Or, How to stop worrying and embrace your quirky self.

Image: Africa Studios

I get a lot of emails. And Facebook messages. And Quora PMs. Most of them from strangers, a great many of them asking me what they should do in their romantic lives.

And I kinda get it, I do. Relationships are hard. Relationship that don’t fit the socially sanctioned template—kinky relationships, polyamorous relationships, that sort of thing—are especially hard. We don’t have a lot of institutional knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. It’s tough to figure this stuff out on your own, especially if you don’t have a community of like-minded folks nearby (and sometimes even then; there are more than a few little subcommunities around alternative relationships that’re deeply, deeply dysfunctional).

But here’s the thing:

There is not, and never has been, anyone exactly like you in all the world. There is not, and never has been, anyone like your beloved (or beloveds!) in all the world. This combination has never happened before. Nobody—not me, not anyone—can give you a step-by-step guide to Making It Work.

Welcome to the Relationship Smorgasboard.

Making a relationship work isn’t like building a passenger jet. There’s no handbook, no set of steps to follow that will guarantee you a good result. It’s a lot more like following a recipe, only you don’t have all the ingredients, you do have a bunch of other ingredients, and you’re trying the best you can to make it all work. (This recipe calls for Chinese broccoli and I have kale, will that work? Let’s find out!)

I’m not saying you can’t listen to other folks, of course. It’s usually much better to learn from other people’s mistakes than from your own. And even the most relaxed cook knows there are some substitutions that simply won’t work; if the recipe calls for milk and flour, using bleach and asbestos in their place is going to lead to tears. There are some parts of the recipe—honesty, communication, integrity, respect—you omit at your peril.

So yeah, when you see someone talking about the importance of communication, or of knowing what you want, or of advocating for oyur needs, those are kinda the milk and butter and eggs of your relationship kitchen—if the recipe calls for them and you don’t have them on hand, expect poor results.

But where relationships differ from cooking, or manufacturing, is that nobody—nobody—can tell you “follow these exact steps and you’ll have a happy relationship.” Relationships never work that way.

Relationships are bespoke. All of them. Because there’s never been another you or another person like your beloved, there can be no exactitude, no precision process that will meld you seamlessly into a harmonious whole. You’re gonna have to do at least some of the work at figuring it out yourselves.

What does that mean?

It means it’s on you to figure out what you need, what makes you happy, where your boundaries are, what lights you up. It’s on you to listen, to learn what works for your beloved. And here’s the part nobody else can help you with: it’s on you to find the places of agreement, the overlaps in your interests and needs and drives, and work out how to build your relationship on that spot. It’s on you to negotiate solutions for the inevitable jagged bits that don’t quite line up correctly (because no matter how compatible you may be with someone, you will never mesh perfectly). This:

is not what relationship compatibility looks like. (Image source)

Difficulty is part of the process. Difficulty comes with the territory. You’re a self-determining organism with a totally unique set of needs, desires, boundaries, fears, and flaws, negotiating a close relationship with another self-determining organism with a different set of needs, desires, boundaries, fears, and flaws. There ain’t no guide who can guarantee a perfect outcome. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

Being able to make a relationship work means being willing to lean into the mess and the uncertainty, to knowing you’ll have to make some adjustments to the recipe on the fly. It means being open to—in fact, embracing—negotiating the tricky little bits the recipe didn’t warn you about.

It’s okay to acknowledge that difficulty is part of the process. It helps, I find, to use language like “I know this is a hard problem, but I want to work with you to solve it” rather than “I can’t bear to lose you.”

And here’s the really hard part, the one that books and relationship columnists and so on might not warn you about:

It has to be okay, if you just can’t make it work, to arrive at a place where you acknowledge that you just aren’t the right people, or if you are the right people it isn’t the right situation, for each other.

It hurts and it sucks, but thee it is. Nobody wants to lose a good relationship. But a relationship you can’t lose, makes you a hostage. It’s hard to advocate for your needs when you feel like a hostage.

Point is, my relationship is not yours, and never will be. Nobody like you will ever exist again. What works for me might work for you, maybe, in the broad outlines, or it might not…but even if it does, you’re still going to need to make your own substitutions. My kitchen is not yours, and my tastes are not yours.

Listen to me if you want, take for yourself what works, but never believe that another person can solve your problems for you.

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