We aim to survive and recover from them but can we do better? Can we deal with these transitions in ways that actually bring us closer together? I believe we can. We can, that is, if we can value people over relationships. For me, doing so is based on three principles and three commitments.
- Feelings don’t require getting. It’s okay to want.
- Compatibility is complex. Don’t take it personally even though it is.
- Relationships are a team sport. By definition, they can’t be more than any one person desires.
It is painfully obvious that feelings aren’t facts. Yet, when it comes to love we believe that our feelings require of us certain actions and necessitate certain outcomes. If I’m “in love” I must express that love romantically. And, the subject of my ardor must reciprocate my feelings with similar intensity to validate that they are real. Your feelings are real. They don’t require anyone else to feel, do, or be anything. Loving someone who does not return that love with similar intensity and focus is only a tragedy if you insist on making it so. Loving friendships are real relationships too. I choose to feel no less intensely for my friends than I do for my lovers. I can love them fully, intensely without needing them to fill a specific role. Nor do I need them to return my feelings in kind. My loving friendships frequently reflect romantic feelings, acts of care, and other expressions of deep affection.
Compatibility is complex and the ways in which you mesh and don’t are hard to predict. De-personalizing attraction and compatibility helps us move past those moments when things don’t go as we wish. Yes, it is personal in that it is about you. But, it is also not about you because there’s a whole history of life shaping other’s wants, desires, and needs. Those are in no way specifically about you. How your unique combination of attributes does or does not mesh with their unique combination of attributes is as much a quirk of fate as whether it was a full moon when you first met. Unless you’re an asshole, of course. Indeed, you can get feedback that compatibility isn’t so much the problem as some habits that hurt others. Those are worthy of taking personally and seeking personal growth. If you’re an asshole, take it personally. Otherwise, it’s not just about you.
Relationships are a team sport. Any relationship of any kind is as much an ongoing agreement as it is a set of mutual feelings. By definition then, it can’t hold unless there’s mutual agreement on what it is. This goes well beyond feelings into a shared view of who you are when together. And, what is the best version of that “together” involves identity, goals, and practical realities like available time. It follows that relationships can only take the forms wherein mutual agreement exists. Pressuring someone to stay in a relationship with you is a particularly well-accepted form of consent violation. It is viewed as romantic, a true sign of deep commitment. It isn’t. In the vast majority of situations, it’s a desire to avoid pain. This is just as unjustifiable as pressuring someone to form a relationship because of the intensity of your feelings. Everyone has exclusive, non-transferable, and irrevocable rights to enter, exit, or seek to renegotiate any aspect of their relationships, at any time. None of your relationships can be more than any one person desires it to be. Don’t forget this when you’re in pain (or in NRE). Relationships are a team sport. Don’t be an asshole when someone exercises the right to quit the field with integrity and care.
Three commitments are the principles in action…
- Truly respect other people’s choices and feelings
- Seek deep connection. Re-invent the conduit for that connection as needed.
- Accept the emotional complexity of maintaining deep connection. That means pain isn’t a problem to avoid but a path to what’s possible.
A few years ago, an ex-girlfriend once told me that I was cold. She was upset that I seemed to have just “moved on” after she ended our romantic relationship. She assumed that I didn’t grieve our breakup because I didn’t try to win her back. I cried when we broke up. I cried both in front of her and in the car driving home. I cried a few months later during and after lunch with her. I cried a lot and wrote poems. She couldn’t have missed my distress over the breakup. Yet, that visible and unrestrained distress was less meaningful without pleas for her to take me back. I firmly hold that I cannot convince anyone to be my romantic partner. Neither can I convince anyone to stay as my romantic partner. They must be convinced of it themselves. My commitment is that I’ll respect your choices and feelings. My feelings don’t require anything of you. My pain is not an excuse to ignore your feelings and decisions. I won’t use my emotional pain to hold you hostage. Beautiful possibilities exist when you love people so that letting go can mean staying connected.
I start relationships with the intent to value people over relationships. So, I tell people that I don’t date. Dating is a terrible way to make and keep deep connections. Dating tends to build relationships that are explicitly disposable when they don’t meet the criteria for the next step. The people I invite into my life aren’t disposable. I refuse to treat them as such. Instead, I seek deep connections with people, some of those deep connections become romantic, and some of those romantic connections become physically intimate. Some of those connections follow other paths across that spectrum. I seek those people committed to fluidity in relationships, who understand that a change in relationship form does not mean an end to a loving connection. I’m experiencing this change right now. After a hard but loving conversation, one of my relationships very recently transitioned from girlfriend to good friend. I would’ve preferred a different outcome but that wasn’t what was right for us, right now. My commitment to her has not changed. My commitment is that I value my connection with her more than the specific form that it takes. We both recommitted to growing our connection. Call it a friendship, a romantic friendship, or call it something else. It doesn’t really matter. I call it the true face of love.
The breakup was not without pain. We cried. We talked and acknowledged feelings, unmet needs, and possibilities. We held hands and cried some more. All that pain is unavoidable in a breakup. Yet, I’m not afraid of the heartache. Heartaches aren’t the problem. Attempting to avoid pain by clinging would be a bigger problem. It prolongs and deepens heartache. The biggest problem of all is needing to toss someone out of your life because of an unwillingness to sit with and feel that pain. So, I have tried to walk a different path. I have committed myself to accept the emotional complexity of maintaining deep connection. I have to be willing to experience the pain of loss simultaneously with the joy of a connection still in flight. That joy does not invalidate the pain. Neither is there a need to allow the pain to mask the joy. On the other end of the spectrum, I must also be willing to experience the pangs of unmet desire or “the romance that cannot be” while simultaneously experiencing the love of friendship. My commitment is to staying open to emotionally complex and intense moments as a path to growing deep connections irrespective of form. Isn’t that the real goal after all? Feelings of deep connection and love? It is for me.
So many wonderful people have taught me these lessons on friendship and love and commitment. I have tried to capture here a small slice of how my experiences loving them have shaped me. It is a reflection of my heart commitment to them over whatever label currently describes our relationship. Bone deep security flows from experiencing loving connections that stay strong and deepen despite those relationships changing in form in ways I cannot predict. I am committed to you. I am deeply grateful for your commitment to me.