09 February 2013

Hummm... relationships

I've been thinking a lot about relationships lately. Some of my thoughts have centered on a few lists. By no means do I intend to reduce the complexity, rewards and challenges of relationships to a few lists, but for me, focusing on a few concepts is a valuable way to organize some of the new and confusing thoughts and feelings that I have had about relationships over the last two years.

The first list contains attributes that I look for in another person. When one forms such a list, it tends to be in terms of finding a romantic partner. However, it could also be generalized in some way to include friendships or even business and work partnerships. For me, some of the critical things on this list include compassion, honesty, hard work, attraction, intelligence, creativity and a love for learning and discovery. I cannot, for instance, imagine developing a close relationship with someone where trust was a significant problem. 

My second list is the inverse of the first. It comprises the attributes that I potentially offer to others. This is a challenging list. Even though I can enumerate some positive attributes that I think I offer to others, I know that in each of these areas I fall at least somewhat short. In self-evaluation, there is also an important balance to be achieved. On the one hand, self-confidence is attractive to others and is healthy. On the other hand, taken too far, that confidence can become arrogance which is very unattractive to others and is unhealthy. I probably struggle with both lack of self-confidence and some arrogrance from time to time (like everyone else??), but self-confidence tends to be my more frequent challenge. The other challenge with the self list is that the contents of this list may vary from person to person. My wife might value a certain set of attributes about me, but a close friend may see other things. While we may have a lot of control over the personality and behavioral attributes we work hard to cultivate in ourselves, we have no control over what others see or value in us.

Mutual attraction forms from some compatible combination of the first two lists. When we first meet someone, maybe we pick up on a few of the more outstanding attributes we see in someone else. As a relationship begins to form, we are learning a lot about the other person and (consciously or not) thinking about whether they meet some of the other attributes we look for in others. Obviously there is never any perfect match between two people since no one person can offer a complete suite of physical, personality and behavioral attributes that meets every need of another person. Even in the rare cases where two people feel that they are a near perfect match for each other, there is always the possibility that needs, attractions and personalities diverge over time.

The final list pertains to relationships themselves, not the individual involved. Once a romantic parter or friend has been found, the challenging matter of forming a mutually beneficial relationship begins (in the context of friendship I am talking about close, long-term friendships not the shorter-term, more numerous friendships and acquaintances that may come and go with life). For me, the list that describes a successful close relationship has a few critical points. First, mutual attraction needs to be present. This includes physical, sexual, emotional, social and intellectual attraction (minus the sexual and perhaps much of the physical for friendships). Romantic relationships that miss some of these elements may not work in the long-term; friendships that lack social, emotional and intellectual attraction may not really develop far in the first place. Second, close relationships require committment and trust. Third on the list is communication. We all have different styles of communicating love, discomfort and needs. But in the maturation of the relationship, the two individuals need to develop ways of communicating that are honest, respectful of each other, and that can actually lead to the resolution of challenges. My final item is symmetry. By symmetry, I think that the healthiest relationships need to be balanced. In other words, each partner should be putting in roughly equal effort and committment into the relationship. If one partner puts in much more energy, he or she may feel disappointed or unappreciated and the other partner may feel pressured or uncomfortable. Friendships often adjust fairly smoothly to a mutually-acceptable level of effort. Achieving a balance may be difficult in more intense or romantic relationships, and may be the reason many of them do not succeed.

I have been immensely blessed with a few very close relationships in my life. They continue to this day. I cherish them because of the joy they bring to me and the growth that has ensued. These relationships have taken a lot of work. If there is one thing I tend to do well in close relationships, it is to invest heavily in others and to commit to do my very best. There are many other things that I tend to not do so well, and for the forgiveness and patience of others I am grateful.

None of us is a relationship expert. But what have you learned about close relationships in life? What are the critical elements that make close friendships, family relationships and romances flourish?

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