[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I'm in no way a relationship expert. I'm not really an expert in anything, not even writing, which is the thing I studied only because it was the thing that felt most intuitive and correct. But if you asked me most grammar questions, I probably don't know the answer. I know what a noun is, but I don't know what a dangling participle is, and I don't much care. I learned how words work by reading a lot and by writing a lot and so, my expertise here was born of nothing more than exposure and practice.
I'm couching my advice because everyone on this planet could give relationship advice, and not all of it is good. Everyone has been in relationship after all, no matter how dysfunctional, how healthy, how satisfying, or how isolating. My microcosm of relationship experience doesn't make me qualified to tell anyone else how to live or love, but there is one incredibly important thing that I've learned over the past decade, which is this: healthy relationships with others start with a healthy relationship with yourself. It's not original, I know. But it is where you have to begin, and I'm convinced that's why a lot of relationships fail.
I was engaged once, but I had no business being in a serious union, much less dating anyone. I hadn't figured out who I was or what I wanted or what really made me happy. And years later, on the flip side of the equation, I've dated men who are clearly uncertain about themselves or unhappy with themselves in some way, and are therefore incapable of relationship, or at least, the type of relationship I want.
It's a common and acutely understandable thing to look outward for reassurance, to look outward for direction, and to look outward for love. We do this as children all the time, and how we're parented teaches us how to receive love. But at some point, we need to stop looking to others to fix what we don't like about ourselves. The moment I became unbearably happy being alone was the moment I found a lovely partner; an egoless man whose kindness and patience took me by surprise. I didn't know men could be like him. But I didn't meet him until after I'd done a fair amount of work on myself. I couldn't have fallen in love with him before doing the work, either. I may have met him, but meeting and falling are worlds apart.
I was running around this state park the other morning and saw a family hiking back from a campground, towing bags of stuff, a tent, and a large blue cooler. The wife, who was struggling to carry double what her husband was, had stopped and was gesturing exaggeratedly, "Every time I try to plan something fun, every time I go out of my way to spend money and make sure we have a good time, you end up hating it. All you do is complain and I don't know what to do anymore." Her two kids, who were in the awkward stages of adolescence, looked on with a mixture of annoyance and concern.
It is one thing to date someone while living with a gaping wound in your chest. One thing to try to fill that wound with another person. But to marry the person you thought would fill the wound, to create children with the person you thought would fill the wound, and then look up one day in your middle age and noticed that the wound is wider than ever, is the mistake that so many people make.
You can almost see it, if you pay attention enough. The couple walking down the sidewalk, the man paces ahead of his girlfriend or wife. Her discontent and simultaneous lovesick look. The woman or man who checks their phone constantly for a message from someone whose interest is half-hearted at best. The married man who flirts heavily with anyone, who resents feeling tied down and has an affair with a much younger woman. The couple who argues at the airport, each retreating to the separate dystopias of their cell phones. We all want to escape, and sometimes, we wrongly assume we can escape into another person.
It's easy to say that you need to fix your relationship with yourself, but it's far more difficult to actually do, especially if you don't necessarily realize that your relationship with yourself isn't good. Sometimes, it takes hurting really badly to understand that you might be at the bottom of that hurt. When I've felt the most heartbroken, I do a fair amount of grieving and a fair amount of self-reflection. And every time, I've discovered that I was a large part of the reason for my pain. It's an unavoidable, unpleasant truth.
And as much as I'd like to think that I've solved the puzzle-that my relationship with myself is air-tight, I know that's not true, either. It takes effort to continue to love yourself. It takes time that is more comfortably spent in distraction. But it's also incredibly rewarding and fruitful to spend time getting to know and love yourself. I promise.