We realize it when we’re older: when we’re young we’re more interested in what someone has or does than in what they are. We want our partners to be attractive and sexy and successful and smart. That really seems like a great list. Later, after a lot of hard-fought experience we want someone kind. Someone who will be gentle with us when we’re struggling. Someone who will genuinely see our problems as theirs just as much as they also want to share our successes.
That’s the value of dating and breaking up. It feels like we’re failing. Like maybe we’re lost or unworthy or we’ve chosen some other narrative to explain our repeated periods of being single. The longer it goes the harsher we get with ourselves because we presume that something’s going wrong, when people older than us can easily see we’re just living life.
Yes there are childhood sweethearts that fall in love and stay married. But there will be challenges in that marriage just like any other. But the far more popular route is to date five to ten people before finding someone that you feel really comfortable with. As long as you’re okay with the waiting it works out fine. Each relationship brings us something and it costs something. We’re just looking for the good fit between comfort and price. It’s more like trying on clothes. And sometimes you have to put a few things on before you really know how to respect the differences.
We all think our cultures haven’t brainwashed us. We always think that’s the other guy. But it’s us. We want beauty and youth and sexiness and wealth. Of course those are things we can see but you don’t really experience anyone’s beauty as anything more than a visual experience. But things like kindness and compassion and patience are experiences you feel. As you age you care less about how things look and more about how they feel, and that’s largely because we come to realize that even the relationships that looked good from the outside were actually experiencing serious challenges on the inside.
These challenges can come as big events. It’s very hard for couples to survive the death of a child. Financial trials and infidelity can test people’s idea of for better or for worse. But the challenges can also come like a death of a thousand cuts. Like when someone just feels disregarded or dismissed or taken for granted. The opposite of love isn’t hate it’s indifference. And couples can start to think resentful thoughts that lead to them to be indifferent to their partner’s suffering and that is a death knell for a relationship. When connection and compassion are gone everything changes.
Maybe you’re always messy and your partner has learned to live that way out of love for you. Maybe you’re always late and your partner has learned to live that way out of love for you. Maybe you’ve got a shorter temper and get off the plan for the kids more often but your partner has learned to live with it out of love for you. Maybe you’re very rigid and your partner must make significant concessions to simply be with you. Maybe you regularly lose your temper or pout or cause some other price to be paid.
Bottom line, none of us are perfect. So if we want to know how our partner loves us we should simply look to our own weaknesses. Because our partners will most certainly have had to accommodate for them. And as we mature we realize that is the sign we are loved. We become grateful because we realize that while we were busy trying to get other people to be other ways, some of the ways we were being were not very reasonable. And then we begin to take stock of the more invisible contributions of our partner.
If you share living space with another human being then you have a large impact on their life and they have one on yours. Rather than telling them how they could make yours better, it might be an idea to actually get a clear understanding of how much they give to you already. Because no matter who you are, I guarantee you’re getting a lot more than you’re taking into account.