how to fail at your relationships ( + the art of the beautiful mistake)
I was revising a scene in my novel after two characters deeply attracted to each other get to know each other in the biblical sense.
( — I just wanted to say that. Can you imagine working that phrase into daily conversation: “Yes, last night I knew Jake in the biblical sense – and it was awesome – “ )
In the morning they realize that, for various reasons, they have no future together. They decide to see out their relationship for however long it lasts.
He does it because he’s intrigued by this unusual young woman.
She does it because she believes that people come together to learn from each other. Why, she wonders, is any relationship that doesn’t end in forever regarded as doomed, or a failure, or a mistake?
I don’t know if I would have thought this when I was her age (I’m pretty sure I thought nothing of the kind). But having come through a series of relationships, none of which ended in forever, it’s what I believe.
I believe that the goal of human life isn’t to be happy so much as to flourish, to find and fulfill our dharma, to self-actualize.
The Greeks have a word for this: eudaimonia. Religions and spiritual teachers pass on the disciplines to live well, to bring dark things to light, to bust through the walls of illusion, to move past duality and separateness and recognize our essential Oneness with the universe (can you give me an ‘om’, boys and girls?).
Human beings seem to have this deep, innate calling to become the best versions of ourselves. We want to make artworks of our lives – even if we have no idea of how to go about this.
To grow towards self-actualization means just that: to grow. This is where personal development starts shading into the spiritual: to achieve what you’ve never achieved requires you to do what you’ve never done. This requires that you change – and grow – as a person.
(And when I use the word ‘spiritual’ I’m referring to matters of the psyche, the soul, the intangible evolving essence of your personhood.)
Relationships are teachers.
Probably our best teachers.
We serve as (funhouse) mirrors to each other. We catch each other’s emotions. We lift each other up or throw each other down. We bring out facets of each other we didn’t know were there.
We are constantly projecting secret elements of ourselves onto others: the things we don’t like about ourselves and can’t admit to, we find, again and again, in the people who trigger us. Who annoy the crap out of us.
Likewise, it’s the secret gold in us – — the latent talents, the squashed ambition, all those potentialities going unlived, unexpressed – that surface into view through the people we choose to admire or idolize.
Intimacy is scary not only because there is no place to hide from the other person, there is no place to hide from yourself
(unless you’re willing to completely consume the other person, which is known as pathological narcissism).
Therapists will tell you that we attract into our lives the people and relationships on the same degree of mental and emotional health as we are (which is why any guy referring to his crazy/psycho ex-girlfriends raises a big red flag for me). On an unconscious level, we are constantly choosing those who fit into our neuroses like – to quote from a famous poem by Margaret Atwood – “a fish into an eye/ a fishhook/an open eye.”
We are driven to recreate dramas from our past in order to resolve them (known as repetition compulsion) or maybe just because the brain likes the groove of the familiar, figuring that if it hasn’t killed you, it’s not broken so don’t fix it (known as setting an extremely low bar).
Therapy itself is premised on the idea of a corrective relationship between therapist and client. It creates a new, healthy imprint in the client’s mind about how to connect….as well as the kind of accurate mirroring of who that client actually is that friends and family members, caught up in their own distortions, can’t provide.
We learn to love others through loving ourselves.
We learn to love ourselves through loving others.
As we nurture our personal/spiritual growth, we become capable of better relationships. As relationships move and change and shatter us, we grow into better people.
The idea behind reincarnation is that each soul is on a quest to perfect itself. Each lifetime is an incarnation of some particular lesson that the soul must learn in order to cycle closer to perfection. (Note how this suggests that the aim of human life is not to be happy, but to learn, evolve and grow, which tends to happen through struggle, loss and conflict. Lucky us.) If the soul refuses to learn, human life will keep smacking it upside the head with the same lesson over and over until wisdom is extracted, insight realized, and the soul can move on.
That seems a good metaphor for relationships.
You are the soul. Each relationship is an incarnation of a particular lesson that you need to grow towards self-actualization – or, to get all spiritual-like, your union with the Divine.
And what is the Divine –
— but dazzling, white-hot and smokin’ Love with a capital L?
Love within. Love without. Love of others. Love of self. Boundaries dissolve. Everything connects. We are one.
Maybe this sounds selfish and self-oriented, to say that the purpose behind every relationship is to absorb some lesson that will help you self-actualize. But that’s kind of my point. Relationship collapses the space between you and the other person. You nurture yourself by nurturing the relationship by nurturing the other person. They do the same with you.
And when that’s no longer working – when the nurturing is no longer happening, when somebody’s soul is dying slowly on the vine – when you’re gridlocked and can’t find your way forward — maybe it’s time to move on.
Maybe the point of this relationship was to prepare you for the next relationship. If that was the case, how can it be considered a failure?
You might say you want forever, you want happily ever after, but are you capable of that at this moment in time?
Do you have the self-awareness to know your needs and the self-esteem to know that you are worthy of their satisfaction? Do you have healthy boundaries that take in the good and seal out the bad? Do you know how to see the other person through the fog of your own fantasies and projections?
Do you know how to give love? Do you know how to receive? (Receiving is also a skill and an art.)
I can tell you this:
I sure as hell didn’t.
Maybe I still don’t.
But I can also tell you this:
I am working on it.