As long as I can remember, I have had a very special room. I kept all my Most Special Things in that room, my very favourite things in the world. Anything that I cared deeply about, or even dreamed about, I put in that room. It was my happy place.
It wasn't so much a real room, as an idea of a room - a perfect place that I imagined, where everything I wanted could be found, and my life would be perfect.
Everyone I knew - friends, family, classmates - had that same room, or their own version of it. Some of them called the room "Fortune." Others called it "Happiness." Maybe one in 100 named theirs "Mission."
At a very early age, I gave my room a name.
I'm certain my friends have their own stories, and their own life lessons to tell about their pursuit of happiness. But, as this is my story, we're going to talk about my room.
As soon as I'd named my room, I began looking for the perfect partner to join me in that room. One special person, who would join forces with me, and together we would build this "perfect life" that my room promised to deliver.
I wanted this so much, that in retrospect, I'd say it fully qualified as an obsession. As much as a kid can be obsessed with anything, anyway. As one of many life adventures, I even gave a diamond ring [which I found...] to a girl I liked, in the 3rd grade. Hi Jody Ringheisen, if you ever read this.
This idea was a powerful motivating force. The idea of a perfect fantasy Life, no pain, all pleasure, is intoxicating. And it deeply influenced most of my life.
Trouble in paradise
This room represents the ideal of a perfect life, and the belief that a "perfect life" is a real thing that you can create. And that creating it is mostly about "finding it". Finding your Soul Mate. Discovering your True Gift. Winning the Lotto.
Pure happiness forever, right? History tells a different tale.
My ideal room, like many rooms, had a few problems. Mine of course, were very specific to relationships-
My room had walls. You were either completely inside, or completely outside... there was no halfway. My idea of relationships was very all-or-nothing, black-and-white.
My room only had room for two. That meant when I was "in the room", "in a relationship," I disconnected with friends, family... everyone else, and focused my attention solely on this one person.
My room had a one-way door. Once we're in, we're not supposed to leave. Leaving means failure, giving up, being weak. In fact... there wasn't even a doorknob on the inside. Because who would ever want to leave, right? If either of us wanted to leave, pull out the wrecking ball.
And for some reason... it never really worked.
The perfect life never materialized.
The happiness never really came.
Dammit, why didn't it work?
Let's stay with the example of the room called "Relationship."
My whole "locked room" idea of relationships was based on everything I'd been taught by parents, and society, and the labels and rules I saw all around me. This is what "dating" is. This is a "boyfriend & girlfriend". Here's "engagement." Look, new rules! And this is "marriage."
It was all simple and clear. I liked labels and rules, they gave structure to "connection" which is perhaps the most fundamentally in-substantive thing in the Universe.
My rules looked like this-
- We are exclusive physically, we don't even glance sideways at anyone else. And we never let the other person worry about their security in the relationship.
- We are exclusive emotionally. Anything that matters to either of us on an emotional level is shared between us first. I thought of this as "romantic," and caring. But on a deeper more honest reflection, what I wanted was to be the most important person in her life. More than friends or family.
- We are exclusive intellectually. We share our thoughts with each other first, and with friends and family second.
- We spend every moment together that we can. Friends? Not as important. Hobbies? Sure, as long as both of us want to do them. Because investing time in something that only one of the partners is interested in is just... selfish.
- We always care for and look after each other, before anything, or anyone else. If one person has a cold, than the other person should obviously take the day off work just to keep them company.
- Until death do us part. My idea of a successful relationship was one that lasted forever. If it doesn't, one of you just wasn't committed enough.
Do these sound familiar? This is what I call the "Disney relationship," and it's still the dominant way of thinking in most western countries I've been to.
Why rules and expectations don't work
Rules create expectations - namely, living up to those rules. These expectations also "set the bar" unrealistically high for who constitutes a good partner.
After all, if you can only have a deep & meaningful connection with ONE person for the rest of your life, that one person darn well better be everything you've ever wanted.
I had high requirements for my partner... and I found it nearly impossible to find someone who fit my relationship ideals perfectly.
A deeper problem was that these rules and expectations make relationships very intolerant of change and growth - in either person. Change, however is part of being alive. If you are not changing, please check your pulse.
So, naturally, I would change, and she would change, and this would always eventually become a problem, eventually shattering the relationship when "the room" became too confining, and the wrecking ball came out to play.
How have my views since changed?
The room is no more. It's been replaced with "the path."
First I ditched my preconceived rules. Any time I smell a rule, I simply challenge it. Usually, there is something hiding underneath it- maybe a personal insecurity, a need to keep mum & dad happy, or a desire for social acceptance.
No rules means lots of flexibility. Does a connection need to be "intimate" to qualify as a relationship? No. Can you have a romantic relationship with someone, and still spend tonnes of time with friends? Of course. Does becoming intimately connected with someone mean you're planning to get married? Nope. The entire perspective was shifted 180.
With the rules tossed, the expectations went as well. I am free to grow and change. She is free to grow and change. Now an ideal relationship for me is all about being alive, and sharing that with someone special. If one of us isn't changing and growing, or feels restricted or overwhelmed, than the relationship needs to change to fit us rather than us trying to change to fit the rules of the relationship.
The "path" can fit a lot more people too, with no problems at all. We're all journeying together through life, for as long as we want to, and in whatever direction we want to. People can join the party, or leave, any time they like.
With expectations gone, the "bar" is now at a very comfortable height. No pole-vault required. Anyone who shares any of my values, is worthy of building a connection with. How that relationship develops depends on what we discover, our circumstances, and how we feel. It's that simple. And that simplicity has allowed amazing things to happen in my life.
I love my relationships now.
They're dynamic & personal, each one a work of art made by 2 people.
I'm still on the watch for that woman who clicks in that perfect, magical way that creates that feeling of awe and transcendence. And when I meet her, there will probably be a part of me that says "hey, it would be nice if this lasts forever."
But I expect that woman and that relationship will look much differently than I imagined. It will be based on real moments of NOW, rather than fantasies about what might be. It will be driven by connection, desire, and circumstance, and not by rules & expectations.
It will be a living, breathing relationship.
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Looking at exactly how my childhood ideals of a relationship were formed, I can see a few sources;
- Parents, who mean their best, and share their own ideals
- Culture - Disney movies and sitcoms galore
- Language - English has very specific labels for different kinds of relationships. Friends, Dating, Boyfriend & Girlfriend, Engaged, Married.
- Religion - particularly the accepted standards of modern Christian culture (which I see as completely separate from actual Christian philosophy).
I'm big on looking at the questions my mind asks, and I notice that where relationships are concerned, my questions have changed as well.
When I believed in "the room," I asked;
- How can I find someone who meets all of my expectations and dreams in life?
- If I find her, how do I get her to love me?
- Hey look, I'm in a committed relationship, why am I not happy?
Since bunker-bombing the room, my questions are different;
- Hey this is an interesting person... what kind of relationship should I build with them?
- Wow, we have such a great connection on this. Where else might we have a great connection?
- Am I living this relationship to the fullest? Is there anything I'm holding back on, out of some kind of fear?