Choosing a relationship by Franklin Veaux
One of my sweeties has a policy never to get involved with someone who has never had his heart broken. She believes quite strongly that there are certain things about yourself that you can only learn when your heart is broken, and that having your heart broken is the only way to discover whether or not you’re the sort of person who can pick himself up, put himself back together, and move on with courage and joy, or if you’re the sort of person who is destroyed by it.
I think there’s some value to that notion, though I don’t use it as a rule.
A few years back, I had a really painful breakup with a woman I fell very hard for and then, after investing a great deal in the relationship, discovered was a very poor partner for me. That relationship really brought home for me a lesson that I knew intellectually but didn’t know emotionally, which is this:
It is possible to deeply, sincerely love someone and still not be a good partner for that person.
That relationship also caused some nontrivial damage to one of my other relationships, and ended up changing the course of my life in ways that I still feel. I can’t say that if I had to do it over, I would never have gotten involved with that person at all, though I can say that I would have made different choices about what to do with that connection. But I digress.
There’s a socially sanctioned myth that says that love conquers all. It’s a deeply and profoundly silly thing to believe; love is a feeling, and a feeling can no more solve problems than it can refinish the sofa or put a new circuit breaker box in the attic. A feeling can impel action, can influence the way you make choices, but it can’t, of and by itself, do anything on its own. And making a relationship work requires more than just a feeling. It requires that the people involved make choices that are compatible and work toward a common end–which is extraordinarily difficult to do when those people have different goals, different priorities, different expectations, or even different internal templates about what they want their lives to look like. No matter what they feel.
And the feeling of love isn’t the only thing that influences our decisions. Other feelings, like fear or anxiety or anger, have a vote, too, and it’s not always the feeling of love that casts the deciding vote–even when that love is genuine.
The lesson that I can really, deeply love someone and we can still not be good partners for each other was probably the most expensive relationship lesson I’ve ever learned, and it’s completely rearranged my approach to choosing partners.
The approach I used to use, and I suspect the approach that many people use, was to keep a sort of internal list of “dealbreakers” that I’d refer to whenever I met someone who seemed interesting to me and who seemed interested in me. I’d kind of run down the list– Is she giving me the psycho vibe? Nope. Does she hold conservative ideas? Nope. All the way down the list, and if I didn’t hit a dealbreaker the answer would be “Cool! We should totally start dating!”
That isn’t the way I work any more. The dealbreaker approach “fails closed;” it assumes that if no dealbreakers are hit, then we should start a relationship, so if something later comes up that I didn’t know was a problem…well, I find out about it after I’ve already started to invest in a relationship with this person.
The approach I use now isn’t to keep a list of dealbreakers. Oh, there are some, to be sure; I’m not likely to date someone with a history of violence against her past partners, for example. But instead of keeping a list of dealbreakers these days, I keep a list of things that I actively look for–things that light me up in another person.
If I meet someone who seems interesting, and seems interested in me, I am more likely to ask the question “Does this person really light me up inside and bring out joy in me?” than “Does this person have some disagreeable trait that I don’t like?” That approach tends to “fail open”–the default is *not* to start a relationship unless there’s something very special about the person, rather than to start a relationship unless there’s something disagreeable about her.
That approach takes care of a lot of “dealbreakers” on its own, because a person who has the qualities that really shine isn’t likely to have the qualities that would be dealbreakers for me. For instance, a person who has demonstrated to me that she favors choices that demonstrate courage and integrity isn’t likely to be a liar.
It’s more than just taking the dealbreakers and flipping them on their heads, though. There are a lot of qualities on my “must have” list that wouldn’t have been reflected on my “dealbreaker” list.
So all of this is kind of a longwinded way to get to the qualities that DO light me up about someone. The things that really attract me to a person, without which I’m unlikely to want to start a relationship with her, include things like:
- Has she done something that shows me she is likely, when faced with a difficult decision, to choose the path of greatest courage?
- Has she done something that shows me that, when faced by a personal fear or insecurity, she is dedicated to dealing with it with grace, and to invest in the effort it takes to confront, understand, and seek to grow beyond it?
- Does she show the traits of intellectual curiosity, intellectual rigor, and intellectual growth?
- Has she dealt with past relationships, including relationships that have failed, with dignity and compassion?
- Is she a joyful person? Does she value personal happiness? Does she make me feel joy?
- Does she seem to be a person who has a continuing commitment to understanding herself?
- Does she seem to be a person who values self-determinism?
- Does she approach the things that light her up, whatever those things may be, with energy and enthusiasm? Does she engage the world and the parts of it that make her happy?
- Does she seem to demonstrate personal integrity?
- Is she open, honest, enthusiastic, and exploratory about sex?
- Does she communicate openly, even when it’s uncomfortable to do so?
There are probably more; the things that attract me to a person are in some ways a lot more nebulous than my old list of dealbreakers used to be.
In some ways, the approach I use now is an approach that relies on a model of relationship that’s based on abundance, not on starvation. A person who holds a starvation model of relationship, in which relationships seem to be rare and difficult to find, is not likely going to want to use an approach that fails open, on the fear that if he doesn’t take a relationship opportunity that presents itself, who knows when another person might express interest? If relationships seem rare, then why not jump at an opportunity if there seem to be no dealbreakers standing in the way?
The approach of seeking positive reasons to start a relationship, rather than looking for reasons NOT to start a relationship, means that I say “no” to opportunities that come by more often than I say “yes.” I have found that, for whatever reason, I tend to have a lot of opportunity for relationship, so there may be something to the notion that I have adopted this model of relationship because I can afford it.
But I do believe that holding an abundance model of relationship tends to make it true. I think that people who hold a starvation model of relationship often seem to be always searching for a partner, and that can really be off-putting; whereas in an abundance model, if you simply live your life with enthusiasm and joy and instead of seeking partners you seek to develop in yourself the qualities that you desire in a partner, then other people will tend to be drawn to you and relationships will be abundant.