Compatibility is not the starting point of a successful relationship

“Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”

Some time ago, I wrote about compatibility, and how I felt I had abandoned it in my relationships.

Today, I’m beginning to understand compatibility differently, after listening to Alain de Botton explain why people felt they had married the wrong person. His views are also available in prose for The New York Times.

A few points in his spiel that struck me:

“To love is to have the willingness to interpret someone’s on-the-surface not-very-appealing behavior, in order to find more benevolent reasons why it may be unfolding. In other words, to love someone, is to apply charity and generosity in interpretation.

“We tend to believe that the more a lover is right for us, the less we will have to explain about who we are, how we feel, what upsets us, what we want… We believe a true lover will guess what is in our minds… The root to a good marriage and good love is the ability to become a good teacher… Teaching is merely the word to the skill of getting an idea from one head into another in a way that is likely to be accepted… You need a culture between a couple where two people are going to need to teach each other and also learn from one another.”

“And this brings me to the next reason why you are going to have a very unhappy relationship: You probably believe that when somebody tries to tell you something about yourself that is a little ticklish; a little uncomfortable, they are attacking you. They’re not. They’re trying to make you into a better person. We tend to believe that true love means accepting the whole of us. It doesn’t. No one should accept the whole of us. We’re appalling. What we need to do is to accept that the other person is going to want to educate us.”

“Incompatibility — We are all incompatible. But it is the work of love to make us graciously accommodate each other and ourselves to each other’s incompatibilities.

You know, I’ve always admired the values of humility, empathy and compassion in a relationship, because I believe someone who truly understands how flawed they are, likely finds it easier to relate to the feelings and flaws of another. I believe this leads to all sorts of wonderful behaviors in a relationship, including being able to receive your partner’s words well (what he refers to as “charity and generosity in interpretation”).

But I’ve never thought of the equation as such: humility, empathy and compassion + willingness to teach + not treating your partner as the enemy = compatibility. I’ve always thought it the other way around.

Now, I’ll be honest, this equation is a problem for my state of happiness with someone else. First, I’m famous for running away when I feel most vulnerable (see point 3 below), which then, of course, negatively impacts my ability to teach my partner how I feel and what I need. Second, in a tense or angry situation, it’s hard for me to view my partner as anything but my enemy. After all, I grew up in a war zone — my parents were at each other’s throats all the time — so it’s difficult for me to understand that it is acceptable to be vulnerable and malleable with the person you love, even when you’re blind with rage that’s directed at them.

Of course, this also means that now that I am aware of my many challenges in a relationship, the reasons for them stop being so much of an excuse.

Perhaps it’s time I abandoned my fascination with compatibility, and started to focus on other parts of the equation.

On another note, once you realize that compatibility is not the starting point of a successful relationship, you then have to ask yourself: what makes us fall in love someone? Is it completely chemical? Or is it only about familiarity? Or is this entire process arbitrary?

But that’s something else to think about another day.

And before I sign off, here are some other valuable points I found that he made in his spiel:

  1. We progress through the world with a very low sense of what is actually wrong with us. Our parents, friends and ex-lovers don’t tell us for various reasons — they love us too much, they just want to spend a good night out, or they want to leave us without having uncomfortable conversations.
  2. We don’t spend enough time getting to know ourselves. Until you know yourself, you can’t properly relate to another person.
  3. We find it hard to tell someone that we need them. When we are put in this “undesirable” situation, we fall into certain patterns — we get anxiously attached, or, in my case, avoidant. (This means when you need someone, you pretend you don’t, which then sets the other wondering whether you can be trusted. And this results in a low-trust relationship cycle.)
  4. Love is a skill that needs to be learnt. There is a distinction between “to love” and “being loved”. 
  5. Everyone we love is going to disappoint us. We usually start off with idealization and end up with denigration. Maturity is the ability to see that there are no heroes or sinners among human beings. Good love is tolerance for weakness.
  6. The way we love as adults sits on top of our early childhood experiences. As a result, we seek out partners who are familiar, even though familiarity may be bound up with various kinds of torture.
  7. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about compromise. Compromise is noble. It is a massive achievement in love.

An inclusive love

“You know, your father and I have agreed to work on our differences. But each time you do something like this, he gets fed up with trying.” My mother is referring to our most recent disagreement, which she blames entirely on me.

And with that one remark, 20 years fade away, and I am 11 again.

I am feeling the worst kind of loneliness and exclusion, because:

I am being told that this is her home, not mine, and therefore, I have to be “polite” to her. I am being told that my parents are at odds — and have been, for the past 3 years (and so too for the next 20 years, but I didn’t know it then) — because of my interference. I am being told that they are a unit, and their relationship is more important than my relationship with either parent.

It is damaging, for a child to feel relegated to the sidelines on a parent’s whim, looking in on what is supposed to be a normal, well-adjusted family. I used to think it was preferable to have no family at all. At least then, I wouldn’t have fleeting glimpses of what I was missing, and wishing with all my heart, to be included in the fold.

10 years of therapy later and I am in a position to write this, not to relive the hurt of the past, but to solidify a lesson for the future.

My mother cannot love me the way I need, because she’s never been taught how, and perhaps you can say — even along the way, she’s never taught herself how. She has never learnt to love inclusively, and she never will, because she comes from a place of deep lack, or gripping insecurity, a place that she’s never confronted head on. She is unable to see past her own sadness, hurt, unhappiness, anger — anything she’s feeling strongly at that point — through to someone else, and feel the love she’s supposed to have for that individual.

Who’s fault is this? I wish I could say hers, but I know now life is never as straightforward as we wish it to be; and we are too human to ever expect more from each other.

My mother may not have taught me how to love, but she’s certainly taught me how to forgive.

Because you know, when you can’t change someone, all that’s really left to do is to forgive. And I won’t lie, there are days where I am scraping the bottom of that barrel of compassion; frantically pawing through the sediment with hands that are raw and bleeding.

Hours after those words fell like arrows, I stood there looking out into the rain, its comforting scent filling my nostrils, and I thought:

When I breathe my last, I want to know I did everything I could to build a loving, inclusive relationship — against my humanity, against all my flaws, against my insecurities and fears, emotions, and scars; that I had helped to build a family where love was bountiful and unconditional, regardless of the pain and sorrow that came with it; that I put others first, and myself aside, for the sake of peace.

You know, I have failed many times in my 31 years, and I will continue to fail — myself, and those around me.

But I can only hope that if I keep fighting that darkened part of me — the one that whispers terrible things when I am at my weakest, and makes the light feel less than it is — I may yet succeed. That, and quite possibly a healthy dose of self awareness, faith, and God’s grace.

Wish me luck, because 2017 is the year I leap.

Dear Compatibility,

I don’t actually know who you are.

I’ve met you, of course, in one form or another, but if we’re being honest, I don’t know you. I do not know what the complete shape of you looks or feels like. I don’t even know if you truly exist, or if you’re a fairytale we’ve made up.

But I’m writing anyway, because in the worse case scenario, I believe in fairytales.

Reading Love, Eventually, it was this quote about you that resonated the most.

Out of hopefulness, impatience, insecurity or for a thousand other reasons, we too often rush into relationships that are poor fits for us, robbing our partners and ourselves of more promising connections.”

The truth is this: we are all damaged in some way. We bear hope only we can see; hope that goes against all odds, that distorts reality and colours every decision we make. We bear the fears only we see; fears we cannot explain, or stop feeling, despite our best efforts. We bear the scars only we see; scars others have inflicted, scars we do not understand, or do but perhaps have never dealt with for a myriad of reasons.

All this, our thousand other reasons, will shape our relationship with you.

Sometimes, we ignore your existence completely. Not on purpose, but simply because we’ve never really learnt how to shoulder our scars alone. For some of us, the cost of overlooking you is great. We run towards the next, and the next, and the next, from whoever we receive attention and affection, to whomever will help to ease the weight we carry. They fall, almost accidentally, into our laps; and then, almost gratefully, we fall onto theirs in return. When we finally realise you are nowhere in sight, we find ourselves deciding to stay anyway — out of love or a bond that has now formed, because of the children, or the guilt, fear, grief, et al., we feel.

Other times, we believe you are quintessential in a union. We feel for your presence by measuring our partner’s baggage against our own, taking issue with any variation, until finally, we finally walk away. We cite the hole where you should have stood. We are still waiting — still holding out, even now — for you to show up, in entirety, with someone we could fall in love with.

At times, we think it is a choice between love, or you. So we choose. Some make lifelong happiness with their choice; others find it is not enough.

Sometimes, we are blessed enough to be one of two people who falls in love at exactly the same time, only to find you standing there in the middle. And yet, a year later (or two, or ten), you’ve vanished, because our relationship with you is a shifting goal post, changing whenever we do.

There are so many forms our relationship with you takes, Compatibility, in the face of our thousand other reasons. But whichever we choose, there is no promise of a happy outcome. For as there are a number of us who have experienced tragedies in your absence, there are many others who have made their own happiness. And then there are those who’ve had both, and yet.

For this reason, I cannot agree in absolute terms that we end up “robbing our partners and ourselves of more promising connections”, wherever you are absent.

More experiences with — and without — your presence only helps us to see you a little clearer; to understand the balance we are willing to live with in any relationship. And we do this with an acceptance that there are no formulas and no guarantees.

As for me, I have been guilty of abandoning you. You see, I let myself crumble under the weight of my bags. I was not determined enough to work through my emotional discomfort; I was not patient enough wait for the light that would eventually come. I did not face what I had to, when I had to, and by the time I realised, you had come and gone. Because I was not my priority, you weren’t either.

But I look forward with hope, that this was meant to be all along.

“Still, had the possibility of this loving bi-disability marriage presented itself to us years earlier, I don’t think either of us would have been ready. We needed the right combination of fallacies, wrong turns and formative relationships to lead each of us exactly here.”

 

My relationship with you is far from over. I will make other mistakes where you are concerned, I’m sure.

But only time will tell what the next one is, and whether this time, finally, there will be a happy ending.

Ode to a father

I have loved him for 31 years. Perhaps longer; if you believe in that sort of thing.

He has been with me at every step, at every turn, allowing for failure and celebrating my success.

And as I walked with him all these years, I inherited many lessons. Some came easy, others were painful and hard-earned.

From him, I learnt compassion. At five, I saw it in his geniality to all manner of strangers. It did not matter if you were a CEO or a cleaner — my father would speak to you in exactly the same warm way. At 31, I understand it isn’t only in the manner you relate to others. Instead, compassion is a deep understanding of human condition; a knowledge that we are all flawed, and no status or amount of gold makes us any better than the other. And from compassion stems a great many other things: forgiveness, love, bravery, and so forth.

From him, I learnt how to forgive. At five, I knew this only as a big hug after punishment. Growing up, I realized the ease at which he forgave came from unconditional love (of a parent), which transcended all the ways I had hurt him. And I knew, even then when I knew nothing else as a child, that it would go on for the rest of our lives. At 31, I know he is only capable of unconditional love and forgiveness because he has the source of it — God — in his heart. For he is loved, so too he loves.

From him, I learnt generosity. At five, I knew it as time spent together — and he never, ever, ran out of it, especially when I was concerned. Growing up, I saw him share the knowledge he had accumulated over the years with everyone who was willing to listen and learn — never, ever fearful that he would become obsolete or irrelevant. I admired this trait, because I’ve met very few individuals who are as secure in themselves. At 31, I understand that generosity doesn’t only come in the form of time or knowledge. I see it in the selfless way my father gives to the less fortunate. He is never too tired, too old, too poor or too busy to love anyone else.

From him, I learnt to love the ocean. At five, I knew it as playtime, where only endless joy existed. The world spun in technicolor, and nothing seemed impossible. At 31, I know it is really a need for wide open spaces. It is the need to feel granular in a much larger world, because sometimes, what feels impossible is oppressive.

From him, I learnt to love sunshine. At five, it usually accompanied playtime. It was the feel of warmth of the sun on the skin; a soft reminder that you lived and breathed. At 31, it has become about relishing the beauty life hands you even it if is only for a fleeting moment. It is the lack of resentment even when it passes, and doesn’t emerge again for some time.

From him, I learnt the value of hard work. At five, I only knew it meant he worked different hours: shift work, they called it. On weekends, his hands were always busy — sawing, sanding and lacquering, over and over — and appreciated his dedication to home building. He never, not for a moment, not once, stood still. At 31, I know it isn’t just about the act of labor — it is the practice of patience and perseverance through difficulty. It is the resulting pride from a job well done — a gift no one was able to take away.

From him, I learnt a sense of justice. At five, I knew it as his raised voice or a disapproving look. I saw the difference between what was considered “right” and “wrong”. I memorized these, as if from a textbook, until they worked their way into my gut, and over the years, cemented there. At 31, I understand it is not only about just action, but also bravery — to be able to admit my own faults, and to speak up in the face of wrongdoing.

From him, I learnt my worth. At five, I knew I was precious to him. How could I not? As I grew older, I continued to believe my value to family was a birthright. At 31, I realize that we are never owed our value; it is something we have to earn. Not through money or power — for these fade — but by being a light onto others.

I’ve inherited so much from my father. But beyond these values, he has taught me the greatest thing my heart will ever know, more than I can express with mere words — love. More than that, how to love.

This I will keep within the depths of my heart, to store for always.

To: Moments

I am, unfortunately, unable to deal with uncertainty.

I prefer life to be neat and compartmentalized. This way, when it comes apart, as it so often does, it can easily be pieced back together.

But sometimes, life throws you a curve ball, just for the heck of it. I find myself inept among the pieces; all my preferences now meaningless.

It was time to build anew. 2017 would be the year of transformation, I promised. I’d seen my friends — who’d been through worse — do the same. They said the journey ahead will be rough, and fraught with doubt and insecurity, but you underestimate the depth of those feelings, until you find yourself in the fray.

In this process, I find I have more questions than I do answers. What do I stand for? What do I love? Is living for one’s self at all possible? What if the choices we make today aren’t enough 10 years down the road? 

I find life is more haphazard than it is tidy. A rug, suddenly removed and shaken after 10 years. A billion dust particles fill the space, barely moving, slowly drifting in a downward settle. It is in that suspended state that I find myself seeking.

And it is infuriating.

“Transformation requires discipline,” she says to me, over our third glass of wine, and after I’ve asked her the umpteenth question that night. What she is asking me to do, really, is to be kinder to myself. “Are you not tired?” she asks, sounding very tired for me. She’s right, I am exhausted.

But perhaps that’s it — if I am to be kind to myself, I need to discipline the mind.

If 2017 is going to truly be a journey of self-discovery:

I need to make an ally of uncertainty. Knowing, that the chips will fall where they will, despite my intentions and preferences.

I have to be at peace in the midst of chaos and all the pieces. Trusting, that they will fall into a new shape that I will come to love and accept.

I need to surrender to moments as they occur, and seek reminders that there are no deadlines and expectations in the journey.

So here’s to a year of savoring the moments, instead of mourning how they’ve occurred or even their passing.

Dating in this age: Have we forgotten how to get to know another?

“I just don’t know what I did,” he says to me, over multiple glasses of red wine. The girl he had been “seeing” — whatever that means, he says — mysteriously lost interest.

“Where have the good men gone? I’m not getting any younger.” Another asks, as she hangs her head in her hands, in part despair, part frustration.

“She was interesting. I guess she thought I wanted something more, because she blew me off from the get-go,” she says, as she smiles ruefully at me.

My millennial comrades, blindly stumbling around today’s barren and foggy landscape of blind dates, dating applications and websites, hook-ups and set-ups, in an effort to find a life partner.

Swipe right, chat, dress up, meet, greet, repeat.

We are so purposeful in our interactions, as we manoeuvre through dating in this age. And because of it;

Self-doubt, which taints us long after everyone has gone. If nothing lasting comes out of an interaction, it must be because there is something wrong with us. We did something; we said something; we didn’t do something; we didn’t say something. Round and round we go, fretting in a cyclone of despair.

Swipe right, chat, dress up, meet, greet, repeat. 

Deadlines, which we didn’t even set for ourselves. Married by a certain age, children by another. Top of the career ladder by a certain age, retired by another. And if it is not done by society’s book: what will become of us, for the rest of our life, and in our old age? There is so much fear of deviating from the norm, that we neglect to live on our own terms.

Swipe right, chat, dress up, meet, greet, repeat. 

Expectations, which crush two, but mostly you. Two weeks of texting — surely, we have a great connection. A great first date — surely, he / she will follow up with a phone call. Five months of casual dating — surely, something permanent must come of this, or it will all be for naught. A year of exclusive dating — surely, marriage!

Sexualised everything. Dating applications and website have made it all too convenient and easy. Those who seek real connection find it increasingly difficult to meet a like-minded individual. There’s a rift in the dating world: hook-up or forever, with nothing in between.

Swipe right, chat, dress up, meet, greet, repeat. 

It is not supposed to be this way.

Perhaps a better outcome can be expected, if only we switched our focus to forming genuine connections with others, regardless of the variation of the relationship we find ourselves in.

When we do not value every interaction, we lose so much more, with others, but more importantly, within ourselves.

Kismet, a friend called it. Serendipity, another whispered. We are all on our own journey in this never-ending expanse of space. We seek out company; for light, for warmth, for comfort. Sometimes we cross paths with another; both are in the perfect time and season. And suddenly, a new world forms. Some slide out of our grasp, despite our efforts, to continue their own journey in another direction. Yet others stay with us, at a slight distance, but still sharing some of their light, warmth and comfort.

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Lover, friend, best bud, acquaintance, soul mate, future life partner — who knows? But one thing is definite: we will never find out, if our every interaction is purposeful.

The incredible wholeness of being

“How do you want to feel with your future partner?” a friend asked me last night. The premise was: from this, I would know what to look for.

It was a very simple question, yet one that took me by surprise. Even more surprising — I had absolutely no idea. I hadn’t thought about it.

Sure, I had a list of traits I wanted. That’s the easy part: funny, smart, generous and kind. But her question involved emotions, and these were slightly murkier. I did not even know if I had a good answer (beyond the superficial “happy” or “trusted” bullshit). But we all have to start somewhere. So, I decided to start by examining what I had looked for in past relationships, and why. Then I asked myself: why was this never enough?

Security. That was the first thing that popped into my mind, after a minute of silence. Upon further reflection, I realised that would be the adjective I chose first, because I grew up in an emotionally tumultuous household. My mother was verbally and emotionally abusive towards me all through to young adulthood. My parents were consistently fighting. Of course, my father tried to compensate for all of it, but over time, nothing he could have done would have halted, or erased the damage. Raised voices, slamming doors, guttural cries, threats of divorce, greater threats of death and suicide — these were background tracks that played as my life ran on in technicolor. Worse, I was the only child. I had no one to turn to save for inanimate stuffed objects and the family pets. There is something preferable to being trapped in an oppressive and unhappy family — having absolutely no family at all.

Loved, unconditionally, was another. And of course, this is because I was never loved unconditionally. I was loved when I obeyed; did her bidding. I was loved when I was polite. I was loved when I sided her, over my father. And I was told to obey because she was the source of my lunch money. I was told to obey because I lived in her house; under her roof. I was told to obey because Christian children are supposed to “honor thy father and mother” (of course, she never learnt the continuation of that verse; Ephesians 6:4). If I did not obey, I would lose all these privileges and face the wrath of God. I married young and wrong, in part, to escape her and that unhappy house. Now that I am divorced, older, and arguably wiser, I know God was only used as a tool for her emotional manipulation, and instead of running, I needed to learn to love in defense.

Dependent. This, I am more ashamed to admit, but it must be done. After all, the only way to fight demons of the heart is with bravery, foolish or otherwise. The reason for this is simple: if my partner is dependent on me, then the likelihood I would get hurt, that the person would walk away from me, abandon me, is smaller. My partner would never be able to do to me what my mother had done.

All this; this is who I am. These are all gnarled parts shaped by my past. That’s why I’ve always wanted to feel emotionally secure, loved unconditionally, and like I have the upper hand. And it seems I have sought what I’ve never had throughout my life. That’s typical, isn’t it? We either seek out the familiar, or we seek out the complete opposite.

And the coward in me; she could continue to seek this out in future. But it has never been enough, and it is folly to believe it ever will be. Why?

I suspect it is because I know if I seek for others (and vice versa) from a place of lack, I will always emerge with a lack. I am more than what my past has shaped me to be. There is a part of me who knows she must strive for more, to be better, to do better.

For one, I’d like to be the source of my own emotional security. I want to draw from my own never-ending well of love and forgiveness that exists somewhere inside; in a place that has not be scourged by my past. I want to draw from it, and find the strength to wash my own wounds each time they weep.

I would try to love unconditionally. No matter how many times people fail us throughout our lives, we still have expectations of them. And when they let us down, we find it hard to forgive, and find ourselves trapped in a cycle of resentment and unforgiveness. But there is something greater to be learnt from being let down — acceptance of and compassion for the human condition, in the spirit of unconditional love. With this, forgiveness and the process of moving on (whether together or separately) becomes easier. With my mother, this involves loving her from a distance, in spite of what she has done, and without obligation.

I don’t want to be the center of someone’s world. I don’t want to beat anyone into submission. I want a strong individual, I want a challenge, I want a cause for pause of thought, I want a differing viewpoint. I want all this, because improvement and growth is far more important to me than the pain and suffering that may ensue if it did not work out.

I want to be self-sustainable. I don’t say this from a place of self pride. I say this from a place of self-worth.

There’s so much more I want to be. There’s so much more I want to give.

And now, I realise that my choice of future partner cannot start with how I want to feel with someone else, because that is where it ends. It starts with how I feel about myself and how the other person feels about themself. Both separate, yet whole entities. The rest, I am hoping, will come naturally. (Also because I still do not have a good answer to her question.)

So, at this point, while I continue work on myself, I will say to the future instead: I want someone who feels emotionally secure. I want someone who feels whole alone. I want someone who feels love in spite of human imperfections. I want someone who feels compassion for the human condition. I want someone who feels like I am an equal — someone to learn and grow with. I want someone who feels as I do, and has come to the same conclusions I have.

Someone else said to me recently, “We were not made to be alone.” For the first time in my life, I think he may be right. But first, two people need to cherish being just that: alone.