Have you ever had a shopping experience that ends with you unloading groceries in your kitchen feeling annoyed? You went to the store with every intention to purchase the needed items on your list, but you ended up with only some of those items. You also bought things you didn’t need—things you got because you were hungry or they were on sale or you really didn’t know what you wanted.
The quest for love often feels like this kind of shopping experience. We once chose our intimate partner enthusiastically, but then some of his or her traits become “items” we wish we could return. We might wonder how we failed to find someone with the traits we value most.
Similarly, in the beginning of a relationship, we project what we want the other person to see about us. We often hide our deeper needs and desires, even from ourselves, until the relationship is more established. New relationships are often fueled by attraction, chemistry, and the desire to find common ground. We aren’t always sure what we absolutely need, what can be negotiated, and what we have to offer a love interest over the long term.
In spite of those unexplored areas, we begin the relationship with the hope that we have finally found what we were looking for. Things seem fine, sometimes for weeks and sometimes for years or even decades. But then many of us have a moment when we look at the other person and wonder, “Who are you?” We find our needs and some of our wants unmet, and we aren’t sure how we got here. What part of us was truly driving this choice?
Looking back at my intimate relationships, I see that I repeated a pattern of not knowing what I was looking for and then being surprised that the other person wasn’t what I needed. I searched for love in ways that were a setup for that moment of realizing I had invested in something different than what I desired.
Intellectually, I wanted a multifaceted experience of love, including romance, commitment, trust, honesty, faithfulness, and mutual growth; there would be differences but also a dual commitment to working them out. In my relationships, I experienced something quite different. I discovered that at my core I felt unworthy of a healthy, loving relationship and believed I deserved only crumbs of love and kindness. I selected people who could not give me what I craved, which was unconditional love and affection, but I didn’t know this until fairly recently.
I learned that it’s a mistake to cajole a person to want me who wants different things—or to tell myself I could become what the other person needs. In a sense, I was like a pushy salesperson convincing the other person into an unwanted purchase. These hard-won relationships initially felt like a victory, but over time I recognized the deep failure the “hard sell” had created. I had talked fast and smooth without deeply listening, and in the moments when I had listened, I’d discounted things my intimate partner had shared about what he really wanted. In reality, I had been rejected before I even opened my mouth because the real me, the one under the early-relationship façade, was too different from what the other person was looking for.
If you have found yourself wondering how you have ended up in this unsatisfying place, think about what has been driving your relationships. What underlying aspects have motivated your choices? Why might you be drawn to people who are not the best fit? What criteria did you have in a mate, if any? Did you discern whether the other person had the capacity to provide what you needed (and some of what you wanted)?
While it’s often uncomfortable to look at the parts of yourself you’ve wanted to suppress, it can be a relief to see them. It’s also interesting, like discovering nuggets of wisdom in the unread books on your shelves. When you have a fuller understanding of yourself, you make better choices. As Maya Angelou says, “When you know better, you do better.”
You can take steps to improve your current love relationship, and your significant other may join you in this journey. Conversely, some people can’t or won’t. Some live trapped inside a reality they refuse to (or simply cannot) escape. This is especially true of addicts, who live in denial until they hit rock bottom.
In difficult relationships you cannot fix, you may need to love yourself and create an exit strategy. You can let the person go, which can cause difficult feelings, including disappointment, anger, and grief. If you walk away, over time you can look for the lessons and gifts from the experience, such as greater clarity.
Regardless of your relationship status, you can observe and be curious about your thoughts and behaviors, and your changing needs and desires. As you know and accept yourself better, you can be more compassionate and accepting of others, including a love partner. Negotiating needs and desires becomes easier when you understand what they are.
Most of us continue to evolve throughout our lives. This evolution can include knowing who you are, what you need from others, and how you express your love. After all, when you show up at a store with a well-thought-out list and you stick to that list, you’re less likely to come home and wonder, What is all this stuff? And what am I going to eat for dinner this week? Greater clarity and wisdom can drive your choices now in your love relationships. You might find the following suggestions helpful as well:
- Look at your love partner and ex-partners as teachers of things you need to learn about yourself. What lessons have you learned? If you enjoy putting your thoughts to paper, write these down in a notebook. Integrate them into your stories about who you are and how you have lived.
- If a pattern has shown up in your relationships, keep in mind that the pattern lives inside of you and can best be addressed there. Pull back the layers and search for the part of you that may be in charge of your choices.
- Create time for quiet reflection. Insights often emerge inside a quieter mind.
- Consider seeking out qualified professionals, spiritual counselors, life coaches, workshops or training experiences, and literature to support your self-discovery.