Do I want to be in this relationship? Part I
When to get into or whether to stay in a relationship or leave can be one of the biggest decisions in life. I have two discernment conversations that I often have with clients when this conversation arises in therapy. The first, and the topic of this entry, is about your vision for relationships and whether this relationship can fit in the vision. The second, and the topic of a subsequent blog entry, is about whether your needs are met and your feelings are tended in this relationship or not and what you want to do about it.
I’m fond of asking my clients, “In a rainbow-unicorn perfect world, what kind of relationship would you have?” I encourage them to think of things like mutual activities, partner qualities, shared values, relationships with one another’s family, children or not, parenting styles or differences, as well as the sexual relationship. Most people enjoy this aspect of the process. It feels really good to imagine that perfect partner, how they would make us feel, and how happy we would be.
Having painted this ideal vision, we need to acknowledge that we don’t actually get to order people up custom-fit to our ideal vision. There’s always going to be a discrepancy between our ideal vision and the actual partner and relationship that we have. I encourage people to acknowledge that getting overly wedded to this ideal vision will actually prevent us from being with real humans and will leave us not only less happy than we could hope, but alone and lamenting the fact of our loneliness. We have to be open to changing our vision and seeing how it looks with a real human person who is actually interested in being with us or we will likely end up alone.
When you have a real person with whom you might be interested in being in a relationship, you need to accept the realities that they offer. Maybe they don’t enjoy the hobby you enjoy so the ideal vision of shared activities is not possible, not to mention that you can’t imagine getting along with their sister in a million years unlike your dream. Yet, some other things like shared values and goals about having children and how to raise them do align. How do you decide if there’s enough in this relationship that is close to your vision to merit proceeding?
This is where a good imagination can help. Adapt your vision to the actual person and imagine what life, not with a fantasy partner, but this real partner actually looks like and how it feels. If you have enough experience with them you’ll be able to fill in a lot of details here like whether they will come with you to watch your hobby or whether you’ll have to engage in it totally independently. At the holidays, do they love their sister and want you to spend all sorts of chummy time with her that doesn’t feel genuine, or does your partner also find their sister difficult to spend time with? What will a lazy Sunday morning look like together? What will happen when you get home from an exhausting day at work?
Once you have an idea of this new vision based on the realities of your experience with the person, you need to talk with your partner to do two important things. First, you need to double check if the reality you’ve based your projections of the future on are accurate from their perspective. You might say things like, “Based on the fact that we’re into different hobbies, I’ve imagined that if we stay together and make this work that sometimes we’ll spend large parts of our weekends doing separate things. Do you think that sounds like an accurate expectation?”
Second, if that mutually imagined future is different from your ideal vision you might want to talk about how the two of you can make that work. So you might say things like, “Well, I always imagined spending time with my partner on the weekends [subtext: this is different from my vision] and I am concerned that I’ll miss you a lot if we don’t spend that time together [subtext: I still like you even if this is what our future looks like]. I wondered if we could try to make sure we have dinner together on Sunday evenings so we don’t lose connection before going into the weekend [subtext: but I still want to make it work and here’s how I thought we might make it work]. Do you think that would help us stay connected or do you have another idea [subtext: I’m open to your input about how else we might meet my need]?
Repeat the process above with any discrepancies between what life with this this partner offers you and your Ideal Vision. Over time the Modified Vision will change, get more fleshed out and take a life of its own. Your image of your future will become imbued with the person with whom you are considering a long-term relationship. Once you feel like you’ve had the conversations (or enough for now anyway) then take a step back and ask yourself, “Given that I can’t have the Ideal Vision because I live in reality, would I like to accept the offer to embark upon the creation of this Modified Vision with this person?” Just keep in mind that if you say “Yes”, you don’t get the guarantee that you will receive that imagined reality either. All you get to do is to choose to try. . . or not. Just like the rest of life.
In Do I want to be in this relationship Part II I identify a way to decide whether to stay in relationships when your needs are not being met in the relationship.