As Alan and I learn to exist in our new roles and new environment, it has become apparent that how we live isn't for everyone. And I think that's an important idea that a lot of people haven't latched onto in their lives. Some might argue I don't get that idea. And it may be true that I struggle with certain ideas that some people have about how relationships work, but I have a much better perception than I am often given credit for.
I'm going to preface this with saying there are certain things I believe must exist in every relationship. Friends, romantic, family, maybe even professional. But mostly in personal relationships. If I don't see these things, I often have a hard time seeing the ability to succeed. Perhaps this makes me judgmental, or cynical, and it often makes me a target (see Lightning Rod of Discontent) but I do not budge on these beliefs. Doesn't mean I view you as any lesser a person for not falling into my criteria, it's just how I see the world. I've created this idea based on watching those around me as well as experiencing a number of these things myself. I'm no expert, I would never claim to be. But I am certainly an intelligent and logical person who can draw conclusions from repeated experiences.
That being said, here are some things relationships need to work, on the most basic level.
1. Mutual Attraction
This seems like a no-brainer in my book, BUT just to keep in line with the idea of basic level, I want to lay it out. In every relationship we maintain, platonic, familial or romantic, there is a shared attraction. That attraction can be physical, mental, nostalgic, ingrained. But you both find each other attractive for some reason or another. In the case of family, your shared sense of history and having grown up sharing certain experiences makes you attractive to one another, makes you seek each other out to commiserate or celebrate. This is also true in cases of long-term friendship, while likely also including shared interests, hobbies, intellectual and ideological beliefs, or even respect for contrasting ideas. And in romantic, you hope for all of these attractions. But at the very basic level, both parties have to have an attraction to one another. Or else it's not a true relationship.
2. Mutual Respect
This is something I have touched on before (see Written in Ink), numerous times, but more than anything, the idea of mutual respect hinges on understanding that other people's emotions are valid, even if they don't make sense to you. Just because their feelings seem irrational to you doesn't mean they are. Emotions, simply by definition, are kind of irrational, but they are all valid. How we react to our emotions, how we choose to express them, and how we let them affect those around us can be irrational, and (in most cases) it is up to us to monitor and regulate how those emotions manifest. This is all easier said than done, and I don't want to get into a tangent about self-monitoring, so for the sake of this entry, just understand the idea that emotions are valid, sometimes our reactions are irrational.
Even so, when our reactions are poor, impulsive, and even hurtful, it helps if the other person does their best to respect our feelings. This is so hard because our poor reactions to our emotions illicit emotions in the other party, but sometimes the best way to calm the irrational party is to be understanding. How we intend people to take our messages and how they actually take our messages are two totally different things, and even when you don't mean to hurt or offend someone, it can still happen. And explaining yourself as "I'm sorry you feel that way, that's not at all how I intended it," can make a world of difference. Because if you do respect the other person, it DOES matter to you that you have hurt them in some way. It doesn't even have to mean that you're sorry for what you did, simply that you're sorry someone you cared about was hurt. We are so focused on ourselves sometimes that it is difficult to remember that other people really do have their own lives and struggles going on at the same time, just as valid as yours.
Mutual respect also includes adhering to the rules you have negotiated for your relationship. For a lot of us, rules aren't actually spelled out, but rather discovered over time by either casual discussion, or breaches of these rules. In romantic relationships, it is often a combination of the two. When Alan & I began to date, I sat him down and asked him some pertinent questions and also laid out some things that were never to be violated. But other rules aren't so easily identified until they are broken. How to handle me when I am in a depressive state? Not a thought I often keep in mind until an extended depression comes around, and Alan handles it poorly. This then lead to a discussion about what my needs are and what he can do in the future to help. More casual, platonic and familial relationships find these rules over time and shared experiences. But as these rules are negotiated, we make our efforts to respect them to the best of our abilities. And sometimes these rules change. What was once acceptable might not be anymore. But if you don't notify the other party of these changes, they cannot perform accordingly. More than likely, the other person isn't psychic and can't just understand you, so communicate these changes.
3. Clear Communication
This is even harder for me to define, hilariously with my fancy degree in Communication Studies. Communication is such a variable factor, and what one relationship considers clear communication practices might not suit another. But at the very basic level, both parties should be able to communicate ideas, emotions, and actions clearly. For some people, this means talking things out exhaustively, and even circuitously. I am famous for this. To another skilled communicator, it sometimes becomes clear that I am repeating ideas, but changing the way in which I present them in order to try and get my point across to a possibly resistant audience. For others, very little words have to be exchanged to assure each other that they are on the same page, thanks to lots of time building up nuances and a repertoire of nonverbal and emotional shorthand. For some people email, instant messages, or texting on the phone is the best form because everything is recorded and has at least a level of thought given before the send button is pushed. When something is moving too fast, you can stop and reread every word that was typed and try to glean the intended meaning from that.
And these methods can vary from relationship to relationship. While I much prefer to talk things out verbally with my friends and partner, some people can't handle my high energy levels. X and I often did better (and maybe we perhaps happiest when) our main form of communication was through the Internet in some manner or another. IM, blog posts, and emails often fruited better communication and consideration of each other's feelings than when I would explode in circular logic trying to get him to understand my emotional needs. Alan tends to take in my verbal explosions, absorb my repetition, walk away from the situation, and email me later after having reflected on it with his apologies, rebuttals, or both. It's how we compromise, by compromising on our communication styles.
4. Happy in the Present
This one might be mostly for romantic relationships, but I imagine there are some aspects of this present in other relationships as well.
Your relationship cannot hope to survive if you are hanging all your hopes on the chance that things will be better later. Hilariously, a story about the last month of X and my marriage illustrates my point perfectly. It's almost a metaphor for our entire relationship.
X had sent me out to Seattle with a few "missions" to accomplish. While it was impossible for me to achieve any of them in the short amount of time I was there and the state of the economy, my failure to produce results was the topic of every other daily phone call we would have. X had told me to find a job, and find a place for us to live when he supposedly moved out there. We had gone back and forth about whether we should rent or buy, and I believed that renting for a year was the best bet until we knew the city and surrounding areas better. X wanted to buy because he seemed anxious to not be renting anymore. But with me jobless and him not making a whole lot, especially by Seattle standards, our price range put any houses we could afford in bad areas, on railroad tracks, or in awful terrible shape. Or all three at once. *shudder* In my frustration with his insistence that we buy a terrible house, I spoke to my friend Morte. X's claim was that he wanted to buy a cheap house in bad shape, we'd fix it up together and sell it later, all while living in it the whole time. (Keep in mind, X never did any level of hard labor around the house to begin with. He never fixed anything besides a computer, couldn't carry boxes up one level of stairs without getting winded and complaining, and generally knew nothing about how to fix up a house.) Morte and her husband had chosen to do much the same thing, but she made a clear distinction. I can't directly quote her, as it was so long ago, but it was something along the lines of, "When we bought our house, we knew this wasn't our dream house. Our plan is to update it and someday sell it and buy a better house. But we know that things change and life happens, so we made sure we were happy with this house too, if we never get to leave it. That I can live with this house, even if no changes happen to it." This stuck with me, not just in home buying advice (which I kept in mind as Alan and I shopped for our home), but in life. We have friends who have bad habits. We make the decision that we love them despite, or even because of, these bad habits. That their good habits and characteristics far outweigh any negative things they have. They provide us with something (see mutual attraction above) that is worth the sometimes negative characteristics. And we choose to be friends with them as they are. We don't plan for them to be someone else later on. And while anyone can change drastically in their life, we don't plan for that to happen. We accept people as they are. It's not to say we don't think our friends should better themselves, but these are the things that define our relationships.
This goes double for romantic relationships, however. Yes, we expect that our partner will continue to grow and learn as time goes on. But sometimes that doesn't equate to them changing their bad habits or negative traits. It might even make them worse. But we don't get into a relationship, specifically a marriage, counting on them getting better some day. That never ends well. You are setting yourself up for disappointment. Because even if the person does change and improve, 9 times out of 10, it won't be the way you thought it would. When X left me, he told me it was because he believed marrying me would "fix" me and change all the things he didn't like about me. And when I didn't meet those expectations, he dropped me. You have to accept your romantic partner as they are. You can try to help them improve, if they want to, and you can even try to urge them along a little if they are a bit resistant. But you must either accept them as they are and as they might always be, or get out. And especially don't marry someone if you are still waiting on them to become the better person you "just know" they will become.
5. Planning for the Future
And the flipside of this is that there must be a shared plan for the future. For most casual relationships, this mostly just means "We plan to continue to be friends," and sometimes there are some deeper plans like "I plan for you to be a part of my wedding someday," or even "I want you to be an integral part of my future childrens' lives," but these are still more abstract and loose agreements of the future. But you do both see yourselves as a part of each other's futures.
In romantic relationships, however, this is more important. This needs to be a shared plan. Now sometimes this shared plan is no plan. Say you're both super laid back and don't want to look that far ahead. But you are both on that page together and share in your no-plan plan of the future. Alan & I have changed our plans several times, from when we were going to move in together, when we would be engaged, when we would buy a house and when I would enter the workforce. But we have always talked to each other and made those plan changes together, making sure they fit our shared idea of what we want our future together to be. Some couples might even have a shared plan of one partner making all the plans and the other just tagging along for the ride. But again, this is an agreement reached together. But, referencing back to clear communication, both parties must be on the same page to achieve any future happiness.
With those things in mind, Alan & my existence within these ideas is not for everyone. We are mutually attracted in many ways. Physically, obviously. (He's kind of a hottie, I am so fuckin lucky!) But we are attracted to one another for each other's enthusiasm over the things we love, our ideologies, our nerdiness, our pursuit of knowledge, and our lack of fucks given about what most people think about us. I love his responsibility, his motivation, his patience, his talent in the kitchen, and his financial savvy. He loves my contrasting ideas, that I push him to try new things, that I bring new experiences to him, my brain, and that I am warm and welcoming to people of all walks of life.
We share a respect for each other's space, need for time apart, individual growth, and feelings. We are high energy and move faster than most, and sometimes this results in explosive clashes, but at our energy levels, we absorb as much as we sling at each other. We always regret hurting the other, and do our best to communicate what transgressed in order to make the offense happen. We call each other on our shit, and move at the speed of light. This ties directly into our style of communication. While most people see our conflicts as unhealthy and explosive, stressful and unnecessary, Alan and I, and even our counselor, see that it really doesn't bother us nearly as much as it bothers others. We do our best to keep these explosions to just us these days, but sometimes it happens anyways. I have a tendency to escalate, and Alan to dig in his heels. Stressful is definitely a descriptor for these fights, but we operate at higher levels of stress than most others to begin with. Even on days when I am in a good mood and super excited about everything, my stress levels are well above normal. It's a result of being a high energy person. So naturally our conflicts will be fast paced and high energy too. It is a concerted effort these days to try and slow ourselves down when we clash, and it is slowly improving, but it is likely there will always be some kind of fireworks when full on conflict happens.
And our present and future are right in step with one another. We recognize, and embrace each other's strengths and weaknesses. I love some of Alan's hang ups, because they endear him to me. We made the decision to send me to grad school together, and adjusted our future possibilities to match it. But it was still in line with the plans we aim to achieve in the end. It fits our view of the future we are building. We accept that we might always yell at each other when we fight. And we accept that we need to learn to censor that around others so we may continue to be their safe haven too. But we expect our friends to recognize that asking us to change is just as unfair as asking each other to change. We love each other, we love our friends, and we are loved by them. Life is good, I am in command of my path, and I am unafraid.