I’ve recently spoken with several individuals who have just ended significant relationships in their lives, or are in the process of doing so. While it’s ultimately important to move on and avoid getting stuck in a “poor me” state of mind, it’s also helpful to take a bit of time to reflect upon things. This is true whether we’re breaking up with someone we’ve been with for just a few months or divorcing / separating from someone we’ve been with for many years.
As you’re giving yourself time to mourn the loss of your relationship, asking yourself the powerful questions below may be useful.
What are the top needs that my relationship helped me to fulfill?
And which of these can you meet largely through other relationships you already have? If you can’t currently meet some of them, how can you strengthen some of your existing relationships so you can?
What are the most powerful ways in which I gave, or showed affection, in the relationship?
In Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post suggests ten ways in which we give: celebration, generativity, forgiveness, courage and confrontation, humor, respect, compassion, loyalty, listening, and creativity. What are one or two doable actions you can take to practice your favorite way of giving with existing friends? If physical intimacy is one of the ways you give most powerfully, that option may currently be limited, but you still can likely generate a few options from other favorites. This can also help you to reconnect if you spent significantly less time with your other friends while in a romantic relationship.
In future relationships, what specific things do I want more of, and what do I want less of?
If you enjoy questionnaires, some of the online dating sites offer a range of questions that will force you to think about such things. If you don’t actually wish to be contacted by anyone, be sure to set your profile up so it’s relatively anonymous and/or no one can contact you. One example, OKCupid, has major limitations in how some of the questions are written (many are submitted by users), but the wide range of topics covered can still be thought provoking. If and when you decide to “go live,” you’ll already have a better sense of what you want.
What can I proactively do differently to create more of what I want, and less of what I don’t want?
Part of the solution is to find someone who is more compatible, but no one is going to be a 100% perfect match. Much also has to do with how we behave (or even more specifically, what we give) in a relationship, regardless of what the other person initially brings or doesn’t bring to the table. Michelle Weiner-Davis, for example, talks about how something as simple as one partner’s helping with dinner or dishes may make the other more willing to go out on a date. She discusses doing our best to give our partners things upon which they place a high priority (within reason, of course), even if we don’t necessarily understand why they’re such a high priority. It’s a bit like extending sex columnist Dan Savage’s GGG or “good, giving, game” philosophy beyond the bedroom.
Am I looking for someone to rescue me?
This may not always be conscious, but it’s an unspoken expectation often programmed into us by romantic television and movie storylines. We might be holding unattainably high expectations for a relationship—either for the other person, or for ourselves—and setting ourselves up for potential disappointment. As relationship expert David Schnarch argues in Intimacy & Desire: Awaken the Passion in Your Relationship, long-term relationships are more passionate when both partners are reasonably differentiated, i.e., alongside the interdependence, they have a certain degree of autonomy and respect their partner’s right to this as well. Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, voices similar thoughts. You might also ask yourself if you’re looking for someone to rescue, as that could also present problems.
How does my standard relationship model fit my true self? Do the normal societal relationship boxes fit me?
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, each of us has a large number of rules and expectations about how relationships should work. Put together, they form a relationship model that covers everything from who pays what on a date to what types of activities a couple shares exclusively with one other. Many of these rules are programmed into us by society. Sometimes they’re helpful, and sometimes not.
Take, for example, the traditional marriage model. It works great for many people, but a very high proportion of couples experience divorces, affairs, and often a string of “serial marriages.” Sometimes the relationships could have been saved with professional support or exposure to relationship tools, and sometimes couples discover truly irreconcilable differences later on. In some cases, however, a person’s nature simply may not fit this model. This might include someone who is bisexual, someone who is truly asexual (i.e., they’ve ruled out any medical or psychological causes) but doesn’t want to limit their options to other asexual individuals, or someone who otherwise can’t get all their giving and receiving needs met through a single partner. Or, it might include anyone who cares about an individual in one or more of these categories.
I don’t recommend any specific relationship option for any one person, especially given that religious beliefs, ethical viewpoints, and personality styles vary. However, it’s important to keep in mind that a good relationship “fit” not only makes you happier, but it helps you to show up more powerfully and passionately in the lives of others. I’ll now outline some thoughts that are still considered taboo in many circles.
Over the last few decades, a number of authors have written resources on outside the box relationships. In the early 70’s, O’Neill and O’Neill penned the classic Open Marriage: A New Life Style for Couples. While the title became synonymous with sex, the book actually discussed a variety of ways in which partners could allow each other more autonomy—questioning their internal models of what an intimate relationship “should” be, and mutually rewriting their scripts if necessary. While some of it sounds like common sense today, there’s a lot that probably still isn’t practiced frequently.
Sex at Dawn, by Chrisopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, reinterprets much of the research on human sexuality and mating, from fields including evolutionary psychology. They outline evidence that our modern monogamous relationships stand in stark contrast to the cooperative ways in which humans likely lived and evolved for thousands of years. They argue that following the relatively recent development of agriculture—a tiny fraction of the overall timeline of human development—humans developed more of a “yours vs. mine” approach to natural resources such as land. Alongside this, we extended the private property ownership model to each other as well—e.g., women and their sexual rights/behaviors became the property of men, and children became the responsibility/property of individual families rather than small communities. They also discuss the differences between genders, explaining why the “battle between the sexes” need not be so.
Ryan and Jetha suggest that much of our present knowledge of sexuality has been skewed by economic, cultural, and religious biases, and that many of our modern social ills might be addressed through greater honesty about our sexual natures. I haven’t yet decided what to do with all the information they present, but it may significantly change your perception of human intimate relationships.
Jenny Block’s Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage describes the author’s struggles to fulfill her physical intimacy needs while maintaining an honest relationship with her partner, whom she loves very much, but whose sexual orientation and preferences are very different. Block’s story suggests that a sexually open and honest marriage requires additional effort to maintain, and requires two partners who are committed and developed in their ability to communicate on a deep level. Because of that, open marriages and polyamory are no substitute for otherwise flawed relationships, nor an escape from the work that needs to be done to maintain any long-term relationship (per authors like Schnarch and Weiner-Davis) anyway.
Hopefully I’ve provided plenty of possibilities to help you improve your next relationship, and offered a few outside-the-box resources that may prove informative.