For some reason, I remember a very specific exchange with my mother when I was 11. I had just begun middle school, and having my own locker, a binder, and text books made me feel like a grown up. I had seen how the older 8th graders had boyfriends and girlfriends, holding hands, kissing goodbye in the hallway, etc.
Like any youthful sprite, I wanted to grow up too quickly. The previously aforementioned exchange with my mother ended with “why can’t I have a girlfriend? Its not fair!” Her response?
Not the best answer for an 11 year old. But what I didn’t know at the time (amongst many, many other things) was…
Interpersonal relationships are equally rewarding as they are challenging.
But please, do not misunderstand this statement (not that I automatically assume you have). I don’t mean to say that love is amazing but at the same time difficult, although this is true. I have realized, through my own experiences, that the amazing part comes from the challenge.
The converse of this being that relationships that are not challenging can only be temporarily rewarding.
Here is a well known prototype for relationships:
“We met, and everything was wonderful. I felt like I was on cloud nine with him/her. I couldn’t possibly be away from them for more than a day. Yet somewhere along the line, the spark was gone and what was left in its place was everything that had grown to annoy me. So I dumped ’em.”
Why does this happen? The initial excitement of having a new person in your life wears off within a couple of weeks. Sometime after, you seem to get bored and your eye wanders while simultaneously picking on the negative things about your partner.
I would suffice to say at this point there is no challenge in the relationship. What creates challenge? Well, its no longer in getting another date. It may not be making them laugh, feel comfortable, or having them spend the night anymore. Humans are inherently goal seekers. So whats left?
Respect, trust, and emotional and mental intimacy.
Now thats a loaded list. There are plenty of books written about this stuff. Many counselors make a living on it. One blog post couldn’t possibly cover it all. I’m not going to attempt to, not just because it takes a while but also because I don’t know everything. (Anything?)
What I do know, however, is that figuring yourself out, figuring your partner out, and helping each other grow as people (and as a pair) is challenging as hell and probably takes a lifetime. So if you’re bored with a relationship you’re probably not doing these things.
Helping each other with life’s challenges (as well as each other’s) is huge. If you and your partner can not work as one coordinated unit you’ll probably end up leading two uncoordinated lives. Just in the same house. Sure, you have your time together, and you talk about your days at work, but thats not synergy.
I have a dorky metaphor for coordinated efforts. My girlfriend Rebecca and I have recently started playing Rock Band. Now, we are seemingly a good band because we do well on all the songs. But she plays the drums and I play the guitar. We are really doing our own thing.
But what if one song was really really hard on drums? Rebecca keeps failing at one particular spot in the song (for the uninitiated, this happens when you miss enough notes over a period of time). If I wasn’t paying attention to her needs, I could have used my star power to rack up more points (seemingly good for both of us) earlier. In Rock Band, I could use this star power to save Rebecca from her terrible drum playing, bringing her back on stage and preventing us both from failing. But I was too busy doing my own thing, so when she failed I couldn’t bring her back and we lose. Recognizing this weakness after failing a couple of times would tell me to save that star power in the case that she fails, so I can bring her back.
Now thats team work!
But thats not really that challenging, not after the first 2 times failing. It takes minimal change on my part. I could figure it out pretty quickly and move onto the next song.
Now lets say the next song is even harder on drums – the bass pedal is so difficult that she misses more than half, and she fails quickly (OK I fail too, alot. I’m not perfect). I’ve learned from our last endeavor that I need to save up star power – and so I do.
Except in Rock Band, you can only save your band member twice. So if they fail three times before the song is done, you can’t bring them back and the entire band will eventually fail the song.
What do we do?
Well we could reduce the difficulty, but in life you can’t change the circumstances like that so for this metaphor we’ll ignore that one. We can switch, but we aren’t as proficient with the other instruments as we are our own. We are stuck.
Wait a second, what if I play the bass drum?
I know I play guitar but I can hit a bass drum on beat for a while, allowing Rebecca to concentrate on the other notes. Sure, I’ll probably miss more of my own notes because I can’t “rub my belly and pat my head,” but it may prevent her from failing out.
So we try it – and this time I get close to failing. But we both make it through alive, and we finally complete the song after failing so many times before! We’ve worked in a coordinated way whose sum was greater then our individual abilities.
How does challenging each other come into play here?
Well, what if I when I suggested that I play the bass drum Rebecca got defensive of her abilities? What if she snapped at me in her own frustration?
“Fine, you come over here and play the drums then. Lets see how far you get!”
I could then get upset with her, starting a fight of our own when we were originally working together on a common goal.
But she didn’t. Here is a challenge of ego. She trusts that I respect her ability to play the game, but realize that I may need to help her out to get through the song. She’s challenging herself by admitting her limitations. I’m also challenging myself because I’m now playing one and a half instruments. Which is not easy might I add.
But guess what happened afterwards? We talked about how crazy that song was, and walked away from the fake stage setup feeling awesome that we could accomplish it in such a way. The game became more fun. The challenge has brought the reward. We have gone back to play many times after that – together.
So while Rock Band isn’t necessarily a serious example of the true hardships encountered in serious relationships, I like the analogy. I could have finished that song the first time through if I was playing by myself. But I wouldn’t have learned anything.
When my mom told me I couldn’t have a girlfriend when I was 11 and answered my prototypical “why?” with the parental staple “because,” she was telling me that if I didn’t understand the non-answer, I couldn’t understand the real one. The typical “you don’t know why because you don’t know why.”
Very wise, those parents. Now theres a concept.