t mean you should have to go with them all the time.  But sharing moments that are important to them is about accepting influence from them.  In some ways you can think of it as investing in your relationship, and in your future.

 

 

Doing Your Own Thing

In relationships, the balance between individual and part of a couple can be hard, and there are often conflicting messages.

Sometimes you hear things like “happiness is found in doing things for others”.  Other times you hear things like “there’s nothing selfish about putting yourself first, taking care of yourself and making yourself a priority”.

So which is it?  Is it best to do things for others all the time or should you just look out for yourself?

The challenge is, both of these are true.  Looking out for yourself may SEEM selfish, but in some ways it’s not.  YOU MATTER!!!  Your needs, your wants and your desires are important.  They need to matter, whether you are in a relationship or not.

Once in a relationship however, the other person needs to matter too.  And when needs and wants conflict, it can’t just be about you.

Relationships aren’t just about getting your way, and doing what you want.  They don’t only apply when both people’s needs/wants happen to line up.

 

If you don’t want to do something and feel you shouldn’t have to do anything you don’t want, then that’s fine.  That’s an individual choice that you can make.

But if someone in a relationship feels they should be able to do whatever they want without taking into account how it will impact their partner, then that’s not a relationship.

They are looking for someone to be there on their terms only, and to care of their needs.  What they really want is to pick and choose the parts of the relationship that work for them.

In that situation there isn’t much accepting influence, caring or empathy.

And without that, there isn’t much love.

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Doing the “Right Thing”

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A little while back someone at my work was fired for theft.  I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time everywhere in the world, but I was still a bit shocked by it.  I work for a pretty good company (benefits, wages, environment), so I didn’t understand why someone would put their job at risk; especially when this guy lost his job over theft of an item worth around $25.  I mean, really?

I was talking this over with one of my co-workers, telling her I didn’t understand why someone would do it, especially when this will now be attached to his employment record and can impact his future.  My co-workers response was that this guy simply figured he wouldn’t get caught.

 

The Fable of Gyges Ring

This situation made me think of The Fable of Gyges Ring, from Plato’s Republic.  Just to be clear, I don’t normally go around reading things like Plato.  I HAD to read it for school years ago (but have to admit it was actually pretty good).  The Republic presents Plato’s ideas on justice and morality, and the part I remember the most is the fable of Gyges Ring.

In this story a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible and somehow this invisibility means the shepherd can take actions without consequences.  Ummm, invisibility means no consequences?  That seems like a bit of a stretch (and perhaps inspiration for Tolkien).  But hey, the story was written over 2000 years ago so I guess we’ll have to cut it some slack.

Anyhow, with his newfound power the shepherd seduces the queen, kills the king and takes over the kingdom (because of course, that’s what we would all do if there were no consequences, right?)

Now here’s the interesting part.  In discussing this tale, Plato theorized that if two of these rings existed, and one was found by a “just” man and the other by an unjust man, the ability to do what he wanted without consequence would cause the just man to become corrupted.

His suggestion was, it’s really only consequences that keep us in line and at our core we are all unjust.

 

What is Justice?

Are we inherently unjust?  And what exactly does that even mean?

Merriam Webster defines justice as “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge and punish crimes and criminals”.

I’ll acknowledge that sometimes there is a disconnect between law and justice, but for the moment let’s accept that law is an attempt at placing rules around what is “right” or “moral”, and setting consequences for the violation of those rules.

Based on that, is Plato right?  Is it really only the threat of consequences that keeps us in line and makes us act in a moral way?

Without consequences will people really just do whatever they want?

 

Learning Right From Wrong

In some ways I think Plato was right.  After all, I do think we are born selfish.  If you think about it, as infants all we understand is our own needs and other people are basically vehicles for this need fulfillment.

As a parent, my experience has been that right and wrong needs to be taught.

Children initially don’t understand why they can’t just do what they want, or take something they want.  They need to learn about boundaries, and ownership.  They need to learn the concept of exchange.  Hell, even empathy seems to be something that is largely learned.

I may wish my children would just “understand” right and wrong, but they don’t.  And while learning this, consequences are a practical way of helping them understand why they need to do the right thing.

Eventually I think people have to get to a point where we are no longer doing something to avoid consequences.  Instead, they need to do something because they have come to believe it’s the right thing to do.

There’s a distinction between these two things (avoiding consequences vs. doing what we believe is right); and although it may seem subtle I believe it’s extremely important.

When we are doing something because we believe it’s the right thing to do, we have internalized that value.  It has become part of our belief set.

At that point, the consequences from other people for violating that value aren’t important anymore.  Because overriding any fear of what other people will think is the betrayal of our own core valuesThe disappointment in ourselves far outweighs any concern about being caught.

After all, we can hide things from others – but not from ourselves.

 

Integrity

Which brings me to one of my favorite topics – integrity.

Integrity is all about how we live our lives.  It’s about whether we actually live the values that we profess.

It’s really easy to SAY things.  But to walk the talk, and to do it consistently?  That’s a lot harder.

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Now, I’m not trying to push my sense of morality on anyone here.

I readily acknowledge no one is perfect.  We all have a darker side to us.  We all have moments that we do things we later regret.  We are all sometimes petty, selfish, stupid, ignorant – whatever.

Having integrity doesn’t mean you never do those things.  Instead, it’s about how frequently do we stick to our values, and how badly do we stray from them when we don’t.

And because we know we ARE going to screw up sometimes, an important element of integrity is accountability.  When we screw up (and yes, it’s a WHEN and not an IF) how do we handle it?  Do we try to hide it?  Do we blame?  Justify?  Or do we own it, accept any consequences from our actions and then try to use the moment as an opportunity for growth?

 

Shared Values

In relationships, it’s important to find someone with whom you share similar values.  And I think a mistake people often make is they don’t actually get to know who their partner really is.  Instead, they just assume their partner shares a lot of the same beliefs.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t black and white and right and wrong can at times be subjective.  So when it comes to core values, simply assuming someone shares them can often lead to disappointment.

Here’s a little rule of thumb I have.  If someone does something “bad”, and you are shocked because it seems so out of character for them – that’s probably a good thing.  It means they either don’t do things like that often or they just rarely get caught (I’m a glass is half full kind of guy, so I’ll take it to mean they don’t do things like that very often).

If they do something and you find yourself going “sigh, again?”, then maybe that’s just who they are (or more accurately who they CHOOSE to be).  And in that case, you’ve got to ask yourself if that’s a person you really want to be with.

Of course, WHAT they do is also pretty significant.

If someone is “mostly” awesome, but oh yeah they also happen to be a serial killer?  That MAY be a problem for you.

Or maybe not, after all different people have their own boundaries on what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Murderer/sex offender/drug dealer are fairly universally accepted as “deal breakers” for relationships.

For many, finding out their partner is an adulterer/cheater is also a deal breaker (though many who believe that find things are a bit more murky than expected when actually faced with that situation).

 

To me, affairs show a complete lack of integrity.  I see them as the ultimate selfish act, as they are all about choosing “me” at the expense of “we”.

I understand the conditions that lead to affairs.  I understand when a couple is struggling, when someone feels unhappy in their relationship and/or with themselves.  I understand that having other people show interest in you feels good, and when in a bad spot mentally/emotionally people want more of that feeling.  I understand the dopamine rush that comes with new relationships, and the sense of freedom that comes with being able to do what you want, and not have to worry about the restrictions that come with relationships.

When you hear stories of people who have affairs, there are a lot of things they are feeling and a lot of reasons they do what they do.  And I think I kinda/sorta get that.

Even still, I KNOW I would never have an affair (even if I had Gyges ring allowing me to escape consequences).

Because if you truly care about and respect the person you are with, an affair is completely disrespectful to that person.  So I would NEVER do that to someone else.

And beyond that what I would be doing to someone else, I simply think that it’s wrong.  And I know I could never live with ME if I were to do that.

 

Being You

I guess that’s the point of doing the right thing.  It’s not about someone else.  It’s not about consequences, and what other people would think if they found out.

It’s about you.

It’s about what you truly believe, and what beliefs you are willing to stand up for.

In the past while I’ve written about being authentic, and being true to yourself.  Well, integrity and doing the right thing is a huge part of that.

Not saying one thing, yet doing another.  Not hiding parts of yourself and presenting a different version of yourself to different audiences.  Not denying fault, blaming or rationalizing your actions when you screw up.

But knowing who you are, and owning your choices and actions.  Being who you are in all aspects of your life, and living a life you believe in.

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Independence and Interdependance

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I was talking to a buddy recently, and he told me that there was something he wanted to buy for himself. It was around a $500 item (not cheap, but not crazy expensive), so he asked his wife if she minded if he bought it. She said yes she was fine with it, so he went out and bought the item.

When he told me this I asked him what he would have done if she had said no.

After thinking about it a bit, he responded that he really didn’t know. Thankfully, that hadn’t come up.

I didn’t ask the question to be a jerk, and I don’t think there’s really a right or wrong answer. But the scenario illustrates to me one of the most difficult aspects of a relationship; the balance between “we” and “me”.

We are all individuals first and foremost, with our own needs and wants. When we become part of a couple though, we become something more. That’s not to say that you cease to be an individual when you become part of a couple. But it does raise the question of how these two identities co-exist.

Where does the individual end and the couple begin?

Doing What You Want

To me that is at once the biggest change and biggest sacrifice in a relationship. You are building your life with another person, so you can no longer act like you are single.

You can’t just “do what you want” anymore. Yet at the same time, what you want still matters.

That’s not a problem when your needs and wants line up with your partners. But in any relationship there will be times that they don’t.

This can present a conundrum, and it’s not easy to find the balance between independence and inter-dependence.

To anyone who says they can do whatever they want in their relationship, I say you are either kidding yourself or you are selfish. And if you’re being selfish? Well, that goes against one of my 3 rules/guidelines for a successful relationship; and when you act that way over an extended period of time I believe your relationship will suffer for it. So it’s probably not a formula for long term success.

I suppose it may feel like you can do whatever you want if your wants happen to always line up with that are beneficial to the couple; but I doubt that ever happens all the time.

You shouldn’t feel constantly restricted in your relationship, and if you do it’s probably not a healthy relationship for you. But I think it’s safe to say that in a relationship there will always be times when you need to sacrifice what you want for the benefit of the couple.

 

Seeking Permission

Going back to my buddy’s scenario, did he really need to get her permission? If it’s something he wanted, should he have had to ask her to buy something for himself, or should he have just gone out and done it? And if he really wanted it, what should he have done if she had said no?

I’ve seen different opinions on this kind of thing before. Sometimes I see people get angry at the thought of having to “ask for permission”. Taking the approach that it’s their money and they can and should be able to do with it what they want.
Others belittle someone for “asking for permission”, as if it’s a sign of weakness. Sadly this is normally men, making macho statements and questioning the “manhood” of someone who asks for permission from their wife.

Here’s my stance:

Did he need to ask her permission? No, of course not. He’s an individual who is capable of making his own decisions. However asking her, or at least saying something like “hey, I’m thinking of doing this – any concerns?” is a way of being respectful and including her in the decision making process. And in a relationship, that’s pretty damned important.

Should someone have to include their partner in every decision? Of course not. Some decisions yes, and it’s really a judgement call as to which decisions warrant some level of discussion vs. which ones you just do on your own.

For example, you probably wouldn’t even think about mentioning to your partner that you are meeting a buddy for lunch. You may mention it in passing, but if so you probably are not looking for their input. However it’s *probably* best to get input before you do something like come home with a new car.

It really comes down to whether or not your decision impacts the other person, and how much.

I recently wrote a post about the idea that what affects one person often affects both. In it I used sex as an example of something that affects both people, but the post was never really about sex. It was about relationships, and how you really need to take the other person into account and consider how your decisions and actions impact them.

When you are in a committed relationship, life isn’t just you anymore. So for the health of your relationship you probably shouldn’t act like it is. One person should never dictate the terms of the relationship.

Unfortunately we often misjudge and underestimate how our choices can impact our partners. That’s probably one of the biggest problems that leads to hurt and resentment in relationships. People make decisions they think only impacts them (and therefore shouldn’t be a big deal); when the other person feels they should have been involved. When you don’t feel involved, you don’t feel valued. And it can breakdown closeness and connection between a couple.

I think it’s always important to consider your partner when making choices. If you don’t think your decision will impact them, go ahead and do it. But if you know it will, or even if you aren’t sure, then discuss it with them first.

Yes, it lessens your autonomy. Really, that’s the trade off in a relationship – you aren’t just you anymore. And for those questioning the manhood of someone who involves their partner in decisions, I fail to see how trying to be respectful and inclusive makes someone any less of a man (or woman).

 

When You Can’t Agree

Now what if you really want something, and when you discuss it with your partner they say no?

In that case, I think it really depends on the reason given.

Are they saying no because it will impact other things and goals you are working towards? If so, is it really “no”, or is it a case where now isn’t a good time? Or are they saying no because they don’t like the idea, or they feel it’s frivolous?

In relationships I think one of our primary roles is to be each other’s cheerleaders. To support each other and help each other grow. Just because you don’t understand why something is important to the other person doesn’t mean it isn’t. So saying no because you feel something is frivolous isn’t very supportive.

On the other hand, saying no because it’s frivolous AND you need a new car and you are saving for braces for little Johnny or little Sally is a bit more understandable. Although it’s great to be your partners cheerleader, sometimes we also need to be their conscience when they aren’t seeing the bigger picture.

Of course, if it’s something that’s truly important to you even in spite of those things, you should be able to explain that and make a case why and do it anyway. It may cause some conflict for a while, but if it really is important to one person the other person should be able to understand.

So I guess my take on this is, yes you should be able to do what you want.  But at the same time what you want should definitely be influenced by your consideration and caring for your partner and how your choices impact them.

 

 

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Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence

Relationships aren’t always easy. Like anything else in life, they have peaks and valleys. They have times where everything is going well, and couples are happy. At other times though conflict and problems arise, challenging and potentially threatening the relationship.

This is because we are first and foremost individuals. With our own needs, wants, and expectations for our life. And in a relationship we are trying to build a life with another individual who’s needs and wants will never perfectly match our own.

I recently read an article on dating that talked about this ideas that relationships start as looking for fulfillment of our own needs:

If you’re thinking that I’m telling you to use someone for your own benefit, you’re right: It is. But if you think dating is anything more than that, you’re confused. We date people to satisfy OUR wants and OUR needs. Once we find the right person, things get less selfish and egocentric.

This really sums up the dilemma people face with relationships. We start them because of what they do for us. We like how the person makes US feel, how well they meet OUR needs, and OUR wants.

When we are first getting to know them, we may think they are nice, or kind. But honestly, we don’t give a crap about them.

It’s all about us, and what they do for us.

But this sort of approach to a relationship is not sustainable in the long term. For a relationship to be successful, we need to become more than just two individuals spending time together. Instead of seeing the relationship as a vehicle for our own gratification, we have to start to see ourselves as part of a “we”.

And finding this balance between “me” and “we” is at the heart of all relationship problems.

This is less of an issue when you are dating, because dating is a facade. In dating, although we are *hopefully* being honest and being ourselves a part of us is also trying to be what we think they want in order to impress them.

In a long term setting this perfectly built facade breaks down, and the unedited version of the person comes out. Sometimes that person is VERY different from the one that was initially presented (in which case it’s probably a good time to get out – fast). Other times it’s largely the same person, but with a few more rough edges.

And when these rough edges start to show, it becomes apparent that this other person isn’t actually perfect (gasp!!!). They actually do have flaws, and to maintain a relationship with them our needs won’t always be met.

A Part of Something Bigger

When the flaws and problems start to surface, in order to sustainable the relationship, the focus on “me” has to change. You have to be willing to let your own ego take a back seat, and the only way to do that is if you see yourself as part of something bigger – a part of a couple, or a team.

If you look at the world of sports, there are many, many cautionary tales of people who has all the talent in the world. They were amazing athletes, and skilled from an “individual” standpoint. But their focus was them, and how the team was helping or hindering their career. This sort of focus is not conducive to a healthy team, and usually athletes who bring in this focus are eventually cut loose. To truly be successful, then need to embrace the concept of “team”.

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That may be sports, but the same rules apply in any team setting; including relationships.

What allows people to do this is sometimes referred to as Emotional Intelligence.
There are all sorts of definitions for emotional intelligence, and a high level of emotional intelligence is often correlated with high levels of success – both personally and in a career setting.

Wikipedia defines emotional intelligence as:

the ability to recognize one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.

One of the ways of identifying emotional intelligence is through self-awareness, self-regulation and empathy.

  • Self-awareness is being aware of your own emotional state, and knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Self-regulation is about being able to control your emotions, and not allowing emotions to control your decisions and actions (in an impulsive fashion).
  • Finally, empathy is being able to understand other people’s emotions, and taking them into account when making decisions.

What is a Relationship

Dating is about having fun. It’s about having your needs met. And when they aren’t, you move on.

Relationships on the other hand are a bit more complicated. They are about building a partnership, and sharing your life with someone else. They involve both good times and bad, so they require both commitment and a willingness to work through conflict.

In a relationship, a high level of emotional Intelligence is perhaps the most important characteristic you can have. You NEED to be able to take the needs and wants of your partner into account in almost everything you do.

Does this mean you “give up you”? Does it mean your needs don’t matter? No, not at all.

You still matter. It’s not about giving up on your needs. But you aren’t the only thing that matters. Your partner also needs to matter to you. And when these needs conflict (which WILL happen at times) you need to be able to reach a common ground. That common ground may not be ideal for you, but sometimes the “we” needs to be bigger than the “me”.

Not All about you

Relationship Breakdown

When relationships start to break down, a common complaint is that one or both parties start “acting like they are single”. This doesn’t mean they are going out messing around with other people (though it could). Usually what it means is that empathy has broken down.

Empathy in a relationship is about taking your partner into account, and understanding that your actions impact them. Understanding that even if something isn’t important to you, it still needs to be a priority if it’s important to your partner.

The offending partner often stops taking the other person into account. Or maybe they still do, but only when that persons needs happen to line up with their own (in which case it doesn’t really count, does it?).

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As it says above, focusing on yourself and doing what is best for you isn’t exactly the best recipe for a successful relationship.

A truly successful (and happy) relationship requires a reasonable degree of emotional intelligence by both parties. It requires empathy – considering your partner and taking them into account at all times.

In times of stress the world tends to turn inwards, and emotional intelligence breaks down. Thankfully, like anything else it is a skill that can be worked on and developed.

If your relationship is going through a hard time, always try to keep you partner in mind. Emotional intelligence, and empathy, is the key to long term success.

Behind the Masks

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Who are you?

By that, I’m referring to the “true” you.

I’ve written previously about the roles that we play, and how they impact us. We all play a number of different roles. Parent, child, sibling, friend, co-worker, lover.

Are all of these things simply roles? Are they acts that we put on, depending on our audience? Or are they components of who we “really are”?

Who are we? Is there actually a “true” you?

Who are You?

The idea of a “true you” has always interested me.

If it exists, when was it formed? Did you have the seeds of this true you when you were an infant? Did it start when you started attending school?

I guess it is the age old nature/nurture debate, but to me it seems clear that if it exists, it is something that formed over time. I suppose there may be some seeds to your personality in your genetic makeup, but your experiences definitely contribute to shaping who you are.

If we can accept that experience at least contributes to the “true you”, then the question becomes:

When (if ever) are you “complete”? When it your identity fully formed?

Did it stop when you became a teenager? When you reached the age of majority?

I definitely changed when I became a parent. And over the last few years I’ve watched my parents’ generation go from being the adults to the seniors, while I have gone from being one of the younger generation to being part of the adult generation.

During this time I have watched children grow into young adults. I have watched people fall in love, marriages fail. People get sick, loved ones die. I have watched great joy, love, anger and sadness.

These things impact you. The experiences change you.

So if I’m constantly changing, who am I? Was the “me” at 20 any more or less valid than the “me” I was at 30? Or 40?

Losing Yourself

We all have many roles we play in our lives, and each of these roles comes with a set of unwritten rules and expectations.

The behavior that is “acceptable” as a student is different from what is acceptable as a child, a friend, a parent, a co-worker, a lover. The list goes on.

Conforming to these acceptable behaviors can be like donning a mask, and sometimes we let the masks slip. For example, I don’t swear often, but have a tendency to in times of frustration or anger. Even still, there’s a part of me that knows that it’s different to swear with my buddies vs. in front of my children. I make that distinction at a subconscious level. Yet I have sworn in front of my children, and in those moments my “parent mask” has slipped.

When it does, is it the “true me” that is coming out?

I don’t think so. It’s a side of me, sure. I don’t believe the true me is someone who goes around swearing all the time. The true me also isn’t someone who never swears. I will occasionally, out of frustration or anger. But I would like to think the true me know which situations are appropriate, and which aren’t.

Sometimes juggling all the roles we play can seem overwhelming. And in doing so, at times it can seem like we have lost sight of ourselves, and we aren’t even sure who we are anymore under all those roles.

I think this sense of losing ourselves happens when we act the way we think people want us to act. People talk about “authenticity” as being true to yourself. And if we aren’t being authentic then the roles we play become just that – roles. We become like actors, trying to put on the appropriate mask for the appropriate setting.

When we do this, we lose sight of who we are.

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Finding Yourself Again

But wait a minute? Didn’t I just say that we all have many roles to play, and there are certain expectations associated with these roles?

Shouldn’t we have to meet those expectations?

This is where the challenge comes in. We do all have roles we play in our lives, but at the same time we should never just be “playing” a role.

Instead, we need to find ways to make that role our own.

Let me explain…

I’m a father, and my dad was my biggest influence for what a father is. After all, he’s what I grew up with. But I’m not the father my dad was, or the father his dad was. I can never be him. I need to define what it being a father means to me, and that’s the father I need to be. But even this isn’t “fixed”.

The father I was to my children when they were babies is different from the father I am to my children now. I learn, adapt, and change.

I’m sure other people look at some of my parenting techniques and see things I’m doing “wrong”. Well, yeah. I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong. But hopefully I’m also doing a lot of things right. And most importantly, I’m finding an approach that works for me. It’s fluid.

A harder one is my role as a husband.

Similar to learning to be a parent, I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong. Hopefully I’m doing a lot of things right too. The thing is, I’m sure my wife has certain expectations of me. And I likewise have certain expectations of her.

This presents a challenge, because if I do something simply because it’s expected of me then I’m just playing a role or putting on a mask. But at the same time there ARE expectations, and I can’t just pick and choose the parts I want to deal with, or the ones I am comfortable with at a given moment.

As a couple, you need to be clear with each other what your expectations are. No one’s expectations will match completely, and this can be a significant source of conflict in relationships.

Bridging this gap is important to the success of a relationship.

You should never feel like you are playing a role, or doing things simply because they are expected of you. But at the same time, when you are in a relationship you do have responsibilities to the other person.

I think this is where empathy comes in.

For both members of a relationship to feel valued, there must be a belief that both members needs and expectations matter to the other person – even when they don’t match.

Accepting this allows you adjust your expectations somewhat, and fill a role without just playing the role. It allows you to make it your own, and find a way to fill the role that seems natural for you.

It is only when you do this that you are being true to yourself.

When you do this, it’s not just a role. It becomes part of you.

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Embracing Change

Identity can be a difficult thing, and I don’t think there are any “easy” answers to the question of who we are.

But I don’t believe there is a “true you”. Or rather, the true you is always evolving and always changing.

We have countless roles we play in our lives, and each of them shapes us. But at the same time, we don’t have to let them define us.

So who am I?

The true me is both good and bad. It’s full of all sorts of flaws and contradictions. And all of these pieces are all still me.

I’m all sorts of things. I’m a father, a husband, a friend, a co-worker, a son, etc. All of these things are me, and all of them make up my identity. But I am not any single one of these.

And no matter which role I am playing at a given time, all of them are still “me”.