The world is chock full of bad relationship advice. The sources are myriad. Glossy magazines like GQ and Cosmopolitan are classic offenders and some of the worst. Online “listicles” of this type are now ubiquitous! What all of these sources have in common is that they dispense outmoded advice that is nothing more than old adages repackaged and rehashed ad nauseum.
Do you know why old adages are always called old? Easy: Because they are old. They don’t reflect modern relationships. The last thing this century need is more dated advice steeped in the trappings of centuries past. What the modern world needs is fresh and contemporary understandings of relationships that reflect the world we live in now.
To that end, today’s post is about dissecting some of this tired and outdated relationship advice and giving it the 21st-century upgrade.
Be Friends First – SEEK COMMONALITY
So-called relationship experts will advise you to marry your best friend. On its face, this seems to make good sense. After all, who wouldn’t want to marry their best friend? As it turns out: most people! If you are single, think of your ideal mate. Now think of your best friend. Do these two images line up? For most people, the answer is a resounding NO. We choose friends and romantic relationships based on different sets of needs.
When people say “be friends first” or “marry your best friend,” what they really mean is to seek out commonality in your relationships. We tend to choose like-minded people for life partners—people with similar morals and values as ourselves.
Opposites Attract, BUT ONLY IF THEY ARE COMPATIBLE
The commonality is really just the most straightforward kind of compatibility. Like and like tend to like one another, though this isn’t always true. Often the strongest relationships are those in which two people complement one another, even if they aren’t the mirror image of one another. You don’t have to share all of the same values and traits as long as you have compatibility.
This is why opposites sometimes attract. I know quite a few shy introverts that have successfully coupled with grega freerious extroverts. These relationships work for all kinds of reasons. Maybe the introvert needs the extrovert to coax them into staying engaged in social circles. Maybe the extrovert does well when partnered with someone who keeps them from going out every night at the expense of other obligations. This is the kind of 1 + 1 = 3 synergy I have talked about before.
This only works when synergy exists. An urban socialite is probably not going to partner well with someone who doesn’t like crowds and thrives on wide, open spaces.
Looks Don’t Matter—It’s What’s Inside AND OUTSIDE That Counts
Attraction transcends mere looks. Men generally judge women based on looks, but women tend to judge men based on their countenance and bearing—how they look, yes, but also how they move and act. To deny the physical attraction of this kind is to deny our fundamental human nature (and to misunderstand relationships).
If caring about physical attraction is shallow, then we are almost every one of us shallow! Physical attraction and emotional connection are not mutually exclusive and one does not cheapen the other. Looks aren’t the only thing, they aren’t even the most important thing, but they are definitely a thing.
Strong Couples Have Shared MEANINGFUL Interests
After the initial physical attraction that brings two people together at the bar, gym, grocery store, or the break room water cooler, what typically follows is a period of getting to know one another. Most advice columnists will tell you to look for shared interests. I couldn’t agree more, but not every commonality matters. It doesn’t matter that you share the same sign or hometown, or that you both have two siblings. What matters is looking for meaningful commonalities.
Do you share the same values? Are the interests that define you compatible? What you are looking for are commonalities that indicate that you are both driven by compatible motivations. I can date a Pisces or a Gemini—a person from Omaha or Portland. But I am very unlikely to connect with someone who organizes fundraisers for the Religious community Right. Likewise, I probably won’t fit their vision of a compatible mate either!
Now, find me a woman that practices healing arts and Taoism, curious about neuroscience and most everything, understands Kurzweil’s technological singularity, interested in hiking more than shopping or studies microfinance, then we can talk! Surreal experiences will happen between them. Pow.
You’re NOT In It For The Long Haul
Fairy Tales and Hollywood romantic comedies aside, not all love is meant to last forever, nor should it. Most of us are glad we didn’t marry our high school sweetheart. Divorce may be hard and sad, but it is sometimes the right decision when a marriage is no longer working.
Don’t let the fear of a relationship not lasting forever put you off of real human connections. Don’t let it keep you in a bad relationship. And don’t let past relationships haunt you—they are only failures if you cling to them after they’ve run their course.
LITERALLY, NOTHING Is Unconditional
There is no such thing as unconditional love—it cannot exist in a dynamic world. People change. The things that drew you to someone are not static in them, nor are your preferences for that matter.
When we say unconditional love, we mean a state of acceptance of ourselves and another person. This is a state. In a dynamic world, states change, and that’s okay. The tenuous and ephemeral nature of love is what makes it so precious. It is both why we have to work so hard for it and the reason for doing so. As I always say: “It’s easy to love and hard to live.”
Be Empathetic AND ALSO EMPATHIC
I think we can all agree that empathy is important to strong relationships (okay, maybe not the sociopaths, but the rest of us have reached a consensus here). But not everyone realizes there are two modes of empathy. Being empathetic matters—but so does being empathic.
Being empathetic means being sensitive to the feelings and needs of others. Empathic is similar but has a slightly different connotation. Being empathic means you are in tune with the thoughts and feelings of others—it is about your ability to understand people and pick up signals. It is not good to be empathetic if you are not also empathic. If you are missing signals, how can you hope to really understand someone?
These two traits dovetail nicely—they absolutely have to. To quote Ram Dass: “Only that in you which is me can hear what I’m saying.”
Practicing all forms of empathy can help you better understand both yourself and another. It is paramount to communicate.
BECOME FLUENT IN YOUR PARTNER’S LANGUAGE
Considering all of the ways we can be misunderstood, it is amazing we ever make sense to others. Learning to communicate with another person means learning their “ language” and them learning yours. Don’t assume that you understand what someone is saying without first delving deep into the meaning. They speak a different language than you—so you are going to have to slow down and translate.
It takes years to really understand someone well enough to speak their language well, but you can get there. But no matter how fluent you both get you will always be translating. You may reach a day where you know them so well that you internalize your partner’s language, a laudable goal, but it will never be your native tongue. That means good communicators are dedicated, lifelong translators.
- Ask yourself: Are you speaking your partner’s language and they yours?
PICK Your Soulmate
There is something warm and comforting about the notion of the one and only true person meant just for you. It would be really neat if someone like that existed! Bummer they don’t, right?
My issue with the Hollywood depiction of soulmates is that it places the onus of finding the right person on fate or the stars or God or whatever. That’s a cop-out. It’s also not a very appealing prospect. I want to be the one who decides what is right for me.
When you realize that a soulmate is someone you choose, not someone you find, it can feel liberating. This makes finding a soulmate less like a game of Where’s Waldo? and more about asking a delving personal question: What should my soulmate look like?
It makes the “search” for another a personal journey. In order to find someone that “completes you,” you first have to ask yourself who you yourself want to be.
KNOW WHEN TO COMPROMISE
This column has so far pushed you to find a partner based on meaningful commonalities and compatibility. Ready to find your perfect match? Not so fast. If a perfect match for a person exists, I haven’t seen one. I certainly haven’t met mine. You can wait around for yours, but you might be waiting a long, long time. If you want a realistic chance of meeting someone compatible with you, you are going to have to compromise. That’s the easy part. The hard part is knowing when to compromise and when to stand your ground?
Let’s do an exercise. Make a list of ten things that are most important to you in a relationship and jot them down. Now, rank them in order of importance, from one (most important) to ten (least important). Some people can’t seem to whittle their laundry down to ten—to them I say, enjoy the Laundromat! For everyone else, pick your top ten already and get to ranking.
Spend some time with this to think about what you really need in a relationship. Writing your list means thinking about your partner in terms that matter to you. You have to figure out what you want before you can find that in another person.
Once you have your list, keep it and consult it when you meet someone new. A potential partner or friend does not have to meet all of these ten points (again: compromise), but the list will help you keep perspective as you sort through people. You still have to decide when to compromise and when to stand your ground, but now you have a guide and yardstick to help you make that call.
Really what you are doing here is setting up an algorithm to filter out incompatible people based on metrics that matter to you. OkCupid and Match.com have perfected this in the world of online dating, but you can also do it on your own for your analog life in a super precision way.. That’s the same thing you are doing here—creating a personal algorithm (not unlike our proprietary sourcing decision execution platform) to help you separate the signal from the noise.
Showing your list to someone else can be an interesting exercise, especially if it is a partner. Your list can form the basis of a contract and aid in communicating more effectively and directly.
Here is my list at that time, of course, it changes from time to time.
Now, what’s yours?
Be honest and true. There is nothing selfish about wanting what you want. That is the nature of relationships—people coming together to fulfill their needs.
As Ram Dass (can you tell I admire his thinking?) said: “We come into relationships often very much identified with our needs. I need this, I need security, I need refuge, I need friendship. And all of the relationships are symbiotic in that sense. We come together because we fulfill each other’s needs at some level or another.” Wouldn’t it be great if you could hand your partner, or potential partner, a list of your needs when it was handy to do so?
A Good Relationship Looks Like A GOOD RELATIONSHIP
There is no typical relationship and no one gets to tell you exactly what a strong, positive, healthy relationship looks like. Marriage is not the home run it is cracked up to be for everyone.
Look, my parents had a traditional marriage—it was one of the most successful relationships I have ever been witness to. But I have also seen successful relationships work that looks very different. Long-distance relationships. Polyamorous relationships. I have even seen successful relationship in which one—only one—partner was gay. Some marriages eschew passionate love for platonic shared interests. Some defy gender roles. Relationships today run the entire gamut of what is possible.
Let’s not blind ourselves to the possibilities of what a good relationship can look like. Be open to possibilities you hadn’t imagined—people can surprise you. Traditional relationships are out the door. Livability is the catchphrase for the 2000s. All that matters is that people come together in a way that provides mutual benefits in a symbiotic fashion that helps all parties lead better lives.