Okay, so I was issued a challenge this morning. I read Kitten’s blog about defining a successful relationship, thought it was cool and thought-provoking, left a quick comment and said to myself “Damn, I wish I had time to think and say more about that.” Then I checked my mail and lo and behold, Lance had actually emailed me and asked if I’d give a shot at the contest as well. Let this be a lesson to you, folks: call me out directly and I find it hard not to respond. Especially when you compliment my blog in the process. I’m ridiculously easy to ego-stroke.
Here’s the challenge from Lance: “How do you define successful relationships, and what does it take to achieve that success?”
An excellent question. Since I’d already read and commented on Kitten’s blog on the exact same subject, I can’t say I’m coming into it with a completely empty mind, but I’ve buckled down, not read anything else related to it, and tried to come up with my own answer without being influenced by anything else.
First, to define a successful relationship. I’ll be the first to tell you that in the games of love, I’m still a rank amateur. I haven’t had a ton of relationships in my life for lots of reasons, largely including rabid insecurity, shyness, and general uber-nerditude. I’m 34 years old and the last two relationships I was in lasted 4.5 and 12 (and counting) years with less than two months between the two, so my experience is what we’ll call an inch wide and a mile deep. So with those caveats in mind, here we go.
A successful relationship is one in which each partner respects, values, and compliments the other while respecting and valuing him- or herself.
Now, let’s take a closer look at that, shall we?
Respect – Each partner has to respect the other. This means that each is considerate of the other’s feelings, wants and needs, and what the partner is offering to them (and here I primarily mean emotionally, but hey, you can use it for physical offerings too). Partners respect each other enough to be honest with each other, building trust. Each holds the other in high regard and would not knowingly cause the other to feel slighted in any way.
Value – Each partner believes that the other represents something precious in their life, something that adds joy to their existence, that holds the potential for beautiful memories yet to be made. As such, they treat each other and the “entity” that is their relationship as something of value: protecting, nurturing, occasionally spit-shining, and (hopefully even more occasionally) taking the welding torch to it to heat it up and straighten it out if need be.
Compliment – Each partner is aware of the other’s strengths and weaknesses, accepts them (even when they don’t like them), and rolls with them. Each knows how their own strengths and weaknesses match with their partner’s, and each attempts to use them to help the other and strengthen the relationship.
Self-respect and self-value – Each recognizes that, while their partner is important and valuable, they themselves are also valuable and worthy of respect, and so recognize that they are worthy of their partner’s love and best efforts – and simultaneously recognize that their own value or self-image is not dependent upon their partner or their relationship. As such, they resist emotional fusion, maintaining their identity and independence while strengthening the relationship as a whole. This is, I think, the hardest part of relationships for many people – including myself.
I think to have a great relationship, you have to start from a great degree of self-knowledge. And that self-knowledge can only come by the kind of honesty with oneself that is very hard to swallow.
While I don’t talk about it a lot, I also haven’t made it a secret that I came very close to getting divorced a few years ago. There were lots of reasons for that, and many of them I don’t need to go into – but I will own up and say that a large part of our problems were my inability to be honest with myself about my self-distrust and self-loathing, my insecurities, as much as my issues with my wife. In the depths of our relationship, I had to decide what I was going to do with myself and about myself, whether or not my marriage survived. And I decided that, no matter what happened, I didn’t want to continue living with myself the way I had in the past.
The only way I knew to correct it was to take a long look at where I was and how I got there, then to connect those dots and see where the line through them pointed. Then and only then could I decide how far it was from where that line led to where I wanted to go, and figure out what I had to change to make that turn. The process wasn’t easy, I can assure you – as a matter of fact, there were parts of it that I wouldn’t really wish on anyone. But it was worth it. Lots of other things had to happen for my marriage to keep going, but I definitely think that my decision to finally rip out of my rusted armor was one important step. Not only to saving my marriage, but to saving me as a person…or at least, to reminding myself that I was a person worth saving. It doesn’t mean my journey’s done yet – not by a long shot – but I do feel like I’m headed in the right direction.
And, more to the point of this challenge, I really think that I was incapable of having a truly successful relationship until I made that decision to be honest with myself about everything – my wants and needs, my desires and fears, my strengths and weaknesses – no matter how reasonable, unreasonable, noble or downright fucked up any of them may have been. Without that self-knowledge, how could I have known I really even wanted in a partner, or what I really had to offer to one, what I could give and what I could compromise without resentment?
Now – after all that, I confess that this is what I think of when I think of a “successful” relationship, but when I read Kitten’s blog about it, I think I realize that what I’m defining above is not so much a “successful” relationship as a “great” or “ideal” relationship. I will gladly accept her definition of a “successful” relationship as which helps you learn about yourself, for good or ill – because even bad relationships can help you learn and improve, even if only some time after they’re over and you’ve mopped yourself up off the sidewalk.
But I will still maintain that the fundamental ingredient of a successful relationship by that definition is self-knowledge and self-honesty. You can’t learn about yourself if you’re not even willing to see yourself.
(But isn’t that exactly what you’d expect some bald-headed old Taoist to say anyway?)
(For those who want to pick up where Lance left off and call me out again, drop me an email at taobikerblog at gmail dot com, yup yup. And yes, Allison and Laura, I know you’ve called me out on the coworkers and I still owe ya one.)