I’m old and ugly enough to have learned a few lessons in life. In my impetuous youth I thought I knew it all in relation to most things. Looking back I know I was wrong and my history is littered with mistakes that I’ve made as I plowed on, pig-headed and oblivious to conventional wisdom and the kindly advice of others.
I’ve learned that even the most intuitive and enlightened people need the passing of time and the accruing of experiences in order to learn the realities of life.
One particular area in which I feel I’ve learned a lot over the years, is in what it takes to have a happy, loving and successful relationship. I will caveat this from the off, by saying that I don’t have all the answers. What I do have is one divorce, one failed engagement and a number of failed relationships of various degrees of seriousness to reflect upon. Each of these has contributed knowledge and insight that has brought me to where I am today; I’m happily married for the second time and sufficiently established in that relationship that I believe it will remain enriching, loving and supportive for the rest of my days.
To cut to the punchline, I believe that the single-biggest success factor for relationships is this; each individual must be entirely self-reliant, self-confident and ‘complete’ in themselves before they enter into a relationship in the first place. They must each be true to themselves and what they want and need from life.
Don’t think ill of me for the emphasis placed on ‘self’. I’m not saying that a healthy and happy relationship is borne out of selfishness. Another more direct way of putting it, in my sisters words would be “you should sort your own sh*t out before involving yourself in someone else’s”.
Having cut to the chase, let me add a little substance to my theory and share how I reached this conclusion.
As a young guy I was what you might have described as insular in relationship terms. I was shy around women and although I had many female friends, I never really had a serious girlfriend until I met my first wife. Even then, it wasn’t so much a fairy-tale scenario of boy-meets-girl and falls in love; had things been allowed to follow their natural course, the relationship wouldn’t have lasted more than a few months. I’m certain though, that we would have remained friends. Instead, an accidental pregnancy after just a couple of months, coupled with a joint sense of indomitability and youthful if naïve belief that we could overcome the odds, meant that we resolved to make a life together and raise a family.
Our daughter was born, we bought a house, got married, had a second daughter (in that order) and did all we could to convince ourselves that we were happy and could make it work. After a few eventful years we were forced to accept the realities of the situation and acknowledge neither of us was happy and we probably never would be. We divorced and since that time have amicably, jointly and equally co-parented our daughters on a 50–50 basis. You can read more about that specifically here should you be interested.
The forming and the subsequent failing of that relationship was the first time I had the opportunity to learn that an instinct to be true to oneself is the bedrock upon which happy relationships are built.
At that time in my life, and at that age (just 23 when we met) I had-had little time to really figure out who I was, what I wanted from life and how I was going to get there. I think that my actions and decisions at that time indicate that my moral compass was that of someone determined to do the right thing, to take his responsibilities seriously and who was committed to putting in the efforts to overcome challenging circumstances.
All these are well and good, but on reflecting, I know that I was trying to constantly bend myself to doing what I felt were the right things and what was expected of me. My life wasn’t based on being self-reliant and self-sufficient because I hadn’t lived enough of life to even know what it was that I wanted or needed from it. I didn’t know who I was.
I have no regrets about what I have done from that point to this and am blessed to have enjoyed a close relationship with my daughters from raising them as a part-time single parent from that point to this. In the context of happy relationships though, this one had little chance of success from the start.
A few years of adapting to the realities of being a single-parent followed, and relationships weren’t a priority. Inevitably though as time passed, things changed and I entered into the murky world of online dating. It was through the inevitable process of approaching prospective dates online, occasionally meeting some in person and the odd short-relationship that followed, that I learned for the second time the importance of being true to yourself.
It takes time and experience to figure out what you want in a partner, and you have to kiss a few frogs before you find the one. I went through this process later in life than many, thanks to my first serious relationship leading to parenthood. I recognise though that for most of us it’s only possible to determine what qualities you want in a partner by first encountering those that you definitely don’t.
The experience of dating showed me the dangers of bending and shaping yourself to try and appeal to or be accepted by those who really aren’t suited to you. This is usually driven by pure physical attraction or a lack of confidence in your own identity; trying to bend yourself into something you’re not, in order to appeal to others. Several times, I entered into relationships that weren’t going to work, through playing down the demands placed upon my life by my kids in order to date someone who didn’t have kids. Alternatively, at times I entered into relationships where the other person was clearly keen to establish a new nuclear family, and potentially wanted more kids. In both scenarios I wasn’t be congruent with who I was or what I wanted, and this always led to the ultimate failure of things.
I would also occasionally try and portray myself in ways that I thought potential matches wanted me to be; sportier, more sociable, more intellectual or whatever.
I was undoubtedly driven by physical attraction first and foremost, and whilst I wasn’t intentionally deceitful, I acknowledge now that through neglecting to be upfront and truthful with myself about who I was and what I wanted, I was impacting on the lives and future happiness of myself and others too by pretending to be otherwise.
I’ve learned that the same principle applies long into relationships as it does when forming them. Reasonable compromise and putting the needs of others first is the essence of a loving and supportive relationship. Constantly bending yourself to meet the needs and expectations of the other person, giving up on things that are important to you, pushing down your needs at the expense of them, or trying to change yourself uncomfortably in order to win affection or approval are all pitfalls to be avoided.
The best tactic both when trying to attract and meet someone, to form a bond with them and then to strengthen and service that bond for life, is to be completely clear and honest with yourself and the other person, exactly who you are and what it is that you need in order be fulfilled and happy in yourself. Only then can you contribute to a relationship that is also fulfilled and happy.
The final stage of my search for a relationship came following a particularly brutal and painful breakup. I’d dated, cohabited-with and eventually become engaged to someone with whom I once thought I was happy. Later I merely felt controlled and manipulated by her and was stuck in one of the most toxic relationships that anyone could have the misfortune to suffer. I played my part in the dysfunction just as much as she did, and eventually having the courage and clarity to escape that relationship was one of the most significant and empowering moments in my life.
It became the trigger for me taking ownership and control, once and for all of getting my sh*t together. The awakenings afforded me by that relationship were significant. It helped me recognise the many ways in which I’d been letting myself and my kids down in how I was approaching relationships. It was about this time that I contemplated and pursued personal development.
I entered a course of counselling, became passionate about self-help and undertook to really figure out what I wanted from life, for myself, and figured out how I was going to get it.
Some way through that process, I found that I had completely changed. In far better shape physically, mentally and emotionally than I had ever been to that point, I entered into dating again with a clear view of who I wanted to meet, what she needed to be like, how I wanted to be for her and what kind of relationship I wanted to establish.
As fate and fortune tend to do, I met that person in the woman who would eventually become my second (and final) wife. We met through a sequence of events over a prolonged period of time and have formed a bond that I believe is as strong as I could ever imagine having with someone. It’s not all plain-sailing, and compromise and adaptability are core to keeping things going, living as we do something of an unconventional life. We have a blended family of 6 of us, with two family homes and an existence that sees various mixes of the 6 of us together at various times and places on a routine basis.
The key thing about this relationship is that both my wife and I met at a point at which we were complete in ourselves. She was, and remains self-reliant, capable and contented in her own life just as I am in mine. I don’t lean on her, I don’t look to her to ‘complete me’ or to fill some void that exists in my life or my persona. The same is true for her in regard to me.
We love each other unconditionally and make compromises to accommodate each other, for that is what loving couples do.
Through it all we remain true to ourselves as individuals for that is who we are, first and foremost.
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