Updated: Oct 31, 2021
Navigating your way through relationships can be tricky, to say the least. Here's one rule that has the power to help you lead with your best foot forward every time.
The Rule: Relationships must make your world bigger.
In the broadest sense we’re talking about two distinct worlds, two entirely different people, coming together. When you choose a partner you’re simultaneously choosing everything that comes with them like their friends, family, culture, and hobbies. You’re adding exponentially more to your life than you’re subtracting.
If you’ve entered a partnership that isn’t expanding your horizons and/or demands you surrender healthy sources of joy for the “well being” of your relationship then it is not the one for you. Adding a relationship to your life doesn’t mean subtracting other people, your hobbies, sources of healthy pleasures, or your identity as an individual.
The driving force behind dating should be a light-hearted, genuine curiosity in the other person. You should want to explore them like characters in a novel, waiting for them to unfold naturally and over time. You want to witness their character develop, and root for them as they trot along the journey of life.
Let us start from the common understanding that we enter into partnerships with an intention to give and an openness to receive. We give and receive in three distinct ways:
Physically: We give our partner an all-access pass to physically experience our world; everything from our bodies, to the people and places that belong to us. We let them dance on the lines which make the story of our lives.
Mentally: Love is a choice, not a feeling. When you love someone you are engaging your conscious mind to practice patience, kindness, love, honor, and honesty. You are committing your mind to the betterment of another, holding their best interest in mind rather than working to get what you want or need from them.
Emotionally/Spiritually: This one is arguably the single most important component when establishing intimacy. Here you give them the lenses to see your most vulnerable self (fears, insecurities, shortcomings, emotional baggage). It’s as if your skin is being peeled off so someone can examine the guts of your existence. It can be painfully uncomfortable, but this transaction is inextricable from the process of building intimacy.
All three work together like the systems of the body. But in light of this topic, let us look solely at the tricky ways in which giving ourselves emotionally and spiritually can lead us to make our world smaller.
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN? Think back to the example of your skin being peeled away. In the real world the skin is what holds the body together. It functions to conceal and protect everything that’s tender inside, including our brain and heart. It is a defense mechanism, a shield, used to keep the vital organs safe. The same is true of your emotional body: you have a layer of “skin” that shelters your vulnerability.
Now, imagine the emotional reaction that ensues when someone gets beneath that layer. Suddenly everything is exposed. There’s no guard in place to protect you from potential threats. Anything that hits you now has a promised hit at precious material.
In this case the invader is your partner. It is someone you love and whose opinion you prize. What if once they get under your skin they find something they don’t like? What if there are parts of you that scare them away? What if they hurt you? The threats our partners present ultimately boil down to rejection and abandonment.
Just as our immune system fires up in the presence of a virus, our emotional body has little trigger happy soldiers on standby anxiously waiting for war. In fact, sometimes you become so nervous that even the subtlest of movements from your partner can be interpreted as a threat. They move their arm, and you think they’re reaching for a gun. This reaction is not a choice, it’s the way the human brain is programmed. Safety and security are tied to a desire to preserve your vitality. If you’re not safe, you’re haunted by the fear of being hurt.
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
So how does this make our world smaller? Consider the following common situations:
You’ve found the love of your life. Someone who meets you mentally, emotionally/spiritually, and physically. The only issue is that she’s best friends with her ex— and their relationship wasn’t just a seasonal fling, it lasted years. She hangs out and chats more with him than any other friend. You’ve met the guy, and she’s open about their relationship but their bond still makes you uncomfortable. The longevity of their relationship quietly eats away at your sense of security. You’ve battled with this for months now, and have decided it’s unacceptable: “It’s me or your ex.”
Another example. . . Your partner is a great guy. He is intelligent, loving, hard working, honest, and has strong values. His best friend, however, is a total womanizer with questionable morals at best. Whenever your guy goes out with this friend, he comes home much later than usual and with a couple of crazy stories. You secretly worry that the best friend’s behavior will rub off on your man. You don’t say anything but get a little sour and distant with your partner whenever he and his best friend hangout.
If either of your reactions are successful, the size of your partner’s world will shrink by one person. Whether you present an ultimatum or withdraw your affections, your behavior is a trigger happy response to the threats each situation could present. Think about it, nothing terrible has actually happened to you. Your partner didn’t fall in love or sleep with their ex. Nor has the best friend influenced your partner to violate any established boundaries. You have yet to take a punch. But at the same time you didn’t insist the friend disappear for no reason. What happened?
You see, the mere existence of the friendship is not the issue. If that were the case everyone would feel uneasy about them hanging out. The threat is found in what the friendship symbolizes to you, and specifically the negative effects it could have on your life. Moreover, you partner did not take a jab at you but they are surely stroking at an insecurity buried in the marrow of your bones. To put it simply, you feeling threatened by this situation is rooted in a fear that lives exclusively in you.
What would happen if you choose to address the fear (feelings of inadequacy, abandonment) instead of eliminating the trigger (the friend)? What if you looked at yourself and questioned: What am I made of? What is my partner touching in me right now that makes me react this way?
The truth of the matter is that when you let fear sit in the driver seat your world also shrinks. You can’t grow, you can’t move if you’re operating within the confines of fear. Any friend of the opposite sex, any irresponsible buddy your partner has, will cause the same emotional response. Eliminating people may make you feel safe, but it doesn’t prevent the issue from resurfacing. It’s important to feel protected, but it’s not okay to cut out anyone or anything that makes you feel uncomfortable without pausing to consider the root issue. If you keep removing people from your life, you and your partner will eventually find yourselves standing alone.
When a situation alarms you stop for a moment and think: is this a “me problem” or a “we problem”? Sometimes our fears are products of the wrongdoings our partner has done; thus, it’s a “we problem” that the two of you need to work through. The fear was birthed in and is exclusive to this relationship. Handle it now. Ask yourself, honestly, if you’re willing to forgive the other person and move forward. Your partner should also assume responsibility for his/her actions and adjust their behavior to help rebuild your sense of security in the relationship.
Other times the fear exists regardless of who your partner is; the person can change but the fear remains intact (ex: all friends of the opposite sex are a threat). This is a “me problem”. No one is immune to doing this. We all carry our experiences of the past with us, especially when it was something that caused us immense pain. We don’t want to re-live our mistakes, so we integrate the lessons we’ve learned into our hardwiring. Nonetheless, it’s key that you reframe the situation in your mind from: They are the issue to I have some inner work to do. This seems tiny, but by doing so you endow yourself with the power to take control of the situation. You shouldn’t adjust your partner’s life to comfort your fears, and quite frankly, another person shouldn’t be able to fight your fears for you.
Your partner does play an important role, though. It is because them that you’ve discovered these unconscious feelings. Any good, healthy relationship will eventually mirror your truest self back at you. Talk openly. Give words to the emotional experience you’re having so they understand. Show your partner the riddles that live inside of you, and let them love you as you figure them out. This is intimacy.
Now, the word “intimacy” has a lot of mushy ideals attached to it. It’s thought of as a sweet closeness you share with another being where there’s lots of kissing, cuddling, and mind reading. These are the rewards we yield, but not accurate depictions of what building intimacy looks like. Spoiler alert: it’s no walk in the park. It’s more like a slow crawl through the flames of hell.
BRINGING IT HOME It begins with you daring to look at what you’re made of. It’s having the self-discipline to call your own character into question before blaming others for your feelings. It’s saying: I refuse to let fear, in any capacity, control my experience of life. I accept that I am responsible for the walls and bridges I build or burn.
When you face yourself with fire, you incinerate the fears that would normally arrest your experience of life. Walls dissolve, chains break, and slowly you find yourself free to chart unfamiliar territory. And so I say again, this time with much more depth, the rule: A relationship - with yourself and with others - must make your world bigger.