Some time ago, a friend of mine remarked that we live in a society that doesn't teach us how to end romantic relationships.
I spent some time chewing on that, and I think it's pretty much true, but it doesn't go far enough. We as a society teach people precious little about relationships in general--not only do we not teach people how to end them, we don't teach people how to begin them or maintain them either.
We seem to hold this notion, as a society, that if you are single and you meet someone you share a connection with, that means you're supposed to start dating, without any regard as to whether or not you might be remotely compatible. In fact, I've even encountered folks who sneer at the notion of "compatibility," saying that if you REALLY love each other, you should be able to work out any difference you have.
This is, I think, a very toxic idea.
That started me down the path of thinking about the sorts of assumptions we make about our partners, which is something I've written about a few times before. I definitely think that many folks carry around with them some pretty poisonous assumptions about their partners, without even thinking about it, so that's started me setting out some of the productive and non-productive premises on which to build a relationship.
It is often true that negative things stick with us a lot more tenaciously than positive things do. When we hear something that might be negative, it can be absolutely devastating, and can stay with us for months or even years, whereas when our partners tell us how much they value us or how precious we are, it just kinda bounces off.
I think how "sticky" something is depends a lot on the assumptions we make about ourselves, our partners, our value and worth, and our relationships. And I've listed some assumptions that seem to make for relationships that go poorly, and some relationships that help foster strong and healthy relationships.
Destructive assumptions to make in a relationship
• My partner doesn't REALLY love me…not really. At the end of the day, my partner's love can't be counted on.
• Given the choice, if someone 'better' comes along, my partner would prefer that person over me, and would rather be with that person.
• My partner says things like "I like being with you," "I find you sexy," "I am attracted to you," and "I value our relationship" because those are the things you're supposed to say. Those words don't really mean anything.
• My partner's exes are dangerous to me because I believe that my partner would secretly prefer to be with them than with me. Anyone my partner finds attractive is dangerous to me because my partner would secretly prefer to be with that person rather than me.
• If I want to preserve my relationship with my partner, I need to keep him or her on a short leash. If given free rein to do whatever he or she wants, my partner would leave me, disregard me, run over my needs, or otherwise mistreat me. Only by maintaining strict control over my partner can I be treated the way I need to be treated.
• I am not pretty enough/not smart enough/not sexy enough/whatever for my partner. If someone prettier/sexier/whatever comes along, I'm screwed.
• I can not talk openly to my partner about things like my own sexual desires, especially if I think they're weird or unusual, because if my partner thinks I'm too weird he or she will dump me.
• If my partner masturbates or watches porn, it means I am not enough. I am a failure; I have not done my job in pleasing my partner.
• If my partner talks to someone of the same sex I am, it means he or she is trying to replace me.
• My partner is with me because I tricked him or her, or because I was convenient at the time, or because I was the only thing available, or whatever.
• I need to be everything to my partner, and he or she needs to be everything to me. We must have the same hobbies, interests, ideas, and friendships or our relationship will never last. Unless we spend all of our free time together, our relationship is doomed.
• If I feel strongly attracted to someone, we must be together. Sexual compatibility or interest means that we have to be in a romantic relationship.
• If our relationship runs into problems, it probably means we aren't meant to be together.
• I really like it when my partner does some specific thing for me; therefore, the best way to show my love to my partner is to do that same thing for him or her.
• If my partner behaves in a jealous or possessive way, that is proof that he or she loves me.
• It is my partner's job to make me happy. If I am not happy, then I need to make my partner do whatever it is that I think will make me happy. (Or, conversely, it is my job to make my partner be happy; if my partner is not happy, I have failed.)
• A relationship should just grow and flourish on its own; once it's started, we should automatically be happy. Any bumps along the way mean that the relationship was not meant to be.
Constructive assumptions to make in a relationship
• My partner loves and cherishes me, and wants to be with me.
• My partner has chosen to be with me because he or she wants to be with me. I offer value to my partner, and given a choice, my partner would still choose to be with me.
• My partner says things like "I like being with you," "I find you sexy," "I am attracted to you," and "I value our relationship" because those things are true.
• My partner is with me because I add value to his or her life. Given a choice, my partner would still choose to be with me.
• Given free rein to make any choice he or she wanted, my partner would choose to be with me. In reality, my partner HAS free rein; he or she could find a way to leave me, if that's what he or she wanted to do. The fact that my partner is still here should tell me something!
• My partner finds me attractive and worthwhile. I add value to my partner's life which nobody else can replace.
• A healthy sex life depends on open communication. My partner values me and wants to have a healthy relationship with me; I can count on my partner to listen to what I have to say with respect and compassion.
• Not everything my partner does is about me. The things my partner does are not always a reflection on me. If my partner looks at porn or masturbates, that has nothing to do with me at all.
• Not everything is about sex. My partner can talk to someone of the appropriate sex, or even be friends with someone of the appropriate sex, without it being about sex or about replacing me.
• My partner is with me because he or she wants to be with me, because I add value to his or her life.
• It is not necessary for my partner and I to be absolutely everything to one another. If we have hobbies or interests, or even friends, that we do not share in common, that does not mean the relationship is in danger.
• Relationships and friendships come in many forms. Sexual compatibility, or even love, doesn't necessarily mean that we are compatible relationship partners. It's sad when that happens, but sometimes two people just aren't good romantic partners, and it's OK to recognize that fact and to build a friendship that honors and cherishes our connection while still allowing us to have relationships with people we ARE compatible with.
• Relationships can encounter problems. What happens when we do encounter problems depends not on fate or what is destined to be, but rather on our decisions. When we encounter problems, it doesn't necessarily have to doom the relationship, especially if we can still remember to behave with compassion and respect for one another.
• Different people express and recognize love in different ways. It is important for me to understand how my partner expresses love, and to recognize how my partner best receives expressions of love.
• If my partner is jealous or possessive when I am doing nothing wrong, this is an expression of my partner's insecurity that has nothing to do with me. My partner's insecurity is not necessarily my responsibility, though as a compassionate and loving partner I can certainly help support my partner in overcoming it.
• Happiness is something that we can each help to encourage and promote in one another, by reciprocally treating one another compassionately and with dignity, and by encouraging one another to pursue our bliss. However, I can never make another person be happy, and another person can never make be happy.
• Relationships naturally experience growing pains, bumps, and turbulence. A relationship that experiences these things is not necessarily bad, unhealthy, or doomed; it is only if the turbulent times outweigh the good times that I need to examine whether or not the relationship is healthy.
Now, it is true that the things I've listed as "constructive assumptions" aren't always valid. There are assholes, liars, manipulators, abusers, cheats, and sneaks of all stripes; and many of them will gladly stomp all over any or all of those basic premises.
Personally, I feel that if someone can't be trusted to abide by these positive assumptions, or someone who proves the negative assumptions true, doesn't make for a very good partner; the best way to deal with such a person is not to be in a relationship with him or her.
So underlying all of these premises is a sort of Premise Zero, which is this:
• I am worth, and deserve, to be treated with a certain basic minimum of respect and love. It is better to have no relationship at all than a relationship in which these things are not true. By starting with these positive assumptions, I can build healthy relationships; partners for whom these assumptions are not true are not worthy of being my partner.