Can an Experiment Lead to Lasting Love?
I’ve always been one to try new things.
I tend toward the more obscure menu items, explore new neighborhoods on my days off, and look for alternative ways of doing repetitive tasks. There’s something about novelty that brings me into the present moment, that makes me feel alive.
Even in love, I’ve tried all kinds — a drummer who worked for the highway department, a Doctor’s son who became a cop, a Middle Eastern importer, a long-haired bike shop owner. There was the Basque soccer-player-wine-aficionado, the New Englander with VIP hosts at casinos nationwide.
The love was real, but my approach was haphazard and it never lasted. They were generally good guys, but I always ended up feeling like I wasn’t getting what I needed. What were we doing wrong?
I wouldn’t say I had too low of standards (although starting a relationship with someone living in a halfway house probably wasn’t the best call). I always had an eye out for someone passionate, funny, good-hearted, strong, healthy and smart. But I never got the courage to ask hard questions up front. I wanted companionship and romance, but I didn’t really consider the qualities that could make a relationship grow stronger over time. I certainly didn’t embody them.
Instead, it was a courting that would be unsustainable for the long term. The early days were boozy dates and hormones and hurried to a sense of ‘we’re a thing’, without nearly enough inquiry into who this person would become (or revealing who I would become) when the novelty faded. I may have fantasized about forever but it became clear in time that forever wasn’t good for anyone involved.
After my engagement ended last year, I started to wonder if there was more I could be doing to figure out if we were compatible earlier, for everyone’s benefit. What if I didn’t have to rely on luck? I started to look at relationships as an experiment with different variables, approaching them with the rigor of a scientist. I want to see how we function under all kinds of conditions. I want to test our ability to communicate our needs and plans. I want to observe our time in nature and navigating cities; interacting with our friends; shopping for groceries, disagreeing on Brussels sprouts recipes or how to clean a kitchen. I want to see how he is when I have a bad day or a really, really good one.
These situations help us to reveal ourselves, and from there we can assess whether to make a commitment. I’ve finally learned in my bones that relationships founded on novelty alone burn out in a blaze. Sometimes that’s okay, there’s a certain pleasure in a short-lived fling, if only the free schedule after the fact. But breakups are traumatic, even when they’re for the best. If I’m looking for something more tenable over time, well then, I have some questions:
- Can we trust each other? Do we tell each other the truth even if it’s unpleasant or awkward?
- Do we have each others’ best interests in mind?
- Is health a priority? Alcohol and drug use moderate or, even better, absent altogether?
- What’s the financial scenario? Do we have compatible financial and professional goals?
- Is there a shared passion for something we can enjoy together?
It’s so different getting to know someone with meaningful questions as a filter for my decisions instead of relying on hormones, impulses, or dumb luck. I’m able to lead with the version of myself who knows her priorities, communicates them well, and ensures they are being considered instead of the version who just wants to be adventurous or desired.
It’s not as much of a romantic whirlwind asking these questions at the onset, assessing the likelihood of my future needs being met. But imagine 5, 10 years into a relationship and our core values are aligned! We have built enduring trust with a person who enhances our well-being, we have the resources and communication skills to design our own fantastic adventure. The relationship is built on a foundation that nourishes rather than depletes.
I have been working on mending my unsuccessful relationship patterns for many years — through trial and error, observing what works for friends and family, therapy, books, art and writing, but getting sober last November changed everything. I got an extended period of profound clarity to observe my own behavior, and was finally able to see where I was setting my relationships up for failure. I was shocked at how much I used to wear a mask with everyone around me, how preservational my behavior was. I discovered over time that I have a lot of power in shaping my own reality, including my intimate relationships. We all do.
It’s really up to us to be curious, to be consistent, to look out for ourselves generously. Those are muscles I’m strengthening, imperfectly but purposefully, with each interaction. Because at the end of the day, I have to live with myself whether this relationship works out or not. Asking good questions and advocating for my values helps me make more informed decisions. If it doesn’t work this time around, it wasn’t for lack of inquiry.
After my last breakup, I was exhausted and skeptical, afraid I’d never find true love, attached as I was to a seemingly impossible set of standards. But what I’m starting to learn is that if I focus on creating the best environment for myself to thrive, people who love me will meet me where I am. The new relationships will start off differently. The existing ones will become stronger or fade away. I won’t be operating on false data, but a reproducible framework that allows us to thrive. And someday when I’m old, my memories won’t be of ruins, they’ll be of gardens — living, breathing and brilliant.