Bonnie and I had only been dating for a couple of weeks when, in the middle of a conversation, she says to me, “Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight – I’m just going to put it out there: We’re both terrible at relationships.”
“Excuse me?!” I fired back. “How do you figure?”
“Well, you’re divorced and I’m still single. If we were so good at relationships, neither of us would be here right now. So, rather than think we have it all figured out, I think we should start off by acknowledging that neither of us are very good at this whole relationship deal.”
Man, was she right…I really was terrible at relationships!
From my first elementary school girlfriend through my first marriage and subsequent divorce, every relationship I ever had was a complete failure. For someone who considers them self an overachiever in most everything I do, this realization came as quite a shock. I knew I wasn’t the best boyfriend/spouse, but I was oblivious to the idea that I was a complete failure at relationships.
Once I reflected back on my relationship track record, it was easy to see the trend of disfunction and that I deserved the overwhelming majority of the blame for my breakups. In hindsight, I can clearly see that my towering sense of insecurity was at the root of all of my immature behaviors.
When it came to my circle of friends, I sought to be extremely exclusive under the guise of keeping my friendships to the highest of standards. But in retrospect, I can see that it had more to do with rejecting others out of my own insecurity before they ever had a chance to reject me. Likewise, when it came to girls, I let my insecurity run the show there too. Rather than allow myself to be vulnerable in order for a relationship to grow, I would sabotage it with immature behavior.
Sometimes I would just stop calling. Other times, I would act like a jerk, thus forcing them to break up with me. Either way, I would subconsciously convince myself that if I was in control, then I wasn’t vulnerable to being rejected and hurt. What I didn’t understand was that vulnerability is the upfront cost for the chance of having a meaningful relationship. Somehow, I missed the fact that you can’t have love without first being vulnerable.
In a weak attempt to fill the void left by these meaningless relationships, I kept myself distracted with the excitement that comes with the early stages of a courtship. I found approaching girls and striking up a conversation entertaining. I saw being charismatic and witty as a challenge to overcome my insecurities and a boost to my confidence. Asking for a girl’s phone number and then asking them out on a date was both exciting and extremely validating for my ego (when it went well) with only a minimal amount of risk. So, rather than put my efforts towards meaningful, long-term relationships, I had a plethora of shallow encounters where I headed towards the exit as soon as I knew a girl was equally interested in me.
What made matters worse is that there are a series of societal influences that at best condone, and at worst reward, the type of behavior that I was exhibiting. From the misogynistic machismo of the Latino culture, to the capitalistic playboy of American culture, I often observed that not committing to one relationship was completely acceptable. Whether it was through commercial media or cliché locker room talk, this acceptance and encouragement only served to further inflate my ego and solidify my immature behavior.
Unfortunately, this behavior was extremely unfair to everyone involved. I left girls to wonder if it was something they did that chased me away, and I allowed myself to have a temporarily inflated ego as a substitute for an intimate connection. If I could go back, I would have skipped the game- playing altogether. Instead, I would have clearly and directly just stated my intentions to a girl I was interested in upfront. But that’s not how it happened.
Over and over again, in this quantity over quality model of interactions, I chose the safety of leaving before I got hurt, over being vulnerable and entering into a fulfilling relationship. While this quantity model kept me momentarily entertained and temporarily distracted from my lack of authentic connections, it also led me to view relationships as games and excused my extremely selfish actions.
Through all of my adolescent relationships, I never learned how to work through differences, how to fight fairly, how to be vulnerable, how to be authentic, or how to put the other person first. I didn’t learn how to compromise, sacrifice, or negotiate. Instead, it was always “my way or the highway” and my way was almost always the highway. It’s no wonder my first marriage ended in divorce.
Don’t Be Reckless
I wish I would have understood the mantra, “Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts, don’t allow other people to be reckless with yours.” Looking back, if I had to do it all over again, I would have acted so much differently.
First off, I wouldn’t have taken the outcome of each relationship to be so permanent. Had I known as a first grader that the little girl in pigtails wasn’t my only shot at acceptance and happiness, I wouldn’t have been so bent out of shape when I found out she liked some other kid. Likewise, I wouldn’t have taken the breakup with my 9th grade girlfriend so hard.
As such, all of my interactions would have been much more relaxed. Rather than being fatalistic and cutting things short, I would have been more understanding that things probably weren’t going to work out long-term and that was ok. I would have simply enjoyed the fun times while they lasted and ended things on good terms instead of burning the proverbial bridge down while we were both still standing on it.
Had I known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have cared what my friends thought about the girls that I dated. Far too often, I stopped seeing girls because of the idiotic social pressures that come with adolescent life. Even worse, I often stopped seeing them not because of what someone actually said, but because I was so insecure that I wasn’t even willing to risk having someone say anything. It’s sad I was that shallow, but it’s the truth, and I know for a fact that I missed out on some really great experiences because of it.
Overall, I really was terrible at relationships. I was insecure and unwilling to be vulnerable, which led me to be non- committal and uncompromising. This idiotic attitude resulted in a long list of very short relationships, and one divorce.
If I could go back and do it all differently, I would.
Except that Bonnie likes the way it turned out.
Though they have never met, Bonnie has thanked my ex- wife countless times for being the one who had to experience all of my relational growing pains and mistakes. The reality is that I have learned from all of these mistakes and I am no longer the insecure, selfish little boy who was unwilling to be vulnerable at all costs. Now I’m an insecure grown man, who understands his insecurity along with the necessity and benefits of being vulnerable. No longer am I unable or unwilling to compromise. Instead, I am now a committed part of a whole that incessantly strives to have the healthiest, most productive, most fulfilling relationship imaginable.
God bless the broken road.
In the twelve years that Bonnie and have been together since that initial conversation, we put together a number of simple rules that empower us to maintain a happy and healthy relationship. Here are a few of the rules we aspire to live by:
1. Be humble. We’re terrible at relationships.
Remembering that we’re both still working towards our first successful relationship is usually enough to quiet that arrogant voice in our heads. This is necessary because it is so much easier to listen, forgive, and be grateful for each other when you approach your relationship from a perspective of humility.
2. Love is not a currency.
In Don Miller’s book “Blue Like Jazz”, he talks about the difference between unconditional love and using love as a currency that we trade in order to get what we want. From the beginning, Bonnie and I decided that our love should be given, without condition or in exchange for anything, and regardless of how the other person responds. This is the ultimate sign of both commitment and sacrificial giving.
3. No projecting.
Each of us carry more relationship baggage than a Boeing
747. Whether it originated from our relationships with our
parents or our exes, we carry it around with us everywhere and
it often times influences our relationships with others. So,
Bonnie and I had to very clearly address this baggage and agree
that though we had each been hurt in the past, it was not fair or
productive to subconsciously project the blame of those hurts
on to each other. In short, we consciously stated that she’s not
my ex-wife and I’m not her Dad.
4. Say “I heard,” not “You said.”
In any relationship, miscommunication is inevitable. Unfortunately, usually due to our own sinful pride, this interaction regularly turns into “You said x” and “No, you said y”. Eventually, this back and forth disagreement turns into a heated exchange where blame must be assigned and accepted. At this point, what was a simple, unintentional, misunderstanding has turned into an argument where accusations are full of implied malicious intent.
So, rather than continue going through the same tired motions, and in light of the fact that we’re both terrible at relationships (see Rule #1), Bonnie and I decided to approach this from a place of humility. Instead of starting with “You said x”, we choose to start our miscommunications with “I heard x”, which immediately removes all accusations from the conversation and puts focus on the actual miscommunication. “Yes baby, I’m sure you did say that we were supposed to meet at 4pm, unfortunately I heard 5pm.” With that, we both accept that miscommunications happen, and we refrain from blaming each other over something that is a literal “he said/she said” case that can’t be proven anyway. Sure, somebody messed up, but we know it wasn’t intentional and this way we don’t make it into a bigger deal than it is.
5. I’ll do anything for you, except…
I love Bonnie and will do anything I can to make her happy. Knowing this, there is, however, one thing that she is not allowed to ask me to do: I absolutely refuse to try and “read her mind.” Sure, I should know that Thursday is garbage day and that I need to take out the trash, but I forget sometimes. If she asks me to take out the trash, I promise I will gladly do it! But giving me “attitude” in an effort to make me remember or decipher what she is mad about is absolutely unacceptable. From that perspective, I tell Bonnie regularly (and she accepts):
“I will go to the ends of the earth for you and do anything I can to make you the happiest woman in the world, just don’t ask me to read your mind.”
It really is a great compromise!
6. You can have anything you want…
I gave up my corporate job years ago and with it went the high dollar salary and expense account. Even so, I still take the responsibility of providing for my wife and children’s financial needs (and wants) very seriously. To that extent, the money rule in our house is very simple:
“You can have ANYTHING you want, you just can’t have EVERYTHING you want.”
Three-hundred-dollar jeans? No problem. Concert tickets? You bet! Vacations? Sounds like a blast! Oh, you want groceries too? And electricity? Something has to give. So, we agree to get everything we “need,” we pick and choose the things we really “want,” and the rest we live without (and hardly even notice).
Communication = Commitment
After my divorce, I focused intently on working on my personal well-being. From my faith and mental health, to my emotional stability and physical strength, I did the hard work of going through counseling and making serious philosophical changes in my life. This resulted in my ability and willingness to adopt these rules.
Over the past twelve years (or so) that Bonnie and I have been together, I can’t remember having more than one or two major disagreements. Though we have small miscommunications all the time, because we follow these rules, the disagreements stay small as opposed to growing into something more. In no way do I believe that either of us are now perfect at relationships, but I have no doubt that we have grown leaps and bounds both in our communication and in our expectations of what a healthy, committed relationship actually looks like.
Introverts and Extroverts
Over the past decade or so, I have developed a theory through my observation of all the couples I know: Every couple is made up of one introvert and one extrovert, relative to each other.
This theory started when Bonnie and I were early on in our relationship and had a large group of friends that included many other couples. Whenever we would get together, everyone would be super social at the beginning. But as the event went on, half of the group would get tired and start asking what time it was, while the other half of the group kept going strong.
After repeatedly observing the same situation, Bonnie and I realized that the groups weren’t split up by sex, age, or interests; they were split up by couple. Half of every couple was in the group that wanted to party all night and the other half of the couple wanted to be in bed by 9 pm. When we dug a little deeper, it was easy to see that it was a clear split between introverts and extroverts.
Understanding this, we decided not to compromise and instead agreed to be accepting of one another’s personality. So, the next time we went out, rather than go home early to appease the introvert, or stay out late to appease the extrovert, or even just compromise and both be lukewarm, we simply decided to catch separate rides. This way, Bonnie could go home early, and I could stay out late. I wasn’t mad that she was an introvert, she wasn’t mad that I was an extrovert, and everyone was happy.
Posifocus Mantra #8
Communication is the Key to Success.
If you could go back, what would you do different in your past relationships? What would you do the same?
Commit to communicate clearly with your current/future partner. Speak kindly and honestly. Listen without projecting.
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