It’s not you, it’s us

3 causes of relationship ruts that squander growth and personal freedom

Illustration by Jane B. Clausen

When was the last time you felt like someone close to you didn’t fully see you? I’m not talking about literally seeing your face or even noticing a physical change. I am referencing those moments when the voice in your head or the feeling in your gut creates an invisible barrier between you and your colleague, friend, or significant other. Maybe you felt like you couldn’t explain how you were feeling or you didn’t want to make an ass of yourself trying. Or maybe you just felt like he or she couldn’t understand or relate, so you kept it inside. I wonder if you’ve felt that way within the last 48 hours? I know I have. Think about it for a minute, what was causing the disconnect?

I believe that our relationships are excellent predictors of personal prosperity. This isn’t a new idea, you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Who you surround yourself with, you become. As we age, those 5 people are less likely to change. So if we continue to spend our time with the same people, how do we evolve? When we commit to a job, a team, or even a marriage, how can we also commit to personal growth?

I have so many personal experiences of craving something new (“Let’s not eat meat anymore!”, “How about we book a Dark Tourism weekend in Mexico City for your birthday?!”, “I think we should shift our focus to leadership behavior change instead of creating new standard project goals.”), but I couldn’t get my significant other or teammates onboard. Why is it so hard? I have been really curious about this question for the last 5 years. I don’t want a 20 year career path that I can map out to a T today. I want to shift with purpose, curiosity, and enthusiasm. I don’t want to just grow old with someone, I want to grow wiser.

In fact, some research out of Northwestern and Berkeley shows us why this can be challenging for romantic partners or even close friends. The more time we spend with someone, the more likely we are to experience emotional convergence. As partners, we begin to mimic each other’s behavior, values, and even social skills. We eat the same. We perceive others similarly. We laugh at the same jokes. And for good reason! When we feel more similar to our partners, we can more accurately perceive each other’s intentions and motivations. When we feel similar emotions, our feelings are validated. Doesn’t it feel great when two minds think alike? Also, we are more likely to be satisfied in a relationship when we experience emotional convergence.

So, what’s the problem? Well, the lack of independent thought, exploration, change, growth… that’s the problem! I read about men and women who are waiting for their significant other to propose, their partner to want children, or their secret crush to finally notice them. At work, we are waiting to be noticed for our potential or we might find ourselves talking about small indicators that our company culture might be changing to finally meet our needs. We are always waiting on someone to want what we want. It has become normal to mask our discontent and anxiety as patience. While we are waiting for others to catch up, we remain stagnant. When it is a relationship we truly value, we need to find a way to connect and grow together, even if we want different things at different times.

Unfortunately, it is really hard. So instead, we let the barrier grow. We stay silent to keep the peace or only fantasize about doing something new. Again, for good reason! Changing at different rates can disrupt the relationship.You can only hear No so many times before you give up on Mexico City or the new strategy for your team. We adapt for the relationship. Also, if you are the less powerful one in the pair, you are more likely to be the one to conform. If you identify as Type B or your boss is hyper-opinionated, good luck paving your own way as an independent actor. When it comes to work, we know we need diversity in thought to grow, change, and innovate. So how can we accomplish and encourage it if we are wired to adapt for one another?

I’m a strong person with strong opinions and I am drawn to other bold people. And frankly, I am interested in questioning my own behavior, even at the expense of my daily satisfaction, to nurture independent curiosity and individual exploration. I’ve spent time thinking about why we may feel stagnant or dissatisfied in our relationships. Whether it’s how we create an abundance of comfort or how we choose to handle misalignment and disagreement, either can leave us feeling stifled. For example, I think we should question why we’ve been getting in the same argument with our mothers for 20 years or why you can’t seem to get promoted into that next job you’ve been working so hard to obtain.

I believe there are several potential reasons our relationships might be holding us back, but here are three that I am a victim of, witness to, and perpetrator of:

#1 Unevaluated routines

Let’s first take a look at how we spend our time. How many hours in a day are we on autopilot? How many of those routines, patterns, or social niceties feel like mandates? Well, here are a few that come to mind when I think of the normal workplace:

8am-5pm.

Monday morning meetings.

Annual compliance training.

Jean Fridays.

Showing up 10 minutes late to every meeting.

Starting the day with an email to your team.

Company kickball games to connect socially.

Weekly 1:1s with no agenda.

The Office is one of the best shows of all time, in part because it plays with the routines we accept as norms at work. Stale routines occur at home, too. When Friday date night becomes a check the box activity, you know you are in a rut. Now, don’t get me wrong, routines can be great — providing structure for connection and meaning. It’s when we don’t stop to evaluate their effectiveness that they can cause problems.

Also, these routines are time consuming! If one of your concerns is making time for yourself, it is hiding in your Netflix Night or Monday conference call. It it’s also worth considering how these norms impact diversity of thought. When we all spend our time the same exact way, how can we make space to try something new? Ask each other, “Why are we doing this? What is this holding us back from? Is it helping us to accomplish our goal? If not, how should we change it?”

#2 Established roles

Who are you to the people closest to you? Are you the caretaker, the connector, the funny guy, the unreliable one, the leader, the follower, the naysayer, the judgy friend, the life of the party, the creative, the disrupter, the traditionalist, the talker, the introvert, the shitty communicator, or the planner? We tend to wear labels within a group. Think for a second about the labels you wear with your oldest friends. How about your family? Your colleagues? For each of these groups, when was the last time one of those labels changed?

In my experience, I have owned every single label listed above, but by different groups. They rarely change within a given group. When I show up in Ohio with the friends I have had since elementary school, all of a sudden I feel like an inappropriate bossy high schooler who is impossible to please. I fall into old habits because the cues from my loved ones initiate trained behavior. Or is it because I believe that they think of me that way or even need me to play that role, and therefore I must… Either way, as connected as I am to those friends, there is always a part of me that feels hidden from them.

This happens at work all of the time. We’ve established a set of roles for each other and it’s really hard to borrow new labels. If you made a killer project plan last year, guess what, you’re the team’s project manager. If you came into your work environment and within the first year you get a reputation for being competitive or difficult, you might feel like you are wearing that cloak for 2 more years. If you are perceived as someone who is great at executing, you might also be told that you don’t have what it takes to be a leader. As peers, we don’t grant many favors when it comes to pushing each other to change or believing in each other to try-on new roles.

Personally or professionally, we make judgements about each other and they stick. It’s likely that those around you are facing the same challenge, they are just tattooed with a different logo. How do you label those closest to you? Do you think they want to be seen in another way? Talk to each other about how you are perceived, how you’ve changed, and where you’d like to grow. Show up in a different costume next time and people will start to notice. If they don’t, then ask them to. If you are with the right people, they will be open to changing the cues they put out to you, support you in trying on new behaviors, and celebrate you when you make a change.

#3 The inability to empathize

What does it feel like to be a woman in a meeting and make a suggestion, but no one listens, and then your male counterpart restates your idea and everyone praises him? How does it feel to have an autoimmune disorder that impacts your daily abilities and self-confidence? What about when you tell your significant other about a breakthrough thought or experience you’ve had only to receive, “That’s nice” (as she plays on her phone).

When the people closest to you can’t empathize with you it can be a lonely place. We can all think of several people who don’t take the time to hear us, but how many people are you trying to truly understand and connect with on deep levels regularly? When your mom is disappointed that you don’t spend time with her, it’s really easy to dismiss her and remind yourself how controlling or needy she is. When your boss gives you a boring task, you might immediately think about how lazy he or she is. When your significant other doesn’t greet you with a hug and meaningful question about your day, he or she is immediately not caring.

A lot of relationships focus on the question, “What’s in it for me?” The longer this goes on, the greater the divide grows. It’s easy to minimize the experiences of our loved ones, especially when we already have labels we can neatly associate with them. But don’t be surprised when this distance turns into dissolvement.

Let’s help each other out!

Great relationships start from a place of reverence, empathy, and patience. When in an argument with my significant other, I often imagine a wise, fairy-like version of myself floating above the two of us to just observe. When I can see where both parties are coming from and name it, we can get out of the disagreement cycle and into problem solving. We can adapt, together.

It may be obvious, but these three bad habits resonate with me because I often choose dissent. I infrequently have uneventful relationships. Emotional convergence isn’t a pleasantry I often experience. However, these three behaviors also show up more frequently for me because my loved ones come to me for advice when things feel tough, like the end of a relationship, a divided family, or issues at work.

You may be struggling with something else. Maybe you are the glue that holds the team together, the conformer, or the peacemaker. Maybe you defer to other relationship ruts like comfort, self-confidence, or pride. Either way, it’s time to realize what’s holding you back. And in this game, let’s begin with you. It’s up to you to cultivate more sophisticated and satisfying relationships. If growth is the goal, it’s a great place to start.

A few things I’m listening to:

Craving some resources to help you get started? I’m no expert, but here are a few things I love that I have found to be helpful:

Where Should We Begin? Podcast with Esther Perel. Each episode is a one-time couples therapy session. I’ve found it super helpful with improving empathy and communication skills.

On Being. Podcast with Krista Tippett. Krista chats with fascinating experts about some of the big questions on meaning for our 21st century lives.

My awesome coworker, Brent Taylor, just sent me The Humans Strike Back podcast. Check out Leadership: how to create a no-drama, high-trust work environment, a discussion around taking responsibility for your own happiness and success.

Almost anything by Brene Brown, who talks a lot about the power of vulnerability.

A few Ted Talks on human connection and the power of connection. Caution: I’ve sent these to several people and not received a response. I’m probably the only one who finds them interesting!

Feel free to share anything else that you’ve found helpful.