What Makes A Relationship Successful?

[This is a snippet of a journal entry that was originally written on October 28th, 1997. As always, you can read what Jay thinks about this subject now in the Post Script – Dawn]

Our first responsibility is to ourselves. Our first concern must be ourselves. We can’t afford to care about anyone else until we learn to care for ourselves. Sound selfish? Not in the least. If you bring a flawed perception of love into a relationship, without having learned the truths of love, it will fail. It may last a lifetime, but it will fail.

If you can’t develop love and happiness within, you certainly can’t give it to anyone. It’s like opening a checking account with fifty dollars and then writing checks for thousands of dollars to everyone you “care” about. Sure, they’ll feel great when you write them the check, but the moment they try to cash it, they’ll have nothing but empty promises and bounced checks.

Post Script

I have used that phrase many times since I first coined it: Just because your relationship lasted until you died doesn’t make it a success. It’s true, too; many highly dysfunctional relationships last a very long time. I found it odd when I was a kid that people used the amount of time they had spent together to measure the success of their romantic relationships. “Can you believe it? They’ve been together twenty years.” Often I couldn’t believe how much people would put up with just to have a lasting relationship.

So, what makes a relationship successful? Longevity is certainly an aspect of it, but the challenges that come with time must be considered if the benefits are to be counted. A lot of things have to fall into place for there to be success as well as longevity, and success is a personal measure for each of us. Most of us can agree on the broad strokes, and most can also benefit ourselves and our loved ones by examining our own details closely.

Relationship has always been a subject of inquiry to me. I learned by watching at first, without knowing I was learning. Then came curiosity, which taught me more about what kind of questions I could ask and when I can ask them than imparting any real helpful information. Then the realization that we each have an idea of what love or friendship should be, and no two versions of that idea are the same. If that wasn’t enough to flummox my tiny little brain, the next realization certainly was: We create our own buttons, create circumstances in which they will be pushed, then tend to react as though someone other than us is pushing our buttons. It’s how we grow.

The people that are most likely to get hurt by this creation of triggers and scenarios in which they must get activated are typically those closest to us. The people that have the best opportunity to participate consciously in helping us disconnect those pathways created by mild to severe trauma are also those closest to us. Their choices affect the individual’s state of mind in question without a doubt, and they are one hundred percent in control of whether or not the activation of those triggers is handled in a way that dispels past trauma or inflicts further trauma. That’s easy to see for most of us; it certainly was for me.

The person guaranteed to be hurt by this process is the individual creating these triggers and scenarios. Western psychology often says we all do this; I don’t cast that wide of a net in my worst moments. I am happy to admit that this process certainly describes me. (It helps knowing that it is fairly commonly accepted that everyone does it; emotional immaturity can be a lot easier to disown than embrace at times.) The hurt doesn’t have to be chronic or cumulatively debilitating, if the individual can see that the hurt is there to be healed. This is where the realization that each of us is one hundred percent in control of whether or not the activation of our triggers is handled in a way that dispels past trauma or creates new trauma. Are we sculpting a work of art or bashing mindlessly at stone?

The chips carved out by the sculptor will still smart, but a healthy heart is like a healthy body; and when a small pain now creates greater capacity for love later, that context changes the pain itself. The chunks cleaved by too many unconscious bashings can cut away some of the stone necessary for the art that was underneath to take shape and come alive. One of the most clever choices a person can make is to surround themselves with skilled artisans that are careful with their chisels. Even more clever (and generally a prerequisite for belonging to a circle like that) is being careful with our own chisel, and knowing when to set it aside.

From my perspective, that is the measure of the success of a relationship… knowing that your friend or lover’s experience of you is created completely by you, and that it is also created completely by them. Knowing that your evolutionary process is in their hands, and theirs in yours, can make the experience of relationship a sacred thing indeed.

Everyone is entitled to their unique views on romance and relationship, but it’s important to know that love is not a place where we hide. Love is a place where we stretch and strain and grow, both for our own sake and for the sake of those we are loving. It is too often thought that love should shield us from our hurts when the entire reason love showed up was to heal them.

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