The 5 Truths About Relationships (That No One Ever Tells You)

You can find 10,000 ways to be dysfunctional, but if you want any kind of happiness, the same principles always apply. So here goes.
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There's a huge overuse of the word "crazy" in our culture. "My crazy ex-boyfriend, don't even get me started," or "my mother is twelve kinds of crazy" or "that girl I've been dating? Turns out she's batsh*t crazy." We toss the word around like a frisbee on Labor Day.

The thing is, very few people are actually crazy. According to medical research, only around 4% of the population actually has a diagnosable mental disorder. "Yeah," you're probably saying, "the other 96% aren't in my dating pool." Still, given that there are 350 million people in the U.S., if you do the math (and you know I'm serious about this if I'm doing math) it means your chances of actually meeting a certifiable nutcase is like 1 in 100 gazillion, or something. So are we all just deluded about the definition of crazy? Or is there some other explanation?

Yes: Relationships drive people crazy.

To make it worse, we're all swimming in relationships, for the majority of our lives. Human beings are inherently gregarious -- hell, we die if left in solitude. So even if you're the world's biggest recluse, you're in a relationship with someone. Your mother. Your FedEx guy. Maybe your dog. And if that relationship goes badly, it will have a negative impact on your life.

The good news: since your life (and mine! And everyone else's!) is nothing but a gurgling stew pot of messy relationships, you have plenty of practice material, and lots of time to perfect your technique.

The bad news: relationships are friggin' hard.

Here are 5 truths about relationships that no one ever tells you. Granted, these only apply to WORKING relationships. The old trope really is true -- happy relationships are all the same, but every miserable one is miserable in its own way. You can find 10,000 ways to be dysfunctional, but if you want any kind of happiness, the same principles always apply. So here goes.

1) Your relationship is not about you.

In the sliver of my college education that wasn't drowned in cheese-covered breadsticks and booze, I recall an Intro to Philosophy course. Specifically, there was a lesson about the metaphysics of individual perception. Boiled down, it's nearly impossible to see things from anywhere other than your own point of view. Try it -- you'll fail. No matter how hard you work to get out, you're still inside your own head, burdened with thoughts and opinions and judgments and hurts that are not clearly visible to anyone else.

Given this human limitation, it's nearly impossible not to think about ourselves constantly. We make valiant gestures at unselfishness and altruism, but at the end of the day we're still selfish bastards. "Me" and "I" are ingrained in our heads, since we have no other context for living.

Unfortunately, getting as skilled as possible at seeing beyond the "me" and "I" is just about the only way to have functional relationships. The reason for this is simple: the relationship is not about you. More specifically, it is not about your thoughts and needs and opinions. It's about caring for and meeting someone else's.

Case in point: It's a rainy Wednesday night, and you're tired. You stumble home in soggy clothes, and low blood sugar is urging your brain to screech at the first individual unlucky enough to plant himself in front of you. That poor soul turns out to be your husband. Too bad! It's not about you. At no point did this other person sign up for "absorbing all your repressed anger on weeknights." In order to have any chance at a pleasant evening (for him, and yourself) you have to give up the "me" and hear about HIS day, his thoughts, his opinions, and whatever the hell else comes out of his mouth.

Another way to say it is "don't expect to have someone who always tends to your needs." (You may GET someone who always tends to your needs, but that doesn't mean you should EXPECT it.) The purpose of the relationship cannot be for you to declare what you want and then extract it by whatever means necessary. If it IS about you taking what you want from this other person -- be it a lover, spouse, parent, basically anyone but your dog -- then it's not going to work. The other person will wind up feeling like sh*t, you'll wind up feeling like even more sh*t, and no one is happy.

The trick is to just get over the whole "me" thing as much as possible, on a ceaseless basis. Simple, right? Not at all. Which is why 99.99999% of relationships wind up resembling a mash-up of 2012 and Armageddon.

NOTE: This does not mean "Give up your identity and shut off your own needs in an attempt at relationship martyrdom." No one is advocating being a doormat, or pretending that you don't have needs in order to keep the peace. In a way, shutting off means you're still extracting what you want from the other person -- by creating a fantasy, and never letting him/her know the real you.

2) You are 100% responsible for your relationship.

Guess what! Not only is the relationship not about you, but you're also totally responsible for it! Sweet! What does this mean? For one, it means that when your partner does something that makes every cell in your body swell to bursting with liquid rage, it is your responsibility to deal with your anger, and resolve the situation. Every time.

Let's break it down. You planned a romantic evening. You scrimped and saved to pay for it, busted your butt to get the impossible reservation, worked all weekend to make sure you have the entire evening free, bought a new outfit, and plucked every stray hair from your epidermis to guarantee the night is special. And then that UNGRATEFUL $#&@ SHOWS UP 30 MINUTES LATE, DECIDES HE'S TIRED, AND WANTS TO LEAVE AFTER THE APPETIZER!!

So what do you do?

Well, you be responsible. You recognize that right now, you have a choice -- to be mad enough to melt his nose hairs with your glare, or not. No one is forcing you to scream and yell, or coldly seethe while preparing revenge, or bring up that time when his boss tried to grab your ass. It's all up to you.

And if you want to make the choice that will have the relationship continue, you shove the "me" conversation aside (remember that damned "me" rule?) using a bulldozer if necessary. You explain to your partner in a kind, shriek-free way that you'd hoped the evening would go a different way. You communicate your point of view. You hear out his perspective, without interruption, and find a resolution (reschedule? Have him plan the evening next time?). And then you let it go.

Or, if it's a situation that has happened 3,000 times already and he never once respects your side, you say goodbye. But breakups are fodder for another column.

3) You can either be right... or be happy.

My Great Aunt told me this once, and the foolish twenty-something that I was, I brushed her off. Oh silly Great Aunt -- what an antiquated notion!

Nope -- the dame was dead on. You will fight. You will disagree. If you don't, you are robot automatons who must be vanquished with laser guns. These fights will all, without exception, come down to a single question: Who is right, and who is wrong.

Guess what! You're not right! Or maybe you are- - but you're still not, if you want the relationship to continue. Think about it: What do you get from being right, and having him/her admit it? You get a momentary thrill of superiority followed by hours of surly resentful spouse. And after around 2,000 of these, you get marriage counseling (or divorce papers).

So there you have it: when you're right, you lose. Meaning that when you're wrong, you actually win!

4) Your partner is exactly who she/he is right now, and will never be anybody else.

God your boyfriend is great. He's so smart he can recite pi to the 500th digit. He's so handsome he melts the wings off canaries and so charismatic he charms maximum-security inmates with the force of his smile. In fact, he'd be stone-cold perfect IF ONLY HE'D CHANGE THIS ONE ASPECT OF HIS PERSONALITY THAT MAKES YOU WANT TO MURDER BABIES AAAGGGHHH!!!

Guess what: He won't change. Either accept him exactly as he is (and continue accepting him every day 'til the zombie apocalypse) or bid him adieu. Once again, it's your choice - so choose.

5) If your relationship with yourself isn't working, don't expect your other relationships to be any different.

I know. It sucks that this is true. When a relationship goes bad (or when anything goes bad, for that matter), it's so tempting to beat up on yourself and ask a million questions about what you did wrong and suffer in exquisite agony over why he dumped you and scream at the moon "WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME WHY AM I SUCH A DEFECTIVE CLUMP OF CARBON MATTER!!!!!!"

But I can tell you right now: There's nothing wrong with you. Or, at least, there's nothing more wrong with you than any of the things wrong with me, or your partner, or any other human being roaming the earth. So halt the self-inflicted suffering whenever you can (it's like a reflex, I know) and be kind to yourself. Loving, even. Think about how awesome you are. Take loving care of yourself. Because if you do, you'll get good at meeting your own needs -- and that'll be a massive help when it comes time to hear out the needs of someone wonderful and new. Since after all, the next relationship's not about you either.

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