The Nature of Relationships
Relationships. The word alone elicits a whole spectrum of responses from a whole variety of people: from the young to the old; from the positive to the negative; from the knowing to the curious; from the wise to the dumbfounded; from the liberal to the conservative; from the religious to the secular, etc. We can all agree it is a fundamental characteristic of our human experience. There is no one anywhere in the world who has not been, is not now, or will not be in a relationship of some kind.
There are all kinds of relationships that occur all the time for all sorts of reasons, and so it would be wise to discern the kind of relationship you want, with whom, and why. If you don’t do this, you destine yourself to engaging in one of the most important activities of your life in a haphazard and unconscious manner, which, by definition, can only lead to haphazard and unconscious outcomes. Wouldn’t it be better to set a clear intention and be conscious of what is the right course of action to get what you really want? The vast majority of people will answer this question in the affirmative.
So what is this thing we call a relationship, and why do we do it?
When thinking about relationships, most people will ask “How?” questions. How do I find one? How do I keep one? How do I get out of one? But few people ask “Why?” questions. Why find one? Why keep one? Why get out of one? In many important ways, the “Why?” questions are more important, or at least more imperative, than the “How?” questions. If you don’t know the why of something, the how doesn’t much matter. But if you know the why of something, the how can make all the difference in the world.
There are many kinds of relationships, and for purposes of this book, we will refer only to committed romantic relationships in which the partners agree to be exclusive to each other. That being said, many of the dynamics of romantic relationships apply to other kinds of connections as well. True love can be experienced deeply for parents, siblings, children, other family members, and also for friends who become like adopted family members. The element of romance, however, is the exclusive domain of partners who seek to engage each other in a love relationship as a couple.
Romantic relationships are likely the most beautiful experience we can offer ourselves, at least when they go well and we derive pleasure and satisfaction from them. To experience the magic of a truly great love, one must truly love the magic of the experience. We come face to face with our deepest essence in the genuine love gaze of our partner, when there can be no pretensions about who we really are and what we are here to do. Romantic relationships are a vehicle through which we can arrive at a greater understanding of ourselves, raising to consciousness the various aspects of ourselves that enable love. As quoted from Dr. Seuss, “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.” True love enhances and enriches us to a divine threshold, to the meaning and purpose we derive from life, giving our dreams a safe passage into reality.
There are three key characteristics to a successful long-term relationship. The first is knowing who you are and being clear on what you want. The second is finding a partner who knows who they are and is clear on what they want. The third is helping and supporting each other to grow into who you can become as individuals, and achieve more of what you both want as a couple. It’s the metaphysical progression from Human Being to Human Becoming, via the channels of Human Doing.
A lot of people have a lot of ideas about what makes relationships work, and all those ideas are valid to the extent that they’re also useful. Why useful? Because that’s the bottom line with relationships. The concept of loving someone and consistently relating to them in a qualitatively exclusive manner is wonderful, but a concept is not who we live with. We live with a person, and that individual is a complex and mysterious being who often does things that are surprising even to themselves. The practicality of relating to them—the pragmatism of loving someone—is where a relationship is made or broken.
It’s also imperative to recognize that romantic relationships will inevitably bring us face-to-face with a whole array of challenges, sometimes intensely and dramatically so. Some people are fond of saying, “I seek a romance to complement my life, not complicate it,” but, conversely, Santosh Kalwar claimed, “To love is easy; to be in a relationship is extremely difficult.” Whereas we seek the idealized form of relationships in which everything is wonderful and magical, sometimes insisting too much on capturing the fantasies of a fairy tale romance, the fact nonetheless remains that romantic relationships can be anything from simple to complicated, and the situations we will face can themselves be anything from easy and effortless to thorny and convoluted. This point is captured compellingly in the movie Love Actually, when the character Sam concedes, “Okay, Dad. Let’s do it. Let’s go get the shit kicked out of us by love.”
A real relationship is comprised of love, trust, faith, tears, arguments, pain, patience, laughter, conflicts, secrets, sex, jealousies, and so much more. Paulo Coelho states, “Love can consign us to hell or to paradise, but it always takes us somewhere.” An anonymous quote echoes that sentiment, but in more facetious, if not dramatic, terms, “I hate you… and then I love you… it’s like I want to throw you off a cliff… then rush to the bottom to catch you.” Many couples will claim that all relationships go through hell at one time or another, but the real ones get through it and find a slice of heaven somewhere, somehow.
A real relationship carries obligations and responsibilities with it, and a bond can snap because it is not strong enough to carry that weight. Sometimes, the key to a healthy rapport between individuals is contingent on having “no expectations,” but “no expectations” can also mean “no obligations” and “no responsibilities.” This is, in a sense, a recipe for a pseudo-relationship. Adrienne Rich states, “An honorable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” The harsh reality often does not match the dream, and it can sometimes prompt a stark awakening to the many faces of love. Nothing is as bad as it seems. Nothing is as good as it seems. Everything reveals itself by its own nature in due time and due circumstances.
Every relationship has its own strengths and weaknesses, and its own rewards and punishments. In real life, a relationship is only as strong as its weakest link, and only as weak as its strongest bond. We are asked to surrender to love in order to experience its magic fully and completely. As expressed in the movie Fools Rush In, “You will never know love unless you surrender to it.” But perhaps, even more so than just passively surrendering, we are invited to actively self-donate to love in an unconditional manner if we, in turn, seek to experience unconditional love fully and completely. It’s a paradox of romantic relationships that we experience only the love that we bring into it.
Indeed, where we seek the grace and dignity of true love as a couple, we are asked to bring grace and dignity into it as our individual contributions. Love must be given freely in order to be most meaningful, without any need for a return of any kind. It cannot be taken by force or by obligation, nor can it be owned through any form of entitlement. We must remember that every relationship has its own fault lines, whether we are aware of them or not. Every relationship sets its own limits on various aspects of itself, whether we define them or not. And every relationship contains the seed of its own destruction, whether we trigger it or not.
Human nature often predicates that, as Grant Gudmundson said, “Love is unconditional; relationships are not.” In fact, if we really think about it, the reality of relationships is that you are either going to remain with your partner for the rest of your life, or at some point you’re going to break up the romantic liaison. In other words, being in love doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to stay together, and being together doesn’t necessarily mean you’re really in love.
If “relationship” was a coin, one side would be about how natural it feels to stay together with someone, and the other would be about how unnatural it feels to walk away from them. Or, conversely, one side would be about how unnatural it feels to stay together with someone, and the other would be about how natural it feels to walk away from them. Which side of the coin do you wish to hold face-up in your hands?
You will know when you’re in a real relationship—the one destined for you—because, in many ways, it will open up all the wounds in your heart and soul and expose them to the light of day. Then, if the love in your partner is true, it will heal your heart and soul in a manner that will transform you into a new person, the kind of individual you know deep down you’re supposed to be, who can build a new life on new grounds, for new reasons that speak of truth, meaning, and purpose. According to Keith Ablow, “Relationships are never chance events.” One feels a sense of destiny fulfilling itself when we are coupled with the right partner.
To paraphrase an old adage, “The wise person knows how to love; the wiser person knows who to love.” There is also an element of timelessness that infuses itself into the interactions with our partner—a transitional quality of sorts—bridging from “here and now” to “there and then” in one instant of eternity held in a kiss. It echoes the truism of the notion expressed by Bill Wilson, “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”
In terms of the healing that occurs in a real relationship, the caution we need to consider is that it should not be considered a substitute for therapy. Where the issues are serious enough to warrant clinical intervention, we should seek help from a recognized professional. Your partner is not your therapist, although a true love connection can be very therapeutic. Nor is your partner your caretaker, although a true love relationship can be very caring. True love can pave the way for a motivational surge to make the necessary changes that remain yours to make, in whatever way is most appropriate for you. There should not be any onus on your partner to resolve issues that belong to you. Anything less than that means you are not investing yourself fully in the relationship.
The Dalai Lama said, “The best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.” Implicit in the statement is that needing each other is a normal experience, but not necessarily being needy. It’s curious sometimes how the people who need the most help are those who seek love from others as a substitute for the love of self. They often become needy of love, and they love becoming needy. It’s alright to seek the caring of a partner, in echo of Morrie Schwartz’s sentiment, “Love is when you are as concerned about someone else’s situation as you are about your own,” but it’s not alright to lean on the care you receive from your partner like a crutch. Your personal growth is still your personal growth.
Let us acknowledge as well, right up front, that in many ways romantic relationships don’t always make sense. They are an amorphous, elusive entity that defy the identification of a common denominator and that cannot be constrained into a single definition that is true for all people at all times. To make matters even more complicated, Linda Poindexter suggests that “It is when you can’t see how much someone loves you that they are loving you the most.” True love is not always the most evident in its expression, and can be conveyed in nuances that escape easy detection.
Oscar Wilde declared, “The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” The nature of a relationship, in its most fundamental essence, depends entirely on the contributions made to it by the partners involved. Everything is relative to their desires, wishes, needs, expectations, perceptions, and interpretations. What works for one couple may not work for another; what is considered a generality will almost always have an exception; what is true for a couple at one juncture in their life together may prove to be false at a later time.
We also ought to acknowledge that, sometimes, a relationship that originates in a particular context does not survive beyond that very context. We may wish that it does, and we may work at it accordingly, but the realization that a change in context kills the relationship awaits as surely as night follows day. As much as we may wish it were otherwise in life, what may be true in one set of circumstances does not necessarily carry through to another set of circumstances.
In reality, after the passion subsides, whatever is left of love is the substance of the relationship. A couple stays together because both partners make the choice to keep the bond alive, and to never give up on each other. This means two things: If your partner won’t fight for you, he or she is not necessarily right for you; And, if you’re not real as a person, your bond won’t be either. Relationships are never perfect, per se, but you can create one that is perfect for you. They are a work-in-progress, a process of refinement, a journey with double occupancy in which your partner’s strengths complement your own and your partner’s flaws can be a source of unending curiosity.
Neale Donald Walsch stated, “The purpose of relationship is not to have another who might complete you, but to have another with whom you might share your completeness.” Stated differently, the higher intent of a relationship is to bond with someone with whom you might share your part of completeness. Consider a couple holding hands—although their respective hands are different and imperfect, they can still interlace their fingers together perfectly and create a unique unison.
From traditional rituals to alternative lifestyles, the permutations and possibilities of relationships are as endless as the variety of people who get involved with each other. But the fundamental essence of a truly romantic connection is captured in the following passage, quoted from Nicole Krauss, “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” True love is a calling, and our commitment to follow its path is part of our answer.
This being said, we can postulate some principles that will have their equivalent in the majority of cases. With the latitude inherent in how people choose to live their lives, we can explore the general dynamics of romantic relationships for our own edification, subject to the understanding that we will also learn more about all life matters under our consideration. An anonymous sentiment sets the stage, “The expectation that we can be immersed in a relationship and not be touched by it in both positive and negative ways is as unrealistic as expecting to walk through water without getting wet.”
Copyright © 2017, Joseph Civitella.