Tuesday, July 6, 2010

How do I make a relationship work?

For today's question, I'm going to post a few different answers I wrote. They're all essentially the same, but I thought it'd be fun to post the whole thing and give you a little peek at the back-end of AskEdahn. I usually write between 3-4 complete answers before submitting the final one in a hurry which ends up being the one I like best. I actually had a few more answers written (2 or 3 more) but I deleted them because it was just overkill. (As if 4 answers isn't, heh.) I'd love to hear which answer you think is the best. Click the "see more" button to read them all. Enjoy.
Dear Edahn,

My last serious relationship was 3 years ago and ended with heartbreak and disappointment. Since then, I have had several boyfriends and monogamous, relationship-like ordeals. They were all with men who loved me and wanted to continue, but I just didn't feel it after a while. I am not hung up on my ex, it's just that after that breakup I haven't been able to completely give myself over to someone, to fall in love. I noticed I tend to date more comforting, sensitive and less marriage-worthy men. I used to really be into this relationship thing, but now, it's like I have forgotten how to do it right. My question is, how do I get back into real love and relationship land which will ultimately lead to a fulfilling marriage? Am I sabotaging myself on purpose? 

I think you're doing everything right. From what I'm hearing, you want to get into a relationship but feel like you've forgotten how to "do the relationship thing right." I'd argue that there is no such thing.

To see why, you just have to examine the best relationships around you very carefully. I'm talking about the relationships where both partners are really at ease, able to talk to one another, able to cooperate, and able to care about one another. Those are the relationships that in my mind, truly work and truly have something special. What I've noticed about these couples is that they never really try to make some ideal relationship appear. They don't have an image in their mind and say "that's what I have to make" and then set to it. They date because they enjoy one another and continue dating until they don't. When problems come up, they address them and move on. Because they don't have that ideal, they aren't constantly measuring their relationship against some standard with the use of books, gurus, and magazine quizzes. In other words, they don't try to do a relationship right.

But precisely because they aren't trying to make a certain relationship materialize, they're actually really open to one another, to connect, to laugh, to share, to be natural. All the good stuff you and I identify as healthy is really a byproduct of naturalness, compatibility, and time. It doesn't come from control, which is why most self-professed relationship gurus don't know what the fuck they're doing. Instead of teaching people to be natural, they teach them how to become self conscious and to strive for some ideal "out there." That makes relationships suffocate and die. The point I am making is that by trying to do the relationship thing right, by trying to shift into relationship mode, you actually end up frustrating yourself and preventing a sweet relationship from growing.

So what should you do? Nothing really. Just contemplate some of the themes in this post. If you've been thinking that you need to shift into relationship mode to do the relationship thing right, then I'd urge you to reconsider. Try to picture yourself meeting someone just the way you are and building a relationship with them slowly and organically, rather than through any type of active monitoring or surrender or shifting. You might not really know what that relationship is going to end up looking like, but that's okay. You can use your instincts to guide you. If you're enjoying it and interested in continuing, then keep at it; if not, move on without the guilt.

* * * 

You can't forget how to do a relationship right because there is no such thing. This is the biggest myth out there and the biggest reasons all these relationship self-help books and gurus suck big politician balls. Instead of empowering you, they tease you with this model of perfection and make you self-conscious about your progress. Let me esplain.

In all the healthy relationships I've seen (all 6), I've noticed something peculiar. They never actually try to build this thing called "a relationship." They're not trying to mold and control their interaction to match some ideal in their head of what a good relationship is supposed to look like. They just spend time together and hang out. It's so simple it's almost irritating, but at the same time, it's very pure. They end up naturally forming a great friendship, a great partnership, with care and respect and creativity and cooperation and ease, all the stuff you and I recognize as being unique and special, because it really is. Of course there are times where they have to work out problems, but they do it and move on. They're not in constant state of relationship-monitoring because they're not trying to build something. It gets built on its own.
If you were Morgan Freeman and Gotham City was your
relationship, this metaphor would totally make sense.

The point is you can't get into a mode where you're doing the relationship thing right, because by trying to do it right, you're going to become too self-conscious and awkward to do it right a priori. Not only do relationships not need that kind of effort, they don't like it. It suffocates them and makes them stale. The good news is you don't have to try to do it right. Paradoxically, by not trying to do it "right," you're finally starting to do it right. You're just being who you are and trusting that a good relationship will form naturally on its own with the right person, and that's something you'll know. Maybe you get along and keep having fun and good talks and great good decent sex together, maybe you don't. But the good relationship will form over time, slowly and naturally. You might not even know what it's really going to look like yet, but that's a good type of confusion, not bad. 

Just hang out and see how it goes. If you're enjoying yourself, keep spending time together; if you're not, say thanks and move on. Disappointment in dating is natural, not a sign that something is wrong. 

* * *

First off, happy 4th of July, unless you're British, in which case, ya sorry. 

This is what I'm hearing. You've dated a bunch of guys who haven't worked out and that you're starting to think it has something to do with you, either that you're subconsciously dating losers on purpose or that you just forgot how to make a relationship "happen" which is something you knew how to do in the past. Right so far? (Yes)

If that's the case, then what might sound like a worrisome situation to you sounds like a great opportunity to me. First let's talk about how healthy relationships form. What I've noticed over and over is that people in healthy relationships never try to make or maintain a relationship of a certain type. Lots of people (especially therapists and really young and old peeps) go into a relationship wanting to mold it into some ideal based on what they've seen in family or friend, their own past relationships, or in movies. But people in great relationships never have that mentality. They're not constantly measuring the quality of their relationships and they're not doing interventions and tests and having awkward conversations all day that attempt to improve their relationship. They just like spending time with one another and trust that their relationship will work itself out--or not. But they have faith that the right outcome will happen on its own. Sure you might have to make a few adjustments here and there, but that's different than chronically supervising your relationship and measuring it against an ideal you have in your head. The faith they have makes them natural and makes their relationship look natural and pure. Cooperation, intimacy, trust, ease, humor--all that good stuff comes from having that faith.

What does this have to do with you? You mentioned that you forgot how to do the relationship thing right and asked how you can return to relationship land*. The thing is, you don't have to remember how to have a relationship to be in one. The best couples aren't trying to do the relationship thing right either. They meet and they hang out as long as they still like one another. If they're not a good match, they move on, but if it is, the relationship starts to form naturally before they even know it. You may think you need to get into "relationship mode," but really you don't. You're fine just the way you are, you just haven't met the right guy yet. Keep doing what you're doing. Everything's on the right track.

*My sources tell me it's located somewhere between Atlantis and Camelot. :P "My sources"...it's like I work for the relationship branch of the CIA. /loser

* * *

So let's first ask a question. What does it mean to "do a relationship right?" What does it mean to "give yourself up to someone?" 

What I've found over and over is that people in healthy relationships never try to build healthy relationships. They don't try to make their relationship conform to some ideal where they're laughing or teasing each other or having dinner x amount of times together. It's not that they don't ever do this stuff, but that they end up doing naturally. Why? It's precisely because they aren't trying to make their relationship meet some ideal. They just enjoy each other and spend time together because they like to. That attitude eventually develops into a good partnership with cooperation, intimacy, and respect, and it's natural. The naturalness is the quality that really distinguishes excellent relationships from mediocre ones.

So let's get back to you now. You used to be in a relationship where you gave yourself over to the guy and are now wondering how you get back into that "relationship mode." I say fuck it. For one thing, your prior relationship mode could have been unhealthy. "Giving yourself over" sounds codependent-y to me, and we know your relationship didn't work or even end peacefully, right? Besides, even if it did work last time, trying to shift back into that mode will end up backfiring for the reasons I offered in the paragraph above: good relationships develop on their own, not by intellectual design. Sure you might have to make a few adjustments here and there, but that's different than chronically supervising your relationship and measuring it against an ideal you have in your head.

This is the kicker: you don't need any of that. You don't need to get into some head-space where you're open to a relationship, or where you're emotionally available to do this and that. To the degree that it's necessary, it'll happen naturally, without your effort or thinking. The more you give up on trying to be some in some other mental/emotional place, the more available you'll be to connect with someone just the way you are, confusion and uncertainty included. That's really the best place you could be. You still might not get along with your date; that's just part of dating. But if you're open to letting your relationship take its course and trusting that something pure will develop without your needing to be anywhere, you're at least available to begin something healthy when the right guy comes by and tickles you.

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