Copy this headline to your search and you’ll find all manner of quotes, or words to a similar effect, telling you how loving relationships only start with self-love, or why the relationship you have with yourself is the most important thing to a successful life.
It’s 2020. I’m self-aware enough to acknowledge that this article is highly likely to solidify this sentiment as the cliché of the year. But the fact remains, and must be repeated, that the road to any successful relationship must and always does begin with having the very best one with yourself.
Back in 2012, I’d reached what I now consider my ‘rock-bottom’. Not in the addiction-recovery sense, but in the way that everything I thought I wanted out of life—a partner, a house, a job I could be proud of—had come crashing to the ground, in a big way, leaving me in an ugly, brutal trench of despair. I felt broken, confused and completely unable to find a way out.
I was in my early thirties. I’d left a difficult, addictive relationship, and one that I knew deep down was not right for me, yet I’d persisted, for all the wrong reasons. In my head our relationship made sense; we liked the same things, saw the world the same way, I was the envy of my friends. By chasing this ideal, though, I had let myself become completely blind to my own needs, to the point of giving up everything that was really important to me to make it work.
When it ended, I was left with nothing. I’d moved into her place, said goodbye to my best-bud housemate and quit my job. Since we were colleagues, and she was more senior, it seemed the only route to break out of the lies and silence we’d created for ourselves and have an ‘out in the open’ relationship. When the point came for it to end, it hurt harder because of what I’d given away.
By some irony, at the end of that year, I met my future wife. I knew it then and I know it now, four years after our marriage. I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have met my true soulmate. But it was not on strong soil that we came together; I was a total wreck when we met. I resisted at first. It was another work-related relationship, another chance to repeat history. At least that’s what my head was telling me. I told myself I couldn’t fall into another situation like that, with another person that would leave me vulnerable. What I wasn’t willing to register was that this time it really was different.
And it was different because, in the time between breaking up and finding my future wife, my perspective changed. The priorities I made in life started to change. They became about me, about who I am and what I wanted out of life. And they were able to change because I’d sought help.
When I first sat down in the therapist’s chair, I explained clearly what had happened. I said I needed help to understand why I’d got into this position in the first place. His words hit me like a thunderbolt;
‘I don’t think you know what your needs are’.
And there it was. The truth. I had given up everything to make a relationship work and hadn’t even checked to see that I was getting what I wanted, or needed, by return. The truth was, I wasn’t getting a single thing from this relationship and everyone around me could see it. I was hooked on an ‘idea’ of this person, and that life with them would lead to happiness. In the process, I’d completely negated my own self-worth.
That period was one of the most painful of my life. Through the deep and introspective self-reflection, it was also the best thing that ever happened. I realized then that, for most of my life, I’d wanted to please other people, I wanted to help others and make everyone around me happy. In the process, though, I’d been making myself completely unhappy. I hadn’t given myself the time to recognize and acknowledge the kind of person I was, what I stood for and who I needed in my life to bring out the best in me. After finding my wife I realize this is the key to a happy romantic relationship; having someone in your life who brings out the best in you, even when you struggle to do it for yourself.
I was tempted to look towards my parents to blame. My adult eyes saw how bad they were for each other. Fine, it was different times then, different ways of being. For Gen-Xers like myself (and millennials), we have the gift of being able to marry the person we love. I know for a fact, or at least from my mother, that my parents were pushed together by their own parents as a way to free the family from the public shame of having their son and daughter still on the shelf at 29.
For all that’s wrong in the world today, when it comes to finding a romantic partner, we should all be thankful that we’re able to marry a person—any person—whom we love, in our own time, without the same societal expectations or pressures that most of our parents had. For all the troubles we face, we can be thankful for the opportunity to decide who is the right person for us, before we end up making a mistake that we’ll have to live with for the rest of our lives.
For me, when I stopped letting my head decide everything, I realized my wife was the gift I’d been waiting for. I knew that we fit together like two pieces of a puzzle—the yang to my yin—and I knew this because I took the time to recognize who I was and what I needed from a relationship. I took the time to understand what a good relationship for me should look like. And to know what I can bring to a relationship, too.
In the end, maybe the key lies somewhere within a paradox. On the one hand, it’s essential to know yourself well before you commit to someone else; you need to be certain of who you are, what you like, what you need, what you can offer. You need to be an awesome salesperson for yourself. On the other, you will never really find out those things about yourself until you have the chance to learn. And the best way to learn is to have a lot of relationships.
I learned the hard way. Maybe it’s the only way. And maybe we all need to find ourselves first before we find true love.
Or maybe true love lies in finding ourselves first before others can find us too.
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