The new relationship blueprint isn’t about losing yourself, it’s about finding your best self!
“You complete me.”
Tom Cruise was on my TV screen saying that line to Renee Zellweger in the movie Jerry Maguire, causing women the world over to swoon.
But not me. “It’s more like you deplete me,” I mumbled to myself.
Given my marriage—and divorce—depleting would actually be a very generous way to describe it, so it’s no wonder I reacted this way to such romantic schmaltz on TV.
It took me years to stop thinking I needed a permission slip to be myself and do what I wanted.
Years to discover that my life is my own and that I don’t owe anything to anyone else. Years to get free from believing that the only way to get love is to buy it, by bending over backwards with people-pleasing. Years to live life from my own inspiration, motivation, and agency—rather than in response or reaction to anyone or anything else.
Is it any wonder, then, that I even found myself feeling nauseated sitting at a dear friend’s wedding? It was a wedding like at the end of every romantic movie, times about a billion. The gorgeous, joyous, and madly-in-love couple exchanged tender vows, pledging their hearts and souls to one another against a sunlit, waterfront backdrop. It was magnificent, and I’m sure most of the other women (and many of the men) were thinking, “If only this could be me.”
Yet, as I sat there watching the ceremony, all I could think was, “I don’t want what they’re having!” I just couldn’t see anything positive or realistic in that kind of marital union.
A few weeks later, I told my sister as much. “I feel like I’m never going to say ‘I love you’ or hear those words from anyone else again. At least not in the way they said it at that wedding.”
Truth be told, I believed I was 100% finished with romantic relationships.
All I wanted was to be alone. Gloriously alone.
I didn’t want to live with anyone ever, ever again. Living with someone meant taking another person’s needs into account, and that was something I was simply not up for.
In the months and years that followed the end of my marriage, I dove into all kinds of personal growth work. I learned that I wasn’t very good at taking care of my own needs first, so I focused a lot of my attention there. I learned how to love and accept myself, and how to follow my own desires. I investigated my shadow selves, learned who I was without a husband, and discovered that I don’t have to mold myself into something I’m not in order to be loved and appreciated by others.
Singlehood suited me. It was truly wonderful to have no one to answer to. I could make my own decisions, free from the obligations of relationship. And best of all, I could work as much as I wanted to! For this workaholic, it was heaven. I had finally reached the place where I could say, “I’m free! Nothing triggers me anymore. I am woman—hear me roar!” I was officially D.O.N.E. with romance.
Or so I thought.
As it turned out, it didn’t take long for a surprise to enter my life. His name was Aaron.
We were introduced by friends, although they weren’t trying to fix us up. In fact, they didn’t expect us to be a match at all. They knew a relationship with a new man was the last thing I was looking for, and we were such different people they never imagined us hitting it off. But there he was, and the attraction was undeniable. Before I could even fully process what was happening, we were together.
Suddenly, I discovered that rubbing up against another human being—literally or figuratively—causes all of that “I’m free! I am woman!” stuff to go flying right out the window. All of my old emotional issues had just been lying in wait, and I realized I’d been isolating myself in part to avoid them.
Here’s one of the big lessons I learned: Each of us is the common denominator in all of our relationships, and we’ll always draw others to us who will activate our deepest emotional issues.
This is true in work, friendship, and family life, and it goes doubly if we’re talking about intimate relationship. There’s simply no way to prevent “our stuff” from following us around until we’re ready to deal with it.
While my ex-husband and Aaron are very different, there are ways in which they’re incredibly similar. And it’s in those ways they’re similar that activate my “core wounds,” which are my deepest hurts from childhood. For example, Aaron has abandonment issues, while I have suffocation issues. When it gets hard, I want space, and he wants more closeness…which triggers my need for even more alone time, which triggers his need for even more interaction. See how our wounds fit together in perfect…um… “harmony”?
Crazy enough, that’s the nature of any healthy relationship. Which goes completely against everything we learn in the Disney-style fairytale version of relationship, where everything is supposed to be sunshine, butterflies, and sweet little songs all day long.
Consistent harmony usually means there’s a lot of churning going on under the surface. Why? Because our core wounds—and the limiting beliefs they have installed in our unconscious—want to be healed. That movement toward healing is a drive within us that can’t be denied, and relationship is a perfect opportunity for that healing. After all, who holds up a mirror, reflecting our own wounds back to us, more fully than a primary partner? The qualities in ourselves that we’ve deemed bad or wrong—the “shadow selves” that we’ve disowned—usually show up as qualities in our intimate partners.
In other words, what we refuse to see in ourselves is guaranteed to be called forth in those to whom we are closest.
(You heard me: you can stop blaming your partner because he or she is simply showing you the parts of yourself you don’t want to see.)
Before you reach for the barf bag, let me assure you that there is good news here. Because it stirs the pot so effectively, intimate relationship can become a key teacher in our lives. It can actually become a spiritual practice, guiding us toward more awareness and freedom.
My relationship with Aaron is about love, joy, sex, and all of the good stuff everyone wants. But it’s also a way for each of us to learn more about our inner landscape and heal the hurt places within. Our relationship confronts us and challenges us to evolve—every single day. Sometimes it’s messy, sometimes it’s graceful, sometimes it’s unskilled, and sometimes it’s glorious. But the most important difference between my marriage and my relationship with Aaron is that there’s an ongoing, conscious, collaborative conversation underway about our triggers and issues, as well as our hopes and dreams.
When I say “triggers,” I’m talking about those reactive emotional responses that happen when we project our own shadow onto someone else. For example, I pride myself on being the least lazy person on the planet. In fact, for most of my life, I’ve judged laziness as a deadly sin. I can come up with a court-approved list of arguments to condemn anyone I believe is being lazy. So you can imagine that I’m easily triggered when I think someone else—especially my partner in life and love—is being lazy.
Aaron knows this trigger of mine…very well. He and I operate very differently in the world. I tend to be a “leap before I look” person, assuming I can figure out any obstacle in my path. Aaron, on the other hand, is a much more thoughtful decision-maker. He weighs all the options, contemplates possible outcomes, and then takes small steps rather than trying to make the whole thing happen in a single day. The result of this difference is that I can run circles around him productivity-wise. For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve been triggered by what I saw as an overemphasis on enjoying his life. That trigger would send me reacting with overwork, as I labeled his thoughtfulness “lazy.”
It has taken years for me to recognize that his thoughtful approach has as much value as my impulsive one, for very different reasons.
I’ve also learned that I’ve long projected my own natural laziness onto other people, making them wrong for operating in the world differently than I do. But guess what? When I can show compassion toward the naturally lazy part of me, the trigger is diminished. When I can’t show that compassion, I get angry or reject the person I’ve projected my laziness on.
Lucky for me, Aaron has been a willing participant in my own self-discovery—and I in his. What’s different about this relationship from relationships I’ve had in the past is that we’re both genuinely excited and interested in exploring who we are in relationship, why we behave the way we do, and what our emotional triggers can teach us about ourselves and one another. We’re committed to staying as aware as we can of what’s happening inside of us and between us, and we’re committed to having open, loving communication about it with each other. We’re always all in.
I can’t begin to tell you how huge that’s been for me. It’s the first relationship in which I’ve had that kind of openness and willingness to be present with each other, no matter what.
One of our goals is to find the meeting place between us—a place where neither of us has to abandon our true selves for the sake of the relationship. We’ve worked to build a relationship “container” that can hold the truth of each of us, that can hold our differences, and that can hold us where we need to be held the most. As a result, we’ve learned how to stay emotionally connected, even when we’re embroiled in conflict.
So perhaps there’s something else available between “you complete me” and “you deplete me.” Perhaps it could best be stated as, “you complement me.”
The new relationship blueprint calls for two whole people to be in partnership with each other in a way that honors the totality of each individual.
I’ll readily admit that I’m still a work in progress and “Nancy + Aaron” is my current course of study. The goal is to reframe the way I love, so that who I am doesn’t get lost in the process.
It actually comes down to one thing. It’s all about self-love.
In my humble opinion, this whole life is a lesson in self-love.
But it’s really easy to forget that, especially when it comes to relationship issues. Instead, we blame others or beat ourselves up when we perceive our relationships as not working. When our emotional “stuff” arises, it’s easier to believe we “just haven’t found the right mate” than to face the prospect that our own deeper personal growth work may be calling us.
The secret to a powerful, loving relationship isn’t about fixing or enduring problems. It isn’t about improving ourselves in order to “overcome.” Nope. It all boils down to this: Once we truly love ourselves, everything becomes easier.
I had a choice and I chose to do love differently this time. I chose to have a relationship that’s loving and healing after the one that fell apart and broke my heart. I choose to make loving another without losing myself a priority. Truth-telling, knowing my non-negotiables, and cozying up to conflict have guided me to find my “no” so that I could free my “yes.” I choose to trust that intimate relationship can be a “container” that holds the truth of each of us, while being strong enough to hold our differences, too.
Contrary to popular belief, learning how to love others is not the top priority. I couldn’t possibly have the relationship I have now if I hadn’t awakened to myself first. Instead, relationship is first and foremost where we learn how to love ourselves.
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