“Marriage is an insane proposal. ” – Aziz Ansari
Last weekend marks one year of being engaged for me. (Woo!) Not only was I engaged, I was in a long distance relationship, me in San Francisco, him in Seattle. This weekend, I’m going to cry in public in front of 100+ people as I make my vows to marry my best friend.
I’ve learned a few things about what it means to build a healthy, functioning relationship. I’ve discovered concepts I didn’t know existed or had poor and misunderstanding of, and I’ve gained insights through experiences I never had before.
I thought I would write a bit about what I’ve learned in the past year, one, to share in hope of greater usefulness for the world, and two, for my own record.
My friend Lera (hi Lera!) said that this would be a book on its own, and I technically could write a whole lot on the topic. I’m going to confine myself to just one blog post for now, though, because if I don’t, it’ll be our 10th or 50th anniversary before I come around to writing it.
Well, here we go.
Love is a skill
I came to learn more about relationships, ironically enough, when a long-term relationship came to an end. At 30, I realized that I knew very little about what makes the world go round.
I knew about relationships the way I know about cars. I was only capable enough to operate a car in good condition and drive from point A to point B on decent roads and in reasonable weather.
But, optimizing a car’s performance? Don’t look at me. Having the mental and motor skills to expertly take tight corners and navigate narrow mountain passes? I wouldn’t survive. Actually, at 30, I had spent more time reading my car’s specs and manual than I ever did on the nature of romantic love, relationship, and intimacy.
I found it funny that in all other areas of my life, if I wanted to improve, I’d do something about it, get a book, watch a video, go to a workshop. Why didn’t I do the same thing with relationships? Why did I fervently read up on typography and information architecture and Hindu mythology, and not on the neural wiring of a brain in love?
This is where I realized my first mistake: thinking that I already knew how to love, and what to do to build and maintain, and end a relationship.
As is my coping mechanism for learning a new skill, I threw myself at stuff like the neurobiology, attachment theory, dirty minds, chemistry, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, couple quibbles, more neurobiology, and learned a new language.
Let’s begin with the end.
Relationships are bucket lists for growth
During my last breakup, I discovered a helpful book called Coming Apart: Why Relationships End and How to Live Through the Ending of Yours. This book dispelled a number of myths about romantic love and introduced a key concept that I’ve carried.
The author asked a seemingly straight-forward question, why are we in relationships? Why do we fall in love? Why do we get together with anybody? According to her:
“In our lifetimes, we are each trying to do a single thing: to create our selves. We are all trying to solve our basic psychological problem—which is to answer in depth and to our own satisfaction the question, “Who am I?”
“This process of self-definition or self-discovery occurs through what I call “developmental tasks,” and it is our relationships, more than anything else in our lives, that help us accomplish the developmental tasks through which we define ourselves.”
I know, I know, this super bookish and academic definition may not sound Hollywood romantic at all. Yet, discovering who I really am, unpacking emotional baggages, taking possession of my sexuality, cultivating my creativity, untangling my anger, coming more fully into myself, that all sounds pretty enticing, even romantic.
But what does that have to do with luuuuuurve? Since we can’t do it the growing all by ourselves, relationships are the most natural way for us to get help from each other.
“Love is the medium whereby we offer one another this assistance, and, by this definition, a good love is one in which a fairly equal amount of assistance is being given and received by both partners.”
“…consciously or unconsciously we are always in a state of emotional evolution, and nothing spurs our emotional development more than our intimate relationships.”
Ok, so love = checking off developmental tasks off my bucket list?
What was I going to do next to test this theorem? Put up an ad for a “developmental task partner”?
Wanted: A boy who will help me solve and resolve my psychological developmental tasks. Must love cats.
Don’t scale for a problem you don’t yet have
When I met David, I was planning to leave town. Here I was, one foot out the door, ready to say “hasta la vista, baby” to Seattle, and in came this boy.
“We can’t do this!” I exclaimed. “We can’t start a relationship, we’ll end up getting hurt!”
“Whoa,” said Dave, “We don’t even know what this is. We’re just getting to know each other. You know what PG said. If you don’t have 2 million users, don’t scale for 2 million users.”
(I’m sorry, PG, I know you were talking about startups, not relationships.)
Somewhere in my psyche, I was already anticipating, and solving for something that didn’t even yet exist. My mind probably imagined something super far-fetched, like raising children long distance.
You can’t solve for a problem you don’t have. You can only solve for a problem you have right now. (This is so obvious when I type it out like this, but the mind has a funny ways of creating illusions.)
Had I not taken a chance on dating this boy for fear of things not working out, I would have missed out on one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Independence is Secure Attachment, not emotional distance
As a self-proclaimed modern girl, I had a certain idea of what “being independent” meant. It meant not needing anybody for anything, right? It meant belching on top of my lungs “Here I go againnnn on my ownnnn….”
In an infantile way, I even thought of independence as stuff like this:
“Your left hand believes in shining armor. Your right hand thinks knights are for fairy tales. Your left hand says ‘I love you’. Your right hand says ‘I love me too’. Women of the world, raise your right hand.”
Several years ago, I would have totally raised a toast to all that with my right hand. And now, I’m embarrassed to even tell you that. This mentality conveniently trivializes one hand for the other (I mean, try to only use one hand), and it plays into the false notion that you can learn to love on your own, by yourself.
I’ve also come to learn about Attachment Theory, and realized that a lot of what I imagined “independence” to convey, was actually Avoidant Attachment, the behavior of passive aggressively creating emotional distance and isolation. It’s an illusion of independence, it’s really disconnection.
You can’t learn to love by yourself
In this relationship, I’ve learned to love myself in ways I could not have learned on my own.
There is a popular belief out there that you can’t learn to love someone until you learn to love yourself. I used to subscribe to that belief. And now, I think of it as a reminder to not neglect my own feelings and needs and running around accommodating others at the expense of my own growth.
I’m not talking about learning about love as a feeling or a dopamine release. I’m talking about love as actions that demonstrate our capacity for compassion and empathy.
And this, this is something you only learn by doing. I could read every single book ever published on the topic, and it would merely be an intellectual exercise until I put what I’ve read to the test.
Have regular FaceTime, even in person
Because we saw each other once a month, we FaceTimed pretty much every night for two hours or more. (See above: do things that don’t scale.)
This regularly scheduled time taught us a couple things, that if we lived in the same city, we would probably have not dedicated an uninterrupted chunk of time to just talking to each other about our day, looking into each other’s face, working out conflicts, pair-bonding, and keep getting to know each other
In my past relationships, there was a point when I would “get lazy” about discovering or exploring who this other person was, while in fact, we can never know enough about each other, or as soon as we think we know somebody, they will change.
Thinking you *know* your partner, I’ve learned, can lead to detrimental effects. I’m not saying we should all get amnesic on each other a la 50 First Dates. I’m saying, Beginner’s Mind.
I discovered that there were times when we were in the same room yet totally disconnected; there were times when we were on FaceTime—or living in each other’s computer, as we call it—and we couldn’t be closer to each other emotionally.
A scheduled time, regardless of geographical distances, to check in with each other, to have a dopamine release party, is the glue that binds. This also helps our friends understand and respect our couple boundaries, making it easier on everyone to know what to expect.
Make smooth transitions with separating and connecting rituals
I used to think rituals were silly and superstitious. Then, during my engagement, and in preparation for a wedding ceremony that I personally could relate to, not because “tradition says so”, I discovered that “rituals may be more rational than they appear.” It turns out, rituals help us in important ways to relate, connect, heal, create meaning, and make transitions.
For couples who live in the same city or under the same roof, it may not be a big deal to simply say hi and bye when they leave in the morning and come back at night. For us, since we saw each other once a month, we discovered that a reconnecting and separating rituals are so important, they can make a difference in how we feel and act in the hours or even days that follow.
This whole topic has been a new thing for me to learn about, since I carried some baggage of pre-conceived notions about rituals. Because of the status changes, from girlfriend to fiancee, and soon, wife, I’ve learned that there’s a difference between a change and a transition, and how rituals help us make sense of the transition.
I’ve learned to appreciate my partner *every* time I see him again, and when we separated, it was crucial for us to continue to stay emotionally connected. That’s what rituals help us do, to create a clear demarkation of a system status change, and minimize confusion and disruption to our emotional health.
A healthy relationship is full of vulnerability, full stop
This year I learned about the work of Brene Brown on Vulnerability, and chowed down everything she’s ever produced. I had so many misconceptions and mislead notions of things like guilt, shame, empathy, and compassion, that it would be an entire post by itself.
For so long, I have tried to live up to this fuzzy image of a strong, independent, go-getter girl. I could do it all, I could accomplish it all. I’m in it to win it.
This year, I’ve been so humbled to realize there’s a ton of power in softening up, in disclosing to my partner my “weak emotions”, of fully recognizing and acknowledging when I’m “needy”.
To prepare for marriage, David and I went through what seems like a gazillion topics from those “Questions to ask before you marry” books. At first, I thought it was about *me* getting to know *him*, and *him* getting to know *me*.
In that process, I learned more about myself than I realized, which sometimes took a lot of courage to share without fear of judgement, and fear that if I “said the wrong thing”, he would think less of me and love me less.
Learning to be vulnerable is one of the bravest things I’ve learned how to do, and I couldn’t have done that without being in a healthy relationship, and in turn, a healthy relationship enables me to be vulnerable, making me stronger.
Love is the widening of life’s possibilities
One night, after my yoga training, I got a ride home from Victoria Austin, who’s also a Zen priest at the San Francisco Zen Center. I asked her for what she suggests I think about as I write my wedding vows.
“Many people think of love as desire,” she said. “Love includes desire, but I think of love as something that, when you’re with each other, there’s a sense that the possibilities in life widen.”
That is my favorite definition of Love to date, and it’s such a succinct question, “Is there a sense of widening possibilities when I’m with this person?”
I have found that this question applies to many other kinds of relationships, not just with the romantic kind. Does my capacity to explore the outer and inner world increase? Am I kinder, more friendly to myself?
At my bachelorette party at Esalen, I saw a sign in the kitchen, it summed up my current understanding of love and relationship perfectly.
P.S. You can follow our adventures on nikkianddavid.com