“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~Buddha
“You’re not in love with me, you’re in love with the idea of being in love.”
Kate (not her real name) and I had met online before Internet dating websites—let alone apps—were even a thing, and ours was a long-distance relationship.
I was twenty-four, and she was twenty-three.
Initially bonding over our favorite musical artists, we soon found ourselves sharing all kinds of personal stuff with each other—first over AOL Instant Messenger, and then via countless hours on the telephone.
I remember being startled and confused upon hearing a voice I was now intimately familiar with coming out of a face I had never seen before (save for a few photos) when we finally did meet in person a couple of months later. It was jarring.
Nevertheless, we embarked upon a “real” relationship, in the flesh.
Our incompatibilities cropped up almost immediately, however, and became increasingly apparent each time one of us visited the other. Still, how could we deny the substantial emotional intimacy we had established?
Her declaration to me—“You’re not in love with me, you’re in love with the idea of being in love”—seemed harsh and unfair. Who was she to say how I did or did not feel?
Yet, there was a ring of truth to it.
No doubt, I had projected my deepest longings for love and my idealistic vision of realizing it onto her. It wasn’t the first time I had done such a thing, nor would it be the last.
The relationship with Kate crashed and burned rather quickly, intense as it was. Even though it became clear we were not right for each other, it was a painful dissolution. Disillusionment can be painful!
I would endure plenty more heartache in my dating and relationship life for years to come, as I slowly learned how to love myself more and matured in my understanding of what constitutes a healthy relationship.
Eventually, at the age of thirty-three, I met the woman whom—seven years later, to the day—I would marry. A wonderfully compatible, loving, healthy, mutually supportive, and lasting relationship is possible, it turns out. As of this writing, we have been happily coupled for sixteen years (the last nine as spouses).
My observation is that when it comes to relationships, there are “no rules”—meaning, almost anything and everything can happen within the dynamics of two human beings relating to each other.
Certainly, there are no guarantees.
There are many factors at play as to when, how, and why we connect with others in the ways that we do, not to mention how long our relationships (of all kinds) end up lasting, and what kinds of changes they undergo.
Since we have no control over another person’s feelings and choices, nor over what may happen to our beloved, relationships entail inherent risk and vulnerability. That’s the price of admission.
All of the above notwithstanding, here are seven key things I’ve learned, with experience as my teacher, that may help increase the chances of finding and maintaining a satisfying relationship with a partner long-term, if this is something you are seeking:
1. Love and accept yourself.
Loving and accepting yourself—flaws and imperfections as they are—is paramount. It is also the best way to prepare for loving and accepting another person, who will come with their own flaws and imperfections.
There is always room for growth, and it is admirable to strive to improve ourselves, but we are all, always, works in progress. And that’s okay!
If we wait until we are “perfect” before we are willing to love and accept ourselves, we never will.
It is natural to get frustrated with yourself at times, but you can still choose to love yourself anyway and be your own best friend by recognizing and appreciating the goodness deep within you and doing everything you can to do right by yourself and others.
You don’t have to be perfect to be worthy of a loving relationship. Be the best “you” you can be and love yourself all along the way—not in a narcissistic sense, but rather in a self-compassionate one.
2. Find a partner who is “compatibly neurotic.”
You will get along best with someone who is what I like to call “compatibly neurotic.” By this I mean not necessarily someone who is neurotic in exactly the ways that you are (this might be a disaster!), but rather someone whose neuroses are compatible with yours.
In other words, the things about them that might drive other people nuts, you find somehow endearing, and vice versa. You appreciate each other’s quirks and can more or less gladly live with them because they are part of the whole person whom you treasure and adore.
3. Mutual respect is essential.
This is a no-brainer, but it must be mentioned. No healthy relationship is absent of this. You must not only each harbor deep respect and admiration for the other, but you must demonstrate this consistently through your behavior.
If you feel disrespected, it is your responsibility to communicate this to your partner calmly and clearly at the earliest opportune time. Own your feelings and express them as such—your feelings—without attacking the other person, passively or otherwise.
If your partner feels disrespected, it is similarly their responsibility to communicate this to you, and it is then up to you to rectify it to the best of your ability. You want to nip potential resentment in the bud.
Don’t assume the other person is aware of how you are feeling. It is important to be able to voice your feelings and ask for what you want or need.
As far as I’m concerned, putting the other person down, especially in front of others, is a serious violation of respect that should be avoided at all costs.
In my experience, when there is mutual respect there is a natural give and take that tends to occur with very little effort.
4. Mutual interest is non-negotiable.
Again, it should go without saying, but you both should want the same things in a relationship and be interested in a relationship of this kind with each other specifically.
The object of your interest might seemingly possess every quality you find desirable in a partner; they might be attractive, kind, brilliant, share similar interests and values as you, and so on. If they are not interested in you or are not available for the relationship you are seeking, however, all those other qualities are rendered irrelevant. Painful, perhaps, but 100 percent true.
Move on and find someone else who is interested, who is available, and who genuinely appreciates you. Don’t settle for anything less. You are far better off single than in a relationship missing this key component.
Mutual interest is non-negotiable, meaning it’s a must. It also means that it’s not something that can be negotiated into existence; it’s either there, or it’s not.
5. Learn from previous relationships.
Previous relationships are some of your best teachers.
They help you clarify what you do and don’t want in a long-term partner. They also give you practice relating to another human being. And it is often within the context of our relationships that we develop important aspects of our own character and grow as a person.
In this sense, all relationships can be seen as beneficial.
See past relationships, if nothing else, as part of your journey toward finding the fulfilling relationship you are now seeking.
Keep in mind that we tend to have far greater appreciation for that which doesn’t come easily, so if you have struggled in this realm, the potential reward awaiting you may be that much greater.
6. Take responsibility for your own happiness.
Realize that you—and only you—are responsible for your own happiness.
Do the things you love and that you find meaningful, partner or not. Yes, having a wonderful relationship can be one of life’s greatest joys and blessings. But no one else is capable of, nor should be responsible for, making you happy. That is your job.
Cultivate great friendships, too. (And realize that with these a lot of the same things already mentioned apply.)
To promote your own happiness, you must make self-care a priority, which includes setting healthy boundaries for yourself. Self-care goes hand in hand with self-respect and self-love and is much more likely to make you an attractive and appealing partner for someone else, as well as to yourself.
7. Choose explorations over expectations.
Put yourself out there. Meet people (this is required if you want to ultimately find a partner). Show up. Do your part. Put forth some effort. And, as much as possible, keep your expectations in check.
Every connection you make is an opportunity to get to know someone, but you ultimately have no way of knowing where any such connection will lead.
When things don’t work out with someone the way you had hoped, the healthiest thing to do is to presume that it is for the best. You have no idea what potential miseries you are being spared by not ending up in a long-term relationship with this person!
In sum, the best attitude to have when searching for a partner is one of exploration over expectation.
This can be a lot easier said than done –we are human, after all. But the more you can approach your interactions with others as explorations (this person seems interesting, I wonder if there is some possibility for connection?) and the more you can let go of expectations about what a given connection will amount to, the better off you will be.
Be sure to attend to other aspects of your life, as well, including giving yourself other things to look forward to.
These seven lessons did not all come easily to me; some needed to be learned repeatedly, and some still present themselves as things for me to learn anew, or within some new context. But I find them essential to relating well to myself, my partner, and others in general.
“Kate” was part of my journey toward eventually finding the lasting and loving long-term relationship I craved, a mutually nourishing and highly compatible one in which both of us could grow and thrive.
You could say she helped me realize this by being one of the teachers on my path. I hope that I ultimately played the same “facilitator” role for her.