November 6, 2013

Love Mindfully. ~ Nikki Fleming

Real love is worth hurting for. I promise.

I have many friends—old and young, gay and straight, asexual and polyamorous, every color, from every culture but above and beyond all else, human beings.

There is another characteristic that unites them—they are all searching for someone (or multiple someones) to be with.

And even deeper than that? They are looking to be understood by this someone(s), understood and most of all accepted for who they are. As most of you reading know, this can be a messy and painful process.

I want to disclose that I’ve been married for four years and been with my husband for almost nine years. I was lucky—lucky to find my “someone” as young as I did, lucky that we’ve been growing in the same direction, lucky we are willing to learn alongside each other about who we are and who are evolving to be.

I’m also lucky to have not been jaded by any extremely painful relationship breakups previous to the one I’m in now—and have been in since I was 18.

I realize that this disclosure may make some people think I have no credibility to offer advice with their more advanced years and experience in dating and relationships. Admittedly, maybe I don’t, but, let’s be honest—I’m not still searching, so maybe I’m doing something right.

My parents met in their teens and have been together for 35 years and both sets of grandparents were together for more than 50 years until death did them part, so I’ve had my fair share of great role models when it comes to relationships. I’ve also witnessed many of my friends in relationships that didn’t work out (and some that did, of course) and have observed some patterns of positive/successful and negative/unsuccessful relationships. Without further adieu, here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:

1) Figure out who you are first.

That sentence makes it sound so simple, but believe me, I know it is not.

One reason figuring out who we are is difficult is because we seem to always be in flux, changing from one moment to the next. And yes, it is true: the me ten years ago is, in my opinion, a totally different me than I am now.

However, when I look deeper than my friends, hobbies and interests, there are aspects of me that have not changed. I have always been a pessimist, for instance. I have tried to change that, but it has not been fruitful. I have always felt as though I was an old soul in a young body and, throughout the years, I continue to feel as though my mind ages quicker than my body. I have thus always been attracted to others who feel similarly. I have always yearned for central stability—financially, emotionally, physically—and repelled any act of impulsiveness (though it does sound like a more fun way of living sometimes). I saved my money for months and years in order to comfortably afford what I wanted even when I was a child. I had no trouble delaying gratification or having extreme amounts of self-discipline. I could keep going with this list.

I’m sure if  people meditate on themselves—the deeper traits that make up who they are—they will soon come up with a list of things about them that have not changed through the years.

This list is essential to understanding 1) who will best understand us and 2) who we will best understand.

The reason for this is because though opposites attract in terms of more superficial traits (like being organized or messy, homebody or life of the party), the more fundamental character traits need to complement each other or major problems are likely going to crop up.

For example, how many  happy couples are there where one partner’s religion is important to them, but the other partner was brought up in a different faith and going to religious functions is the last thing on their to-do list? I only know of one.

Another example: One partner wants children and the other does not.

Both of these examples portray two people whose images of their futures and world outlooks are inherently different and are more likely to cause problems than two people who are, for instance, not complementary in their desire to be tidy or messy.

2) If a person has one bad relationship, it might be a bad apple. But if there are a string of bad relationships (especially with similar failures), it’s probably internal.

I’m not trying to be mean, but the above statement is true.

Don’t we all have a friend who we want to support, but part of us just wants to tell them “Look, you keep dating the same guy!”

I’ve noticed a pattern of women (young and old) who continue to be attracted to the “bad boy” and continue to be wooed by the impulsive money spent on them, the extravagant gifts and vacations, and the constant sense of thrill and mystery.

Many of these women expect the impulsiveness, fun, and thrill to continue through a dating relationship and then have the man morph into perfect husband or father material. They think a naturally impulsive person will suddenly want to begin saving when a ring or a child comes into the picture, or that the fun will continue to be the same while throwing up with a stomach flu.

I understand that there is a time for fun, impulsiveness, thrill and mystery. But what I’ve found is that far and wide, people don’t change very much unless they want to—and not because we want them to either. So before going into a relationship and expending time and energy and pieces of ourselves on it, consider who this person is now, who they will continue to be in 10, 15, 20 years and whether that is a person we think we will still want to be with at that time, given what we want for our futures. When we accept a long-term relationship as a commitment, we are saying to the person “I love you as you are and I will continue to love you and see and understand you, warts and all.” If we can’t say that to the person we are dating, find someone we can.

3) No one is perfect, not even you.

Did it really need to be said? When we are in love; love goggles make us think the person in front of us is perfect. We ignore the things that grow to bother us later in the relationship, once the “honeymoon phase” is over.

This love is only the initial phase of love, the blinding love.

The best kind of love, the real love, is the love that sees us at our most vulnerable, our sickest, our most hurt and hurtful, and understands who we are and why we are the way we are—and accepts this.

Does a person who loves us love everything about us? I guarantee that the answer is no. They just know that the entity is the package—and that inherently comes with baggage. They take the bad with the good, because the good is perfect for them.

Our partner also has a view into us that no one else in our life has. So if they tell us to consider another viewpoint or tell us something that feels painful and raw, maybe it’s true. We aren’t perfect. Neither are they. But as a partnership, we can help each other be the best people we can be as mirrors of our best and our worst traits.

4) Don’t compromise. (Really!)

I had always been advised by others in relationships that the key to relationships is compromise. But when I looked up what the word really meant, I was confused.

I had always thought these people meant that sometimes someone “wins” and other times they “lose.”

The definition of compromise is “an agreement or a settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.” So compromise means that both people lose.

It isn’t what sounded or felt right to me. If we are both unhappy in order to resolve a fight, what good is that?

I decided to never compromise on the big things, but instead to figure out who the fight is more important to and discuss openly what each person hopes to gain.

And unlike all those people who say “don’t go to sleep angry”. . . well, we sleep on it. It gives my husband and I time to process our disagreement without being swept into emotions. If it’s really an important fight, it requires some thought to resolve. If we wake up and can’t remember what we fought about, it wasn’t important enough to continue.

In order to decide how much a fight matters to each of us, we can either discuss it openly or last resort—each rate it on a scale from 1-10 and talk about it.

Communication is obviously key, but make sure we do not give up things that really matter to us. Also consider the other person’s needs and wants to make a decision that everyone is happy with. We may even determine a hidden third option that doesn’t remove anyone’s desires from the equation.

5) Love Hurts.

Hollywood romances are not real. We all know they aren’t real (logically), but emotionally, we all want a partner like those on the screen.

We want a beautiful and sensuous love/lust to propel us through an entire lifetime without ever having a fight or hurting each other. We want to be seamlessly accepted into one another’s families and friend groups. We want to have amazing sex, take luxurious vacations, and never consider finances.

But love is not enough, finances are always a concern, family and friends will not love your partner as much as you love them, sex will not always be amazing—and worst of all, you will hurt each other.

Do you know why?

Because in order to have someone understand and accept us, we have to show them who we are. And in showing them who we are, we are providing them with weapons—weapons they may use against us when they are weak and vulnerable to us.

If there is a couple in the world who can say they have never had a fight or hurt each other, I will show you a couple who has not put their whole selves on the table. I will also show you a couple who is missing out, because we have to put it out there—we have to show them—to get real love, real connection, and real strength. Without this, there are just two people living in two worlds, sharing bits and pieces of a life you have created under a facade. People who work to keep up the facade instead of risking rejection or hurt,  hurt all the time from being people they are not

Real love is worth hurting for. I promise.

6) Real love grows with the years, while lust is quickly extinguished.

People talk about “real” love, and I suppose everyone’s opinion of real love is different.

My opinion? Real love is one that has always felt natural, from day one.

It is a love that never makes us question our partner’s commitment to us. It is a love that becomes something deeper over the years. As we watch our partner’s face changing, real love allows us to keep seeing them in new ways—and smile more because of it.

Real love is when we’ve finally accepted that our partner’s dirty socks will always be on the floor in the morning—and there is no point in bringing it up again because that’s obviously just who they are. It is also picking up one’s dirty socks because we know the other partner gets pissed every time they see it.

Real love is making each other grow as individuals and asking the hard questions. Real love is making the hard decisions. Real love is sometimes hating our partner’s guts, but knowing in the same moment we still love them as much as we want to kind of kill them right now.

Real love is not always happy; in fact, real love is there in the saddest of times and the silliest of times too.

Real love involves embarrassingly telling our spouse that we have a crush on someone else and them smiling and saying “It’s okay, sometimes I have crushes too, but you’re more than a crush and you are important.”

Real love is being with someone for 50 years and still thinking “There are never enough years in my life of being with you.”

Real love is a constant, something that doesn’t need to be questioned or explained or justified. It just is.

7) Work on yourself first and the right person will come along.

I spent 18 years of my life entirely single. I know that isn’t long and relationships in middle school and high school rarely work out anyway, but for the longest time, a relationship is all I really wanted—and of course, always with unattainable people.

The most amazing thing happened when I got to college. I didn’t care anymore.

I was having way too much fun with my new friends, and auditioning for plays and dance companies, and learning new things and taking on new hobbies and finally, for once in my life, being accepted as myself. I stopped thinking about dating or relationships and decided I would just enjoy myself; having someone else didn’t matter.

I was a means in myself; I didn’t need another to complete myself.

My now-husband was, meanwhile, in the same boat. He had been working on himself, learning Tai Chi and understanding himself better.

We both had profiles on Match.com which had been sitting there for months to years—years in my case, months in his—without success and were both close to cancelling our accounts. And then, on a whim, I winked at his profile. He looked cute and his profile was thoughtful (as opposed to 99 percent of the other profiles). I thought nothing of any follow-up.

Then I received a response from him that took my breath away; there went my not caring about being in a relationship. The right person came along, and there we were—attached. There were no fireworks, no blind dates, no romantic meeting in a coffee shop.

It took both of us feeling “complete” to bring us together.

I’m not using any scientific method to prove my point, but I’ve certainly met a number of other people who actively searched for many more years than I did for a partner; the minute they stopped caring and decided they could honestly be alone in life and be happy, they met someone that turned their world upside down.

I know that the last thing someone wants to hear after they have been searching for so long is “Stop searching (emotionally) and work on you.” But I think it’s true.

It doesn’t mean give up. It means find completeness in ourselves.

The person who finds us attractive in this state will love who we truly are, not the persona we wanted people to see while we were actively searching.

8) One person can not fulfill every relationship role (eg: lover, friend, person to go to the clubs with, etc).

It used to be, a long time ago, that relationships—specifically marriages—were merely contractual agreements to be bonded financially and have children. Love did not enter the picture. Therefore, people would regularly have other “love” relationships outside of their marriages in addition to friendships with others.

In this construct, it was easy to have a more logical and responsible relationship with one’s husband/wife while also having a less responsible but more fun and impulsive relationship outside of this. Friendships were also important to a person’s happiness, as this was where a person could be most themselves.

Nowadays, it seems we keep heaping more and more responsibility, expectations, and roles onto our partners. We want them to provide and be responsible with finances, take care of children, take on household tasks, be our best friend and confidante, be fun and carefree and impulsive, and also want us all the time as lovers.

Not only is it hard to accomplish all of these roles in general, but some of these roles also conflict. For instance, when we watch our partner being strong and sufficient—or just plain dirty/tired—in taking care of children all day, or doing the dishes, or telling us about their warts they went to the doctor for, it may be difficult to want them in bed.

Instead of wanting our partner to “complete” us, it may be better to pick and choose what roles are most important and necessary for them to take on.

If they don’t enjoy comedy clubs but you love them, for instance, give them a night to themselves and go out with some friends who can share the experience with you. Make some nights all about being fun, some nights about finances and serious talk. When allocated, it becomes easier to compartmentalize different roles.

9) Find a passion you can both appreciate.

My husband and I discovered rock climbing together, but I don’t think rock climbing is the only avenue where a shared passion will help to continue sparking a relationship. Though it is, of course, important to have our own passions separately, when we share in a passion together, it is easier to continue growing in the same direction. It also provides for built-in “together” time where we are both engaged and involved with each other and shared friendships.

10)  Don’t “need” your spouse; choose them.

I’ve noticed many people stay in relationships they are unhappy with because they feel they need the other person emotionally or financially.

Though my mom has been happily married for 35 years to my dad, she always instilled in me that I should be able to be financially sufficient on my own “just in case.” Though I didn’t like the “just in case” concept because I didn’t like the idea of planning for a possible divorce, I did take the idea of being sufficient on my own financially to heart and extended it to emotional independence as well.

I think that whether or not independence is actually needed, it increases the confidence of people in relationships if they know they are not dependent on each other emotionally or financially.

In this light, both people are in the relationship only because they love each other, not because they at some point feel obligated—though I do understand adding kids into the situation changes things slightly.

11) All great relationships are work.

With the divorce rate close to 50 percent in 2014 per the CDC, it always makes me wonder what it is that causes people to split up so frequently. Is it cheating, illness, financial issues, the stress of kids, generally “growing apart,” or something else?

Based on my very unscientific experience, it seems like very often it is just generally “growing apart.” I am convinced that many of these relationships could be brought back together again if only the perspective was altered slightly to realize that all good—especially great—relationships require feeding and work.

What we inject into the relationship is very much the product we will get out, so if we think love alone is what will keep us growing in the same direction, we may be in for a surprise.

Growth also requires work, so we can deduce that stagnancy will lead to the “same old, same old,” which many people take as “I’m not in love with this person anymore because they aren’t ________ anymore.”

Not to get too metaphorical, but a flame also requires feeding or it dies too. If we are not feeding our relationships like the flames they are, it’s intrigue will continue to degrade with our love—or at least lead to a boring relationship.

12) You only need one to work out.

Dan Savage once responded to a person complaining that they’ve had X number of failed relationships with “Every relationship you are in will fail until one doesn’t.”

It sounds so obvious, but it does seem like people think they have failed themselves or are doomed to die single when they haven’t concluded their search after dating a certain number of people.

We haven’t failed; we’re just working through the pool of potential people.

Perhaps we are looking in the wrong places if we aren’t finding enough potentials, but yes, they will all fail. . . until one doesn’t.

That one is the only thing that matters. So keep kissing the frogs—and keeping an open mind—until you find your prince.


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 Assistant Ed: Paige Vignola / Ed: Catherine Monkman

{Photo: Nikki Fleming, Flickr & Flickr.}

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