See if you’ve heard this story before. Or maybe lived it.
It was about 12 years ago when my friend married a man who seemed like her dream guy. She cared about money and status and prestige in her church and community. He had it all. He was a successful businessman. He was respected and held positions in community organizations. He was a leader at his church who served on committees and boards.
Before they married, there were warning signs, but she ignored them. He checked every box on her list of things she wanted. Anything else must be insignificant. She could deal with the rest as long as she had her dream man. Her friends and family told her how lucky she was to have someone with his qualities. She agreed.
After the wedding, the fantasy started fading. Those little warning signs she had ignored — the flashes of anger and cruelty — became more common. He routinely called her vile names. He bullied her into not talking with friends anymore. He was insanely jealous for no reason.
And because she thought she had no choice — since she had her dream guy — she put up with it.
I don’t know what happened to her. As far as I know, she still lives in St. Louis, but he forced her to drop pretty much all her friends. He changed her phone number and forced her to get a new email address. I have no idea what happened after that, but I doubt it was pleasant.
Pretty much everyone I know chooses a partner based on the best traits of the available candidates. They have mental checklists of positive things they’re looking for. When they find someone who checks enough of those boxes — and who also wants them — they jump into something which they’re rarely ready for.
Here’s what I’ve learned.
A lasting partnership has to be based on what to do about the worst traits of both partners. If you don’t do that, your relationship will almost certainly fail. It will either end in divorce or else it will be an unhappy mess that should have ended in divorce even though you never left.
Relationships start because of the attraction each person has for what is best in the other. Each person projects the best that he or she can be. The focus is on selling the other person, consciously or unconsciously. Both people are on their best behavior.
But nobody can sustain being his or her best self forever. A relationship which is based solely on the best which two people have to offer will inevitably fail, because the dark side of each person is bound to come out in time.
If the worst in him can’t deal with the worst in her — and vice versa — a relationship will fail.
So does that mean that those of us who have serious flaws — that would be pretty much all of us — are destined to destroy our relationships? If the relationship is based on just the attraction of the best in each person — the pretty facade — then yes. The relationship is eventually going to be toast, and you’re not going to know why.
Some people are gentle and loving enough that they don’t have enough of a dark side to scare others off or to ruin relationships, but those people are pretty rare. My experience is that the people who have the most to offer on the up side also have the most dark side negatives that will show up on the down side.
But there’s good news.
Reasonable and rational people can plan for their worst — and the worst in a partner — if they’re willing to be honest and vulnerable. If each person is willing to admit to his negatives and plan for how the other person should handle those things, it can make all the difference in the world.
I know my faults pretty well. I’m willing to talk about them. I’m willing to help someone understand them. I’m even willing to empower a partner to hold me responsible for things we agree are problematic. But I’m willing to do that only if she’s willing to do the same thing.
I’ve been in relationships before in which my partner — someone who’s enormously impressive and capable — has been in denial about her issues. And if someone who’s confronted with her issues simply says, “Well, this is just the way I am,” there’s no common ground for building solutions that work.
If you’re someone who’s unwilling to deal with your own issues as they affect a relationship, you are going to jump from relationship to relationship over the years, always thinking the other person must be at fault. And he’s going to think you’re a dysfunctional psycho, because it will never be clear why you’ve done the things you’ve done. If you’re like that, you’re going to “play” at relationship intimacy, because you’re scared of it — even if you don’t know that.
If you’re unwilling to allow for a relationship based on vulnerability and honesty and intimacy, then you might as well not waste anybody else’s time. You are going to be a toxic person. People might very well fall in love with you — but your unwillingness to deal with vulnerability and intimacy will make you unable to sustain anything healthy.
If that’s you, that means you are doomed to be stuck in unhappy and shallow relationships — not only because you’ll choose lousy partners, but because you cannot deal with allowing something healthy and lasting to grow.
A loving relationship is the single most important part of a healthy human life. It’s a predictor of many things related to health and happiness. When you meet someone who has many of the positive things you’ve been looking for, that’s a great first step — but it will all fall apart unless you deal with your negatives and your partner’s negatives from the beginning.
If you fall in love with someone and you want that to last, both of you have to get emotionally naked with each other. You have to be completely honest. You have to be completely vulnerable. You have to be willing to give the other person the power to carry out steps to lovingly hold you accountable for your faults.
If you don’t do those things, you’re going to be miserable for life. You’re going to teach your children the same patterns. And you will have nobody to blame but yourself.