I spent most of my time in my late teens and early twenties on finding love, or so I thought at the time. In actuality I was seeking self-acceptance, approval and identity. I was deeply insecure and had a great fear of being alone. I jumped from relationship to relationship, all the while searching for myself. But the act of seeking self-worth through my external relationships took me further from that which I longed.
I’ve always been an ambitious person and in addition to my job, I’ve often worked on side projects and other interests. But whenever I found myself in a relationship, I would drop everything that was important to me and would focus exclusively on the person I was dating. You see, I didn’t respect myself, and I thought that finding someone to love me was more important than anything else. During these time-consuming romantic courtships, I was distancing myself further from my passions, my purpose and my true self.
Looking back, I had entered many of these relationships out of infatuation or loneliness. It was the fear of abandonment or the guilt of obligation that kept me in these relationships. I often got into and remained involved in relationships for the wrong reasons. I would convince myself that no one else out there would love me, and so I settled. Despite my surface appearance, I was deeply unhappy.
My freedom day came roughly two years ago. In a state of deep depression over unsatisfied relationships and through a growing despise of my gross dependencies on them, a miraculous understanding came to me and I experienced a moment of clarity. At that moment I made a vow to end the pain. (Read my detailed journal entry from that day here.)
I started to devour as much material and wisdom as I could find on the topic of relationships, and studied (and continue to study) with relationship expert Alison Armstrong. I have come a long way from being that insecure little girl, and have learned much about myself in the process. Most importantly I discovered that once I started to truly love myself, and to focus on my own inner peace and wellness, true love came looking for me.
Problematic Relationship Patterns
Let’s first look at some common relationship problems and why many romantic partnerships do not work out.
1. Ego, Fear, & Emotional Insecurities
As with material possessions or professional achievements, relationships give our ego a method by which to identify who we are to the outside world. The problem is that we attach so much of our identity to the external appearance of our relationships that we lose touch with the parts of ourselves that are wise and conscious. The attachment to this false identity leads to a feeling of desperation rather than fulfillment. After all, without the relationship, or the job, or whichever other false identity we have chosen, who would we be?
Besides the ego identification, it’s easy to develop a dependency on companionship. That independent person that we once were starts to evaporate. Our mind becomes fogged and as our self-identification begins to attach itself to the other person, unconsciously or consciously, we become afraid to lose that person. We become dependent on that person and fearful of loneliness.
Out of our emotional insecurities, we start to become needy and to seek out validation from our partner. So, instead of focusing on the celebration of love and partnership, it becomes a game of how to protect ourselves from loss.
2. Communication of Needs
Out of a desire to avoid appearing needy and out of a fear of losing our partner, we start to filter what we say. In doing so, we do not communicate our needs clearly, openly or bravely. We somehow become convinced that our partner will magically know what to do to fulfill our needs. When our needs are not met, we secretly blame the other person and begin to resent them. When we are unhappy, our partner will pick up on the cues, and in turn, secretly resent us, thus starting a vicious cycle in the silent destruction of a romantic partnership.
So much of what needed to be said was not said, and bad feelings are bottled up and start to accumulate for both parties. Have you ever had a friend come to you and complain about all of the things they are unhappy about with their partner? Those are the kinds of things they should be telling their partner, if they actually want a change.
Worse yet is when one partner openly communicates their needs only to find that the other party is simply not listening, or does not fully acknowledge what was said, or makes them feel guilty for having those needs.
3. Bad Fit and Settling by Default
Deep down, we are all really good people. But this doesn’t mean that any combination of two good people will make a good partnership. There is such thing as a bad fit, and it is okay to admit it.
The best fits are ones where the most important values for both people are met. They must have life goals that align with one another and have a mutual attraction, understanding, and level of respect for each other. Both people must be committed to making the partnership their top priority.
Sometimes, even when we realize that our relationship isn’t a good fit, we justify staying in it with what seem like logical reasons. We may feel that we won’t find another person who accepts and loves us as much as the current partner. Or we may be afraid to be alone, so we simply settle by default. Each time we are reminded of the bad fit, we brush it under the rug and distract ourselves with some other thought.
We may feel that we are doing a service to the other person by staying in the relationship, but in reality, we are hurting them by not being honest with them and ourselves. And we are accumulating bad feelings and bad energy in our inner space.
Who Is Your Ideal Mate?
We all have a rough idea of what our perfect partner is like: beautiful, or smart, or rich, or educated, or tall, or petite, or pale, or dark, or handsome, or fit, with this car, or with that house or whatever else that strikes our fancy.
The problem comes when we find ourselves in a relationship and we are constantly comparing our partners with this conjured-up ‘perfect’ person. When that happens, we stop appreciating our partner for all the beautiful qualities they do possess.
The truth is this perfect person does not exist. More importantly, we may not actually need all of these qualities in a partner to be extraordinarily happy.
What we need is to identify the most important qualities that we must have in order to feel satisfied and fulfilled (more on creating a must-have list below). By not having identified the must-have qualities in our chosen life partner, we end up settling, and since the person cannot give us the things we truly need, we start to resent them. This will snowball into larger issues.
For example, if height is something that is really important to you, and your partner does not meet that height requirement, regardless of how much they try, they will never grow taller or shrink shorter, and this will bug you and affect your union.
In life, we will get random results if we have not specified what we want. Identifying and understanding what it is that we need in a relationship, allows us to set clear intentions, and in doing so, moves us closer to realizing our intended desires.
Here’s a very affective exercise that I picked up from Alison Armstrong that will help you discover and identify the must-have qualities in your partner. I highly recommend taking at least 10 minutes to go through this, even if you are presently in a relationship.
Grab a pen and some paper. Find a place where you won’t be interrupted. Turn off the phone, the TV, the computer.
Ready? Here we go:
Step 1. The Perfect Image
On a blank piece of paper, list out all the qualities that your ideal partner will have. What kind of characteristics and qualities do you truly desire? Be creative and open. Use a bullet pointed list, not sentences. List out as many as possible, and use as many pieces of paper as needed.
Be as specific as you can. Get into details like physical attributes, values, lifestyle, views on money, spiritual beliefs, personality traits, hobbies, abilities, age, habits, profession, tastes, etc.
For physical attributes, include things like height, weight, body type, hair color, ethnicity, or anything that you would want if you had your choice in creating your ideal partner.
Step 2. Minimum Requirements (MR)
Minimum requirements are qualities you need from your partner, and without them, you will feel unwell or unsatisfied.
Go through each quality from step 1 and test it with this question:
“Would I rather be alone than be with a person who wasn’t [insert quality]?”
If the answer is yes, mark MR next to the quality, otherwise, leave it blank.
Don’t worry if your list sounds superficial or ridiculous. One MR item on my list is “Great dancer with rhythm and groove”, which may seem like a trivial or petty quality for some people, but is a deal breaker for me.
Step 3. Screening MRs
Now, filter through the MR list, for each item with the MR label, ask the following question:
“If a person had all the other qualities on my MR list, am I willing to let this quality go?”
If the answer is yes, cross out that MR.
The Selection Process
I believe it is crucial to identify and clearly communicate our relationship expectations and personal timelines early on in the dating phase. So often, we get into relationships with silent expectations of a future event that is important to us, thinking that our partner will come around to it when the time is right, only to find out several years later that things will never work out the way we expected. Some common unspoken issues of this nature revolve around marriage, children, financial goals, and even which city you settle down in.
First, be clear with yourself on these types of issues. Understand what kind of commitment you are looking for in a relationship, how you feel about children and where you plan to live. There are no wrong answers, but be honest and specific about what you are looking for in the current stage of your life.
Next, tell yourself that on all of your first dates, you will be clear with people about your relationship expectations and timeline, if any. It can be a scary and awkward experience at first, but it will become less of a nerve racking experience over time. And just think of all the time and emotional energy you are saving by being open from the get-go, instead of setting silent expectations that can lead to disappointment.
Photo by Mike BG
On my first dates with any guy, I found that telling them my expectations was pretty nerve-racking, especially for men I was really attracted to, since they could potentially run the other way. I would begin to tell myself that this would be too much of a shocking conversation for most people to handle on a first date. Why not just wait until date 5 or 6, when I know that he really likes me? The answer is that by then I would have emotionally attached myself to this person and would then be in a situation where I would either have to settle for less than what I wanted, or break it off. It would have been much better to have learned on the first date whether or not we were a good fit.
Personally, I was looking for a husband and to start a family. I would tell them that I wanted to get married before I turned 30 and to start making babies within two years of getting married. Oh, and I would also like to have two children. “Are you okay with that timeline?” I would ask them. The men who were okay with my timeline stayed and the ones who weren’t went away. No hurt feelings and everyone wins.
Many of us have latched onto this concept of finding “the one” person out there for us, and so we linger in every relationship that pops up, fearing that we might miss out on “the one”. Think about the fact that there are 6.8 billion people on the planet. Doesn’t it make more sense that “the one” is more likely to be “the one-hundred-thousand”? I genuinely believe that there are a countless number of people out there who will be great fits for us, and it’s just a matter of filtering through potential partners until we find one of them.
As such, communicating your desires, needs and expectations, ahead of time, becomes crucial. For example, if having children is of utmost importance to you and your partner is set against having kids, then likely the relationship will not last and both parties are wasting time in the process.
Dating shouldn’t be about settling out of a fear that a better fit might not come along. I believe that dating is about identifying the qualities you need in a person and in a relationship, and then “filtering” through as many people as it takes until you find someone who possesses all the important qualities that you need.
Have you ever had the experience of shopping for a car, and found that once you targeted in on the exact make, model, and color you wanted, you began to see that car everywhere? From my personal experience, I found that once I became clear with what I needed and expected in a partner and in a relationship, more eligible bachelors who had those qualities started showing up in my life.
Love Yourself First
As I mentioned in the article How to Overcome Breakups, the art of loving yourself is not only important in the healing process from love lost, but also in finding love. I believe that we cannot truly allow others to love us, until we first love ourselves.
Another way of looking at this is to imagine each person in a relationship as a wooden stick. If one person is independent and the other is dependent, it’s like one stick is standing perfectly vertical and the second stick is leaning against the vertical stick. If the vertical stick moves horizontally, the leaning stick will fall. When two people are both independent and joined together through love, it’s like two sticks standing vertically. When they join together, they become a larger and stronger stick and they become interdependent and stronger. If one stick moves horizontally, the other stick will move with it.
Practice loving yourself: take yourself on a date, do things that please and relax you, spend quality time with yourself, write love letters to yourself, practice saying and feeling “I love you” in the mirror.