Alain de Botton's New York Times article "Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person" leaves us with a false understanding of relationships: that because there is no such thing as a perfect being who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning, we should accept a lackluster relationship with humor and accepted suffering. I'll explain to you why even though de Botton is correct that no one is right for you, incredible romance is still very much possible.Read More
Why you cheat, or why you would cheat, depends very little on physical attraction.
Recently another client who had cheated - and felt emotionally distraught and confused about - it came to me for counseling. Although these situations make me feel bummed and I don't condone cheating (meaning non-monogamy that isn't agreed on in advance), I have a lot of empathy for the humanity in breaking the boundaries of one's relationship and feel a lot of forgiveness for anyone who makes a mistake and wants to own it and rectify it. You and I all have ways in which we betray our sense of integrity and honesty, and this is a tough example that gets a lot of bad press.
In addition to the care and interest I feel for all of my clients, I really enjoy working with these men and women, partially because I find the discussion of monogamy and non-monogamy fascinating, and also in part because it's been kind of a research study for me, the details of which follow.
On the surface, cheating seems fairly simple. You, I, whoever finds someone sexually attractive and desirable enough to forgo the boundaries you've created in your relationship for that sexual gratification with this hot person. Maybe you're bored with your partner. Maybe he or she annoys you a lot now. Maybe he or she doesn't seem as hot to you anymore. And here is this new, shiny, sexy person who is drawing you in and seducing you more and better than your partner does.
I think it's fair to assume that some cheating is purely sexual attraction, kind of like I'm trying to present above. I mean, if I imagine Kate Upton or Devon Brugman were standing naked in front of me, it's simply tough - as a human that still, for the most part, has decision making skills that are about 80 percent the same as the instinctual animals that we see in the woods - to say no to someone that objectively sexy. (Insert female version of this point here. I don't want to degrade anyone here who's into men by assuming I know who the hottest men in the world are.) Nevertheless, many of the people who I've worked with who cheated will admit to me that the person who he or she has cheated with, or wants to cheat with, is less attractive overall than his or her original partner. So where does this fit?
I've noticed a pattern in cheating. People who cheat (ones who I know or have worked with) invariably do not feel accepted entirely (loved for who they are, however you want to say it) by their partners. They feel that their partners do not understand them or see them completely, and/or if they did they wouldn't be okay with it. Generally, they believe that their partners wish they were different in some way.
If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. If you feel someone doesn't completely get you or accept you, that part that therefore isn't okay will remain dormant and pent up inside. Yet, because for whatever unknown reason people have a need to be seen and accepted by themselves and others for all parts, these repressed aspects will come up for attention. And a good, sure-fire way for attention and validation is sex. What occurs to you or I as sexual attraction in the moment will in many cases actually be a need to be accepted or seen. (If you're scoffing at this because it sounds like new-agey nonsense I understand, but unfortunately I am correct.)
See, the human mind and consciousness are incredible, and sex in our day and age is much more complicated than the biological need to procreate. Our minds link together things that don't necessarily go together too well (for more on this read about heuristics and priming in the brain), and we end up feeling sexually attracted to someone for a reason that isn't all that sexual. Every human experience is very complex, but sex is one of the most complex because of how ingrained it is into our culture, and therefore daily life.
The point is that if you feel the need to break the stated boundaries of your relationship by having sex with someone else, or some other action that could be considered a betrayal, the first place you should look is at the ways you don't feel accepted by your partner. If you can't find anything here, look for the things that you believe they'd be okay with, but you hold back anyway because of your own fear. (There's a couple sub-points to note here: 1) you can make up things that you think your partner won't accept, so it's your job to just be honest and then they can deal with their shit, and 2) it's also important to create a place in your relationship to understand, if your partner has expressed concern about a part of you, why this is the case for them - what is it about this action in you that they fear?)
A successful, long-term relationship is one in which both people are willing to be entirely revealed. If this is not the case in your relationship, you must work on understanding and being understood. Try to find the gaps in the parts of you and your partner that want to be heard, revealed, understood, cared-for, but are not. I promise you that if you take the risk and tell the truth, the relationship will be brought to a whole new level of love. (Or you will find out that your partner actually isn't a good partner for you and you can consciously move on. Either way, I think that's good.)
The desire to hide begets an unfortunate but relatively common relationship goal: to keep it going. Right along side that goal is the goal to be thought of as good, or be liked or loved by your partner. The problem is that if you try to be loved for only some parts of yourself out of fear that the whole of yourself will cause conflict or dislike, those rejected parts will end up making their way out with someone else or in some other situation.
As I have mentioned a fair amount in previous posts, humans have needs. In some ways, this is obvious. For example, it's clear that if I do not eat, I will die. Yet, it's also true, and not so clear, that if I do not have human connection, I will not live well at best, go insane at medium, and, again, die at worst. (Usually only babies die of lack of connection, but there have been links between life span and social life.)
In the scientifically and materialistically (e.g. atheists) minded communities, it's very common to reduce every issue or behavior to something relating to the desire to survive. However, this isn't a complete view of human life. A simple, but perhaps flawed, example of this is to think about what would have someone jump in front of a bullet for someone else. Another point to consider is what would have humans evolve to think at all. Animals survive fine without thinking, and, in many cases, emoting capacity.
In any case, we as humans have different realms within us. We have the physiological realm of the body and body chemistry that functions mostly without our being aware of it. We have the realm of feelings, where we have emotions. Emotions are also body chemistry, but we can be aware of them. Then we have the realm of thinking. Thinking is also body-related, but is the most superficial, new, and least in control part of our selves. Thinking is fundamentally self-awareness.
Of course, we can be broken down into many different parts, and all parts of the body are interconnected (also the great neuroscientist Damasio says, it's basically impossible to denote where body chemistry's impact on our self-awareness ends and our awareness's impact on it begins), but the reason I do it this way is to discuss fundamental insecurities. The reason I want to discuss fundamental insecurities is because they come up a lot in relationships.
I propose that the fundamental need of our biological self is survival. Therefore, the fundamental insecurity and question of this part of ourselves is safety. Am I safe?
In a relationship, this will come up a lot. You will be with your partner and something they do or say will make you feel fear for your wellbeing. When you feel taken care of, you will feel joy. Therefore, I also propose that the fundamental upsetting emotion of the body is fear and the fundamental comforting emotion of the body is happiness.
You would use this as a practical tool by noticing when you are afraid and pinpointing what is happening in the situation that is making you feel unsafe.
I propose that the foundational need of our emotional self is connection, and the question of "Am I connected?" is the most important for this realm and creates the most insecurity. However, I also believe this is kind of a misnomer, because connection in many cases means an exchange of love, or some kind of loving act. So you could also say the question is "Am I loved?"
Therefore, I believe the fundamental comforting emotion of the feeling part of you is love and the fundamental upsetting emotion is sadness, the sadness you experience when you feel disconnected.
So when you're having an emotional issue that makes you feel sad, you can try to pinpoint what is disconnecting you from your partner and how can you connect back together.
I propose that the fundamental need of our thinking part of ourselves is understanding. Therefore the most basic question and insecurity of our thoughts is "What does this mean?" "What's the point?"
This is both a cosmic issue, meaning that we seem to crave to understand the meaning of life, but also a personal issue in that we don't know what we are doing in relationships, why we want certain things, why someone would want us or the fear that they really don't, that there is something we are missing.
When we do not understand something, we become frustrated, angry. Therefore, I believe the most basic upsetting emotional experience of the thinking part of us is anger, and the most basic comforting emotional experience of the thinking part of us is the "a-ha," or the surprise of new clarity.
So for this as a tool, if you're feeling angry in your relationship, you can try to understand what it is that you do not get about yourself or your partner. What do you not understand about a situation? What question do you have? What do you want to know that you just can't let go of?
In a recent couple's session, I realized something about fighting and anger, a small piece of truth that can help curb even the nastiest of fights. It goes like this.
First of all, what is anger? Fundamentally--although there is some disagreement about this--emotions can be boiled down to two foundation points: love and fear. Emotion literally means "to move," and love is movement toward something and fear is movement away from it. Most people instinctively understand this to some degree, and can note that their body responds in certain ways to different emotions that they're feeling.
Most people view anger as a "negative emotion," meaning that it is uncomfortable to feel and generally leads to something destructive--like saying something you regret or destroying something you actually love. While I'm sure we can all tell stories about the shit that anger has gotten us into, it's actually derived from something that feels good and enhances our wellbeing: the desire to connect with another person.
Here's what happens. Humans have an innate need to connect with other people. Why, exactly, isn't totally clear at this point, but we do know for sure that it's a need, like eating and sleeping. There are layers of needs--emotional, survival, spiritual, for example--and human connection is at least two of the three listed. Babies will die if they do not have prolonged contact with other humans, even if they are totally well-fed and clothed.
So you feel some pull to connect with another person--maybe it's the first time or maybe it's a time in a long string of times of connecting, like in a romantic relationship. Something happens that calls your connection into question, for example maybe your partner doesn't call when he or she said. What happens then? Well you get angry!
However, actually you get fearful then angry, but perhaps this happens so fast that you don't notice it. You get afraid in that moment when your connection is called into question because of an action that isn't what you expected. Remember what happens when you get fearful? You move away.
Now you're metaphorically and perhaps literally moved away from the person, but if the connection or desire for connection is strong enough you'll have a gravitational pull that brings you back to them. However, in this moment you're feeling fear and not love--or at least fear overwhelming the love--so how do you move back toward them? You must experience an emotion that corresponds to the situation. Cue anger.
As I said, anger is often actually a misguided attempt at connection with another person. This person has betrayed your trust and expectation in some way, maybe small or maybe large. They have called into question your connection with them. But you still want to be close. Anger accomplishes all of these needs: anger is a emotion that moves toward another and it also expresses dissatisfaction.
Okay great. So now what? What do you do with this anger?
First, notice the way I said above what caused the anger. I made it all about the other person--it's his or her fault. But what actually happened? Our partner did something and it made us feel unsure about something. And now you're stuck in an argument. The way into this situation was actually at least half yourself. Yes, the other person did something but you reacted. So first we must turn the lens back on ourselves, and this brings us to question one.
1) What am I feeling? (Or: What are you feeling? If it's one partner trying to diffuse another and not his or herself.)
By simply stating what you're feeling, it allows you to connect with your partner in a non-threatening way, which was the entire point from the beginning. It also creates a break in the action, which can calm the situation.
But going back, what caused this situation? Remember? The connection was called into question. This is very important because I mean that a question was literally created in your head. Maybe it was am I loved? Can I trust her? Does he accept me the way I am? How are my parents going to react to this? What does this say about his parenting style? It may sound bizarre, but this uncertainty paired with the high stakes situation of love can create incredible anger in some people. So this brings us to the second question.
2) What is the question (or few questions) that is (are) unanswered?
So recap. You're in a fight with your partner and he or she is getting super angry with you. You want to work it out but everything you're saying seems to make it worse. (Or maybe this is complete reverse--you're angry and everything he or she says seems to make it worse.) You ask the two questions: 1) What are you feeling? And 2) What is the question you have that is unanswered?
This is not to say that all fights are angry. People can fight sad, fight fearful, fight shameful, etc. And this is also not to say that the cause of anger is always this and just this. However, I promise you that if you deal with arguments by asking these questions first to diffuse the situation, you can create a dialogue that will allow for actually working things out and making a better relationship.
Have you ever heard of a successful relationship where both parties were 100 percent sure about it, all the time over all the years they've been together? I haven't.
Right now, a relationship advice article called "Fuck Yes or No" by Mark Manson is going viral on Facebook. Mark makes a lot of good points, the most important and over-arching of which is that if a situation isn't a "Fuck Yes" relative to what you want out of the relationship then it should be a "No."
The grey area Mark speaks about does cause all sorts of problems. People stay in ambiguous, destructive relationships for all sorts of probably unhealthy reasons, and romance causes them misery when it could be, yes, still challenging but also incredibly fulfilling.
I'm talking about a short-ish blog post, and, based on the rest of Mark's site that I generally really agree with, I assume there is more depth Mark could elucidate on the topic, but the way that it's presented is quite incomplete and his conclusion of "The Law of Fuck Yes or No" commits a persuasive but invalid logical fallacy.
I agree with Mark most when he says that the problem with advice in this grey area is that it tries to solve the issues with overly specific and stupid interventions. This methodology of Cosmo and other relationship advice columns treats romance like a problem to be solved instead of a life to be lived. There are no comprehensive answers in relationships, because as soon as you get one a new question or tension arises. This is just how romantic relationships operate--"they are the hardest work, but the best work," i.e. they are ongoing processes, not clear-cut math problems with empirical solutions.
"Fuck Yes or No," however, falls short in that it criticizes this issue and then presents an only slightly higher-level intervention of the same form. Needing to know things for sure, with complete certainty, to act and be--which category of thought both the solutions Mark critiques and his own solutions fall into--can be terribly detrimental to our lives. It causes us give up on things, blaming the environment instead of looking at ourselves, without ever learning any lesson from it. We say: "Oh this must be wrong" because the answer isn't obvious, and then we simply rinse and repeat the same pattern next month. By saying "Fuck Yes or No," we take love--one of the most complicated parts of life--and attempt to simplify and solve it. If (A) then (B), but if (C) then (D)--plain, simple, easy. Attraction and love are rarely, if ever, this simple.
Yes, Mark, we do work jobs with no pay called internships because they give us skills that make us more valuable. Many people own dogs that bite them and bond with the dog and it stops biting them and they become long-term companions. We do hang out with friends that regularly ditch us because maybe we appreciate that they have a lot demanded of their lives and can't always commit well and we appreciate the time together when we get it. No relationship is black or white, and while it's useful and true to know that grey relationships aren't necessarily healthy in general, that doesn't mean they don't have value or purpose and that we should delete the person's number. This view is unsophisticated.
Issue two is that Mark observes a problem and constructs a solution that skips a few steps. In context, processes are made up of small conflicts and resolutions that blend together into one longer period of time, often infinite. I mean that while we shouldn't fundamentally view romance as a problem to be solved, we still must make decisions we think are right and go with them. In some cases, certainly leaving a non-"Fuck Yes" relationship would fall into this category. But does it all the time?
"Fuck Yes or No" is a version of a logical fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc. This is where you observe a series of events and conclude that one causes the other without conclusive evidence this is true. The classic example is when you wake up to a wet lawn and determine it must have rained the night before. However, this is invalid because many other options--sprinklers, broken fire hydrant, dew--could be possible.
In this case, Mark implies: because people in grey--non-"Fuck Yes" relationships--are generally unhappy in love and seeking out romantic advice, then those grey relationships must be the direct cause of that dissatisfaction. But this is not completely accurate--if you keep finding yourself in the same perceived situation across different circumstances, it's likely that it's something to do with you and not them.
Moreover, he assumes: a "Fuck Yes" feeling must come from a totally healthy place and from the perfect attraction of two well-matched people, when we know that is not wholly, or even perhaps remotely, correct. Think about all the times in your life you've had big "Fuck Yeses" and then couldn't stand the person some short time later. An evolutionarily developed brain chemical called PEA creates this lusty, obsessive feeling and it lasts at most until our bodies decide any offspring would be old enough to be on their own, so it's ridiculous to trust a "Fuck Yes" anymore than we trust our basic instincts for getting us into a grey area.
"Fuck Yes or No" blames the environment--i.e. the relationship between the two people as a whole--for personal issues--my, yours, or our dissatisfaction--and fails to look at the reality of attraction and romance and what brings people together.
When I work with people and they come to me with a grey-area romance situation, I usually express two big picture options. First, maybe this person is not a good fit for you, but there is some repressed or unknown part of you that creates an emotional compulsion toward them where you can't leave even though you know you should. Second, this person is a great fit for you, but, again, you don't know yourself well enough to know what you actually like in a person and where you need to grow and become more skillful. Additionally, you likely want--i.e. believe you want--in a partner what you idealize yourself to be like or what you wish you were like.
From here, the action to take (whether to say "Fuck Yes" or leave) is a secondary question--as, in my opinion, it should be. The next obvious step is to engage with the inquiries. What would have you staying with someone who treats you like shit? What part of you wants that? What negative aspects of your personality are you blind to where you're blaming someone who could be a great partner to you for something that's really stemming from your own weakness?
By understanding yourself and your own relationship history better, the partners that you will find in your life and seek out will be partners that don't cause the type of intense misery that Mark talks about. Instead there's an opportunity for positive, but still hard, challenging growth. Because in most cases, the cause of relationship grey areas and unhappiness isn't your chemistry with the other person, it's your own lack of self-awareness.
It was late, we we're making mac and cheese, we had been drinking, and I found myself telling her, "You just need to put yourself out there." I regretted it immediately, but I wasn't sure quite why until she responded, "I HAVE!"
At first I felt bad. I pride myself on helping people, on giving relationship advice that is not trite, that breaks through boundaries. Here, I seemed to make my friend more closed down when she was already feeling bad. I listened to myself say the most cliched sentence in all of relationship lore.
I felt shitty for the rest of the night and early morning, and I fell asleep thinking about what she needed instead. What coaching should I have given her. What could she consider that would help her act, think, or feel differently--to get what she really wanted.
Then something struck me. I was--as they say in life coaching parlance--chewing on "You've gotta put yourself out there." I repeated it to myself. You've gotta put yourself out there. You've gotta put yourself out there. And then a new sentence popped into my head: You've gotta put yourself in here. Meaning that instead of blaming the environment--"There's no good people in this city," or "All the good ones are taken"--or over-generalizing the potential partners--"Women are so crazy," or "No one would ever want to date me; I'm too much to deal with," or "Guys just want to fuck and ditch you; they don't want anything serious."--you can look at your own behavior and how you, yourself, contribute to attracting people you don't want or not attracting anyone at all.
Over my short time on this planet, I've met tons of great people--diverse folks with diverse relationship and general interests, and people who would make great partners to a lot of us. And many of them are single, looking, yet not finding. Yes, some of it is a numbers and timing issue, and meeting and choosing a partner is complex. Yet, if we take this particular piece of the puzzle, we see that so many of us love to play the victim role instead of taking responsibility for ourselves, how we behave, and therefore what we attract. Because of this we continue to get the same results and keep ourselves safe by blaming something exterior. I've met very few people in my lifetime--although granted some of them do exist--who say: "She was beautiful, honest, fun, really knew herself and was confident, anddddd...I'm just not interested."
Relationship experts agree that we attract people who are well matched to all of ourselves, not just the parts we idealize, and we find ourselves with people who trigger exactly what we need to learn. Therefore, if you're not meeting people you like or meeting anyone at all, it's likely due to the fact that you don't really know yourself or have an honest perception of who you are.
Instead of putting yourself out there, learn about yourself--work on yourself. Learn about who you are, what all of you is drawn toward--consciously and subconsciously--your fears, your traumas, even, gasp, your relationship with your opposite sex parent. All of these factors contribute to who you are and what type of people you attract. What lessons do you need to learn? Where are your edges and how can you grow?
I promise by putting yourself in here, you'll be much more likely to attract a good partner and have a successful relationship. When you put yourself out there, you'll know what you want and where to go to get it.
(After some Facebook conversation about this article, I think it's worth mentioning that none of the critique I made above was at all directed toward the friend to which I'm referring. This experience was simply the impetus for seeing this concept of putting yourself in here.)
There's a scene in the movie Don Jon where a few months into their relationship Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon Levitt, playing two lovers from Jersey, are shopping at Target and Levitt's character Jon says he needs to go grab some Swiff-a pads. Johansson's character Barbara, completely incredulous, suggests that Jon can hire someone to do that for him, baby. Jon says he enjoys cleaning, and Barbara reacts disgustedly, saying the discussion is over--"We're not talking about this anymore"--leading the audience to believe either Barbara feels Jon is too good to clean his own house or more likely that she is too good to be dating someone who cleans his own house.
The premise of this movie is slightly ridiculous, as are the characters, but when watching this scene I thought about how much the core conflict of situation--i.e. Johansson wants Levitt to be someone he is not, and cannot deal healthily with the reality that he isn't an idea, a fantasy, but an actual human being--happens in likely all relationships. In relationships, there comes a time when the honeymoon phase, as they call it, wears off and stressful situations arise and our partners react in ways we aren't used to. In response, we feel upset, sometimes even betrayed, like we don't even know this person.
I can imagine two reasons this is upsetting. First, the situation, or our partner's reaction, makes us feel something that isn't comfortable for us to feel--like that the relationship isn't stable, maybe the person isn't as committed to us as we thought, or that we're with someone who is capable of x and that is something we had previously labeled a "deal breaker." Additionally, maybe it makes us sense something about ourselves that we cannot deal with--I'm not as smart, capable, good...as I thought I am. This threatens my sense of identity, self.
Second, we want to maintain our illusion of who our partner is because if we had to add this new thing we've seen into the equation we may not actually be able to love and accept him or her completely. This schism causes frustration. (Note: Both one and two are things likely happening subconsciously, at least at first.)
When we first meet people, we have no choice but to fill in the blanks of all the things we don't know about them with many unconscious and some conscious assumptions. This is called making a heuristic, and humans do this unconsciously and constantly. An example would be that maybe we've never seen our partner handle an infant, but we've seen him or her play with a puppy so we unconsciously assume that it'd be the same with kids. Only when we see him or her play with a child can we replace the heuristic.
These assumptions, however, create a problem when we make them concrete and we decide our partner fully is what he or she seems to be during the first few months. These months are mostly good and exciting and stimulate the best version of our new partner to come out. The sample size is too small to really know who all the parts of this new person are, as, and this is important, a person is the entire spectrum of everything they're capable of thinking, feeling, and doing during all the stimuli the world can throw at them. Because of this fact, it takes a really, really long time to know someone.
If we hold the first few months or even years as a frozen sculpture of who our partner is, we will often find ourselves in a break up because invariably and inevitably we'll see all of the person over time and won't like those sides as much, as they will come from more negative stressful stimuli. We'll start to think or say things like "This isn't like you" or "He's not like that" when the reality is we're still getting to know the person and we don't know what he or she is like; we know only who we want him or her to be.
During breakfast with Liz yesterday she introduced me to an editor on her current project, noting that she liked him a lot because he took the time to explain to her why he needed and wanted deliveries a certain way.
I responded, "Yeah, it's the same thing in coaching relationships. I tell clients that if you explain to your partner why you want something a certain way, he or she will have a much greater chance of being on board with it. This is why empathy is so important." (Yeah, I have a one track mind sometimes.)
Empathy is one of those ideas that most people know and of which they have some vague definition, yet it's often slanted toward their own experiences and the word sort of lacks a clear and universal meaning. Technically empathy means the ability to understand and embody someone else's experience, especially pertaining to emotion, but I also use it in a looser way to mean understanding where someone is coming from, i.e. what is the meaning they've made in the past that leads to the actions they take in the present. In any relationship, particularly romantic ones, this communication is paramount.
Most of us enter relationships arrogantly, meaning that we have a set of qualities we want in a partner and when we meet someone who fits enough of that list we encourage, often not so gently, her to shift the rest of the way. I think one of the last and most important realizations of young people vis-a-vis romance is that truly no one will ever be everything you think you want in a person (a better question I got from a friend and tremendous money coach is "Does she encourage you to be all the people you want to be?"), and therefore it's important to accept someone you love for who he is and not attempt to change him into something else. (By the way, I use pronouns interchangeably and I alternate to avoid the cumbersome "he or she".)
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it's totally obnoxious to believe that I, you, or we have this life thing figured out and therefore we know so much better what's right and wrong or good and bad than this partner we want to change so fervently. Nevertheless, it's hard to love someone for exactly who she is, and it's certainly appropriate to ask our partner for behavior or ways of communicating that we need or want to be different. This is a delicate balance.
An important step to gain balance between A) complete acceptance and B) constant requests of certain changes from and for both partners is this empathy I talked about, when we understand where our partner is coming from. Two of the same outward actions can strike us in two completely different ways depending on our understanding of the situation that created the action. The greater the understanding, the more our reaction to behaviors will be first curiosity and acceptance and second discernment instead of first judgment and then contempt. A lack of empathy creates contempt, and contempt, perhaps more than any other factor, erodes relationships.
To give an example (one I've used before but from the opposite perspective), when Liz and I started dating she would be out and about with her friends and sometimes come over to my place (or back to our apartment when we started living together later on) after the time she originally suggested without telling me about this time change in advance. She'd always call me when she was on her way, but by that time I'd have been worrying for sometimes an hour or so. I asked her to please call me or text me in the future, but she reacted unhappily to this request and asked me to just know that her ETA was an approximation. At that point, to her I was being un-trusting and smothering and to me she was being unreasonable and insensitive. This topic was hard for both of us and caused some conflict--both of our actions frustrated the other.
Later, as we talked about this more and more, I got the opportunity to explain to Liz that an old girlfriend I really loved had cheated on me and I found out about it after a couple days of radio silence. Therefore, anytime I didn't hear from my girlfriend for any amount of time I'd start to freak. It wasn't that I didn't trust her, it was that I had a past trauma that left a scar in me.
She then explained to me that when she and her friends get together it's very important for them to fully devote themselves to the that time because it happens so infrequently. Because of this fact, none of them really look at their phones for the duration of that time. She was thinking about me and missing me, but it was important to her to have a few hours of time where she isn't tied to a device.
For both of us, when we learned these reasons and meanings that lead to the actions, the upset dissipated and understanding and love came in its place. Our ideal desires remained the same--for her to call or text me and for me to give her space while she was with friends--but we also wanted for the other to get the opposing need met, and hence we tried really hard to accommodate it. The action remained the same in both cases, but how it was taken completely shifted, all because we could have empathy for each other where we before could not.
I'm reading a book called Emotions Revealed by Paul Ekman, a psychologist who is famous for categorizing the relationship between people's facial expressions and the corresponding emotions they are feeling, and also being the person on which the show "Lie to Me" is based.
In Chapter 4 he references John Gottman's claim that when people stonewall their partners (try to resist expressing their emotions and shut down) it's because they are experiencing emotions so strong that they are unable to deal with them. Ekman then goes on to talk about how emotions need to be in proportion to their stimulus, e.g. intense anger can be proportional and correct when you need to fight for your life but not when your partner accidentally forgets to call. I talk about proportional emotions a lot with my clients, as I believe this is a cornerstone of working on oneself--becoming emotionally intelligent such that we don't cause or feel excess suffering.
All of this made me think about hiding things in relationships. This is kind of a silly example, but once Liz and I were trying to put together our new bed and I didn't know how to do it but I assumed I did. Once it became clear that I didn't know how and I also decided, although not really consciously, that I wasn't going to admit this fact, anything Liz said became a trigger for me to freak out at her. Because I was hiding a secret that I didn't know what I was doing, I had to protect that at all costs.
This pertains to bigger things as well--cheating comes to mind. If one partner has cheated and is carrying around that secret, any situation or question that has the potential to reveal it will often create a lot of disproportionate pushing back--anger is common. The other option I've seen a lot is someone who is otherwise normally emotional becoming totally unemotional for a temporary period of time, as if our mind-body understands that it can't reveal emotions because they are the most revealing thing we have and do, and this secret is too risky.
Another aspect of disproportionate emotions is when things that pertain to the situation are hidden even from ourselves, buried away in our subconscious. Instead of conscious omission of information, it's unconscious but has a similar effect. An example here is when I used to get really mad when Liz wouldn't let me know if her plans changed and she'd be home later, for example. My anger was completely disproportionate to her action, which wasn't a huge deal. But I was hiding from both her and myself, i.e. this belief was unconscious, that I am undeserving of love and when she would not check in with me I'd start to get very anxious that the time had come where she'd leave me just like I knew it would.
This is all useful for two reasons. First of all, if your partner becomes overly defensive or completely underwhelmed by something, there is likely more to the story. However, I don't intend this to be a tip where now he or she becomes overly upset and you're now sure he or she cheated and he better confess to you. It could mean any constellation of things that are much less harmful but perhaps embarrassing to him or her, like "Going out with your friends makes me feel like I don't matter when all your attention is on them"--not something any of us wants to admit but very common nonetheless. Therefore, it's very important to simply inquire and be curious about what's going on. Don't assume because the reaction is disproportionate that you know why. You can simply say you noticed that it seems disproportionate relative to his or her normal way of acting.
Second is that when we notice ourselves reacting in this way, we can ask ourselves what it is that we don't know or remember about past events in our lives and/or what fears we have that come up in many different situations that also come into play here. Maybe you scan all these disproportionate reactions and see that it's often or always when someone questions your authority, and then you remember whenever you made a firm choice growing up your mom would undermine you. This is classic therapeutic intervention and it serves to lessen the hold of these intense emotions on you and provide more free will in your reaction.
I like to post in romantic relationship forums--share opinions and hear what people are struggling with--and a few days ago it struck me that most posts and responses share a common format: 1) a situation is presented with varying degrees of detail, 2) the poster asks "What should I do?", and 3) most people respond by making a bunch of assumptions about the issues, motivations, and thoughts of the characters in this situation and then give advice based on those assumptions without learning the true context of the decision. Moreover, I notice that most people I know do this same thing when asking for or giving relationship advice.
Some have accused me of erring on the side of over-communication and honesty, and that could be true, but I stand by the idea that if you're willing to make someone you're romantic partner who is often the most important person, and one most capable of hurting you, in your life, you should be willing and able to share and inquire honestly with them.
In that light, I find it incorrect to approach any relationship issue in the way I presented in the first paragraph because in doing so we take a bunch of unknowns and then make choices with them as foundations--to me this is skipping the most vital step, which is to learn the true answers to the unknowns that we've created assumptions for, which gives us the real context and, in turn, allows for the best decision.
A few days ago, I saw a girl post about her boyfriend who likes to party more than her, and she said she needed to break up with him because he wasn't staying committed to their time together, as he was hungover and therefore needed to cancel. Most respondents to this post started talking about how he clearly wasn't that into her or even said he was an alcoholic. In response, she said that he also spends all his money on partying and is in a bunch of debt.
What motivates us to make choices--especially so in a situation where someone is enacting a clearly harmful behavior--is much more complicated than "He isn't that committed so he is drinking instead of hanging out with me." It's quite possible that he feels very committed to her in his own mind and can't help himself from the partying because that's his comfort zone, or he's afraid of getting too serious because other women hurt him in the past, or something similar, and the drinking gives him the easy out to sabotage the relationship instead of face the fear and communicate. We like to pretend that everything is simple and black and white, especially when we get emotional, but it's just not. And don't forget asking direct questions and admitting to problems is hard for everyone.
It's impossible to answer any question of "What should I do?" without first having all of the information. So what she should do, and what all of us should do, is ask the questions that lead us to making the unknown variables known. In the example I gave above, that might be "Why is partying important to you? Is this something you just simply love to do, or is it a compulsion?" Also note that these questions are different than where most people default to when trying to communicate openly, the ones that end up causing issues--that would be something more like "Why aren't you committed to me?" This question assumes meaning for the partner instead of inquiring into the unknown variables, and I think a lot of people conclude that communicating this literally with their partner is a bad idea because these types of assumptive questions are innately attacking and invariably receive bad results.
Questions that dig into the unknowns give us a lot of information, which we can then use to make decisions with. First, maybe we'll learn that our partner doesn't want to communicate in this way. To me, that's a much better reason to break up than simply assuming he isn't committed based on a singular action that could have 50 different reasons behind it, although it's still kind of thin. Second, when we have the information it becomes much clearer what to do. If he simply isn't that committed then it's easier to leave. If he has a bunch of past shit that is coming into play and he wants help to work on it together, maybe we then want to help work through it while knowing his intentions are positive, or we can decided that this is an issue that doesn't work for us.
Anytime we make a choice it requires context, but we often take the context for granted because in many cases it's obvious. In most cases, we don't ask things like "Should I eat right now?" because the answer becomes obvious if we know whether we are hungry. However, in love there are a bunch of confusing contexts that change with every different person we are with, and it makes choosing very difficult. This is why I think it's so important to learn the contexts--the unknowns about people that we are so fond of assuming instead of learning--first, because we will then be best set up to make the most successful relationship decisions.
Often I have very little desire to have to ask Liz, my fiance, for what I want; I just wish she knew. If you ask me about this, I'll respond in the same way most people do "Of course I know that fairy tale romance is bullshit and you have to be clear and communicate about your needs and desires." However, when I have to be the one communicating, I often take a much more passive approach in real time than I tend to give myself credit for. I notice a lot of people do this same thing.
Even now, when we have evolved so far to accept and create all types of different relationship forms, we still think magically in many romantic circumstances.
"When it's right, you just know." Yes, this is true, but no way other than intuition exists to make a decision with so many variables--i.e. picking the right partner. Maybe it's a mystical force inside us, or maybe it just feels more right than anything else has.
"Fighting is healthy!" Yes, it's also true that if you're relationship doesn't experience conflict then you're likely not engaging with each other, but a lot of intense argument doesn't indicate in itself that a relationship is good, and the fact that fighting is healthy does not make violent communication acceptable.
In the case of asking for what we need, almost none of us would say out loud that we believe our partner should know what we want without having to say it, but in practice, like I did and do with Liz, I've seen almost no people that follow this guideline in real time.
The result is not hard to imagine, one or both partners do not get what they want out of the relationship and this causes pain. In response, one or both partners take passive-aggressive strategies to get those unmet needs met--kind of like a last ditch effort at maintaining the idea that these things can magically happen. For example, you don't ask your partner to split house chores with you and publicly mock him or her for being lazy. This leads to resentment, which in turn moves a relationship toward break up.
We, as modern folks, intellectually understand this issue. Yet, in response, we cite the idea that having to ask for what we want makes the action less special than it would be if our partners just knew what to do. Or, even more common and faux-practical, if we ask for something and then our partner does it, we have to be suspicious that it's not genuine and they are just doing it to be conciliatory. If we buy into these two ideas, it leaves us with no good options.
To me, however, the fact that Liz is willing to take my requests into account and perform some of those actions to make me happy and meet my needs (as long as it isn't harmful to either one of us, of course) is one of the most special things I could imagine. This coming to the middle for the sake of your partner's well-being is one of the greatest gifts that can be given in romance. Yes, we shouldn't just ask for a bunch of shit and expect our partner to change, nor should we simply pander to any ridiculous request made by him or her, but the process of meeting in the middle through communication is when both partners feel the best and the relationship thrives.
To recap, if I don't ask for what I need, it's very unlikely I'll get it. That desire probably won't fade and if I stay in my relationship I'll just start to feel contemptuous toward my partner. As a result, I'll say something mean to her and she'll then start to feel angry or sad or some variation. Then she'll feel like her needs aren't getting met, which will make it more likely that my needs will get even less met, and the cycle continues.
All of this can be unraveled by simply stating what you need, and requesting your partner to do the same. Maybe a Disney movie won't be made about your life, but I promise you if you work hard enough at communicating in your relationship it will get to the point where it feels magical but is rooted in complete practicality with a little mystery on the side.
To complete my master's degree, I was required to take a class on teaching methodology, where our instructor had us create a learning module for any topic we desired--I chose: How to Have a Successful Relationship.
I began with the question: What makes a relationship successful? Immediately, I thought of a generic definition of success and failure applied to romance--Did the relationship end or is it still going? I counted up all the romantic encounters I've ever had, from a casual hook-up to a few dates to a long term relationship, and I got about 150. Currently, then, I'm 1/150, not a great batting average. Even if I look at only relationships lasting over three months, I'm still something like 1/7. Moreover, when I think about it without much analysis some of those early-ended relationships feel successful to me in retrospect, while some of the longer relationships do not. Obviously, this metric of the romance continuing indefinitely versus ending makes no sense. Then, how does one measure if a relationship is successful?
In line with the general post-modern thinking of our day, I decided no one definition of relationship success exists. Love is not math. Two plus two does always equal four (yes, I know that isn't entirely true), but no such equation holds universally true in romance. While this realization--there is no definition of a successful relationship--allows us to take a big exhale, it remains relatively useless as a device for romantic growth, which is my goal.
Therefore, I combed through my relationship autobiography--basically all experiences both of my own relationships and of other's romances that I was around or impacted me in any way (my parents, for example), which I highly recommend you do--and I looked at all the ones I consider successful and all the others I consider not so, and I made a list of the characteristics common to relationships that felt positive.
In my first real relationship, we were 15, and we stumbled through romance, figuring it out as we went along. In reminiscing, it stood out to me that we failed in our extreme co-dependency, an overarching issue that most young couples face.
1) Sincere interdependence versus complete independence or co-dependence
Thanks to evolution and the internet, we've become quite aware that co-dependence is a recipe for disaster. We cringe when we hear things like: "We just love Game of Thrones." When the proper balance of safety and space gets squashed as a result of two people merging into one, break-up or technical relationship labels with no real relating between the partners, like a marriage with little interaction or intimacy, ensues.
However, Gen-Y, myself included, has overcompensated and we now value complete independence; many of us believe that a perfect relationship is two people who live their solo lives, yes side-by-side, but without affecting the other's decisions and wellbeing--"My life is full by itself;" "I don't need you; I just love you;" "My life is the cake and you're just the icing." Yet, inevitably and it seems invariably, problems arise when we run into decisions and actions that affect the other and we still try to pretend this isn't the case--"I have no idea if I move or change my career for him or her?" or a partner yelling in exasperation "Why didn't you take my goals into account?" when no precedent has been set for that behavior. Sometimes, we end up drifting apart because we were never really in a relationship.
I think romance can exist close to co-dependence or complete independence if the two partners are aware of their style and agree that it's best, but I believe sincere interdependence is the proper balance between these two.
Sincere interdependence is two people maintaining an independent self but also co-existing in the system of the relationship. I like to picture two mostly parallel lines that shift and move forward--each impacts the other but neither completely becomes the other. My choices affect you. The way I feel affects you. We must plan together and communicate our needs and goals, but I will not simply take on everything you are and want.
Each relationship will have a different most sincere version of these parallel lines--how close they are, how far one drifts when the other moves toward or away from it--and this larger quality can serve as a barometer for relationship success.
However, sincere interdependence by itself is also little vague. How do we know if we have enacted our most sincere relationship? To answer this, I looked to my romantic story for more detail, and I came to at least five more qualities that I think were successful for me and lead to sincere interdependence with my fiance. They are:
2) Self-revealing versus self-masking
I believe it's best to be honest. I don't think this means that we need to tell our partners about everything we had for lunch yesterday and blurt out a childhood trauma that's unrelated to the current subject on a first date, but I think if we're asked a question or have the opportunity to share some truth, we should reveal ourselves appropriately to the situation instead of put up walls and masks.
In my good relationships, I shared who I was. In my bad ones, I created a character version of myself. The problem with doing this caricaturing is two fold. First, my new partner got to know a image of me that I thought she would like instead of who I actually was, and this way of acting didn't give her the ability to choose to be with me as I am, which was a waste of time for both of us when things imploded down the road. Second, I didn't get my needs met because my partner didn't even know me and therefore had no idea what my needs were.
3) Self-affirming versus self-betraying
In my good, successful relationships I expressed my feelings and made honest choices about what I wanted to do or not do, how much time to spend with friends versus partner, where to live, what to do during free time,etc. I affirmed what I believed I really wanted instead of other times when I made choices to meet insincere ends like making sure the relationship continued, avoiding my own issues and insecurities, or soothing my partner. This brings me to...
4) Goal-process balance versus goal > process or process > goal
I think it's important to find the balance between a particular desire for what you want the relationship to be or become and also taking things as they actually are. We're all familiar with the thought: "Okay, I just have to make this one work. I'm sick of being single." However, then we betray ourselves ad infinitum to make sure we don't harm the relationship. (By the way, this strategy often works contrary to your desire--the exact thing you want to avoid by being overly conciliatory happens as a result.) On the other hand, I've found it's also not a good strategy to just see where things take us with no attention to what the relationship is or what we each want it to be; that usually ends in one person getting very hurt.
5) Growing versus proving
Am I growing in this relationship, or as a result of it? Or do I think I've already figured everything out and other person hasn't and they need to come to where I am? Do I use this relationship to simply validate everything I already know to be true?
As the saying goes: There's both people's opinions and then there's the truth. I find that relationships both where I'm willing to learn and am being taught are the best.
6) Present versus past-future
Does the relationship exist in the present or do you drag along all the stuff you've swept under the rug and haven't yet addressed? e.g. "It really hurt me when Casey was making fun of me and you just sat there." "Oh yeah!? What about the time in 1998 when your mom ripped my cheese dip and you laughed!? You just never get it."
Do you over-plan the future? e.g. you're one week in and already thinking about the car you'll buy together because you're too uncomfortable with unknown.
Constant self-betrayal leads to suppressed issues that rebound later. It also leads to those romances where suddenly it's over and you're blindsided; it takes you months or years to recover. Therefore, I find it's best to address issues as they arise. On the other side, as I said, I think goals are important in relationships, but they should be sincere goals that match where the relationship is, not where you wish it were.
Bottom line, there is no such thing as a universal standard for a successful love. I believe people in good relationships engage in the process of trying to develop sincere interdependence, and this comes from finding and cultivating the right relationship characteristics for both people as individuals and partners.
I think my qualities are very useful, but they are mine, and all relationships are different. I advise you to comb through your relationship autobiography and make your own values that can serve as a North Star for whether the relationship is working.
The idea that you can have whatever relationship you want--that you can design it--gets thrown around a lot these days, and this is for good reason--because it's true. Yet, we often understand things intellectually and don't know how to put them into practice. To help navigate this, and figure out what a successful relationship means to you more easily, I created this "Relationship Compass" a few years ago. Enjoy!