I don’t think anyone really has a clue.
When my relationship hit a rough patch recently, I did what I usually do and called one of my girlfriends – one who, like me, has kids and has been through a divorce.
She’s successfully navigated remarriage and the whole blended-family/stepparent thing, so I trust her to give me good advice, even though in general, I hate advice. She suggested making a list of what I’m looking for in a relationship. Not what I think I deserve, or what I think is realistically out there for me, or even what I’ll settle for – but what I really need and want.
“I know it sounds woo-woo, but if you make that list, you’ll find what you’re looking for,” she said.
That night, I got out my journal and tried to start the list. And found that I couldn’t. What was I supposed to write, anyway? The usual stuff, like smart, funny, kind, handsome? Whatever. I’d already met the cutest, funniest, sexiest, smartest, kindest guy I could ever have imagined – and it wasn’t working. I couldn’t get past my broken heart to even begin thinking about what I wanted, outside of what I already had. Or, what I thought I’d had. Maybe I never did. I gave up and went to sleep.
Someday, my prince will come…
I’m pretty sure the problem starts before we’ve even hit puberty. From toddlerhood on, we’re inundated with stories like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty – princesses who live happily ever after once their prince finally comes for them. But what do we know about these princes, anyway? Cinderella’s Prince Charming doesn’t want to settle down with any of the princesses his father has in mind, Sleeping Beauty’s prince likes to feed apples to his horse and dance with strange girls in the woods, and I can’t recall Snow White’s dude even having any lines – but maybe my memory is failing. Point being, girls are indoctrinated to think we’re supposed to marry the first cute guy who shows interest, and that’s supposed to make us happy.
Even when we graduate to supposedly ‘grown-up’ romantic comedies, the movie usually ends right after the couple finally gets it together and falls in love. (See: Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally, While You Were Sleeping, and pretty much any other romantic comedy you can think of.) Don’t get me wrong – I love these movies. But they didn’t do anything to help me form a realistic idea of what good relationships are supposed to look like.
What’s love got to do with it?
School wasn’t any help, either. They told us about sex, and warned us that it was a Big Deal and we should be careful who we had it with, but they didn’t teach us anything about relationships, or romance. It was all anatomy, birth control, and sexually transmitted disease prevention. I don’t blame our teachers, really; looking back, it’s clear that they were probably clueless themselves. But what we don’t learn in school, we ought to learn at home – and whose parents had a healthy and happy relationship, really? Sure, some people’s parents did, but those people are probably not reading this article, because they’re too busy being happy in their relationships. The rest of us are screwed.
Without good role models to learn from, or any education about what role sex is supposed to play in our lives, other than to make babies and possibly give us terrible diseases, how are we expected to know what a healthy relationship looks like? Watching reruns of Friends and modeling ourselves after Monica and Chandler is only useful up to a point.
According to the experts
In spite of life dealing me blow after blow and nothing ever turning out the way I’d hoped and planned, I’m an optimist. I firmly believe it’s never too late to turn things around and learn new, better ways of behaving. So even though I’m apparently clueless about healthy relationships to the point of not even being able to make a list of what I want and need from a partner, I’m not giving up. Instead, I’m doubling down on one of my most-loved pastimes: reading relationship self-help books. The answers have to be in there somewhere, right?
John Gottman, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts on relationships, and his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, has sold more than a million copies. I’ve read it numerous times – but reading is one thing, and putting into practice is another. Still, the one overriding message of Gottman’s work is that kindness is what matters most in a relationship. Bringing kindness into any interaction with your partner changes the entire tenor of your relationship; when you’re kind, you don’t ignore your partner, you don’t say hurtful things, you think about what they need and take their feelings into account. So perhaps the key to a healthy relationship is simply that: be kind.
For something a little more concrete, relationship expert Dr Margaret Paul lays out several traits of healthy relationships in The Huffington Post. She stresses the need for people to take responsibility for their own emotions.
“Happiness, emotional safety and self-worth come from how we treat ourselves and others, rather than from how others treat us,” says Paul.
“If we are abandoning ourselves rather than loving and valuing ourselves, we will feel unhappy and emotionally unsafe, and have low self-worth. If we then blame our partner for our feelings, we participate in creating an unhealthy relationship.”
Paul says that in addition to taking care of yourself emotionally, you and your partner should be able to laugh together, connect on a deep level, enjoy time apart as well as together, and support each other. You want the best for each other, and when your partner is happy, you’re happy too.
If there’s one thing I do know, it’s that building a healthy relationship is hard work. Once you’ve passed the infatuation stage of love, you’ve got to be committed to sticking around and working through your fears and insecurities. It’s not for the faint of heart; love takes courage and determination. Just because none of us know what we’re doing, it doesn’t mean we’re doomed.
I guess I’ll go back to making that list…
Images via tumblr.com.
Comment: What do you think a healthy relationship looks like?
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