Friday, May 28, 2010

The Perfect Relationship

You'll never find your gold on a sandy beach
You'll never drill for oil on a city street

I know you're looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks

But there ain't no Coup de Ville

Hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box

Meatloaf, Two Out of Three Ain't Bad
I have lots of friends who seem to always be on the lookout for the right person. Some of them are primarily alone seeing potential candidates infrequently, some take an approach that is more serial in nature (skipping along from one the person to the next the person), and others maintain sustained relationships with not the person while keeping an eye out for the person.

There are several common themes that I've noticed among people who can never seem to find what they're looking for. First and foremost is not knowing what you're looking for. Second is knowing what you want but not believing that you can have it. Third is not taking action to encounter the desired person. Fourth is getting distracted by the ephemeral concepts of attraction and chemistry

What Do You Want?
I'll often ask someone who is looking for that special someone, "What are you looking for?" or "How would you describe the person who is perfect for you?"

Even people who've been looking for years will answer, "What do you mean?" or "Ummm... I don't really know." or "I can't say, but I'll know him when I see him!"

In trying to discern why it is that someone hasn't achieved his stated goal, these answers provide what we in the trade call a clue, in particular, indicating that the person speaking has none.

Rather than proceeding directly to the most obvious question, "Do you really want to be with someone else?" (a question to which most people will immediately answer 'yes' without thought or consideration), I usually try to facilitate the 'what' questions. You'd be surprised at how challenging the basic what questions can be to the cluelessly loveless. After a series of open-ended, deeply-personal, probing questions yield answers like, "Gee, I just don't know" or "I guess she would be... hmm....", we'll often ratchet down to basic, multiple-choice questions (often limiting the number of choices to two).

For example, I might ask, "Well, is the perfect guy taller than you or shorter than you?" or "Does she prefer hiking or going to movies?" or "Is he strong and independent or could he use a little loving care and nurturing?"

Usually, we'll start getting at least some traction with these types of questions as the amorphous blob of the perfect other begins to take shape. However, there are times when someone will offer an answer that I would call a super clue: "You know, it really doesn't matter to me whether he's thus-and-such or this-and-that. I just want..."

The super-clue is two-fold. First, no matter what you think, no matter how trivial something may seem, it does really matter whether thus-and-such or this-and-that. Relationships don't fail because of big things that occur once in a while; relationships fail because of lots of little things that happen all the time. Thinking that it doesn't matter is the biggest contributor to a high rate of serial relationships.

Second, the "I just want..." part is usually the first response made by the would-be partner that is an open-ended statement of honest desire. So, we seize upon it like the invisible end of cellophane tape on a roll that we've been spinning for hours, carefully plying it away with more questions.

I love these explorations because we always end up with greater clarity: either clarity regarding the perfect other, or, clarity regarding the would-be partner's commitment to not being in a relationship.

Can I Have What I Want?
More often than not, the reason we lack clarity on what we want isn't because we don't have a good idea of what that would be; it's because we have an underlying belief that we couldn't get it anyway. We live so long with a belief in the futility of pursuing our deepest desires that we stop even considering them. We compromise and compromise and compromise until, when asked, "What do you want?", the real answer seems like a distant memory or fragments of a dream.

This phenomenon is not limited to the pursuit of relationships. It happens with careers, the places where we choose to live, the activities we pursue, and so on. Our belief that we can't get what we want invariably leads to wanting what we can get. However, we don't actually want what we can get, we just accept what we can get. We begin to answer, "What do you want?" with "What I'll accept." We sense the incongruity, but we ignore it. Over time we simply don't notice it anymore. Our wants have been completely supplanted by our accepts.

So, believing what you can actually get what you want, is a prerequisite to answering the question, "What do you want?" However, it's a two-pass algorithm; you can't get to the real answers until after you've answered once, looked at your answers, and then asked yourself, "Hmmm... is that really what I want?"

I can remember talking with my daughter Eila just before her senior year in high school. She had just explained to me how her schedule was full of advanced placement courses for college. I said, "Eila, you're doing great! Is that what you really want to do?"

Without hesitation, Eila responded, "Oh, no, dad. I'd much rather do art and music. But that's so impractical."

We talked some more and Eila spent her senior year almost exclusively taking art and music classes.

In the end, even when people say, "Wow, I guess I don't really want to be in a relationship!", it's almost invariably as result of not wanting what they believe the can have in a relationship.

What Are You Willing to Do?
Once you've gotten clear on what you want and believe that you can get what you want, you gotta do something about it. The single most important and most often avoided action involves placing yourself in situations where you have at least a chance of encountering the person you're looking for.

If you work exclusively with people who are married and you're not interested in providing opportunities for extra-marital activity, then you're not likely to find her at work. If you want to spend late evenings debating the merits of various existential philosophies, the local pickup bar may not be the place for you. If you want to go climb Kilimanjaro, then the weekly coffee clutch probably won't cut it. Sure, there are exceptions. However, you can stack the odds in your favor simply by actively being in the right place at the right time.

One day as we were driving from New Jersey to the Berkshires, out of the blue Iris said, "Oh, I know what it is: no gray hairs".

I said, "Huh? What do you mean, no gray hairs?"

Iris then proceeded to explain that something had been bothering her since we'd gone to dinner the evening before. Something was askew, but she hadn't been able to put her finger on it. She'd just come to the realization that although the average age of the restaurant's patrons had approached 50, there had been not a gray hair in the bunch. This contrasted sharply with Iris' primary experience of the US, Cambridge, MA, where hair coloring and even makeup were the exception.

The thing is this. If you're looking for someone who is particularly concerned about how he looks and how you look, then you probably want to move to the Jersey shore. If you don't want to be bothered with that stuff, then you'd likely fare better in Cambridge. Sure, there are always exceptions. But, why not stack the odds in your favor.

Attraction Distraction
One of the common reasons we don't find what we really want in a relationship is that we get distracted by attraction. It's not that attraction doesn't matter; it's just that, when evaluating prospective partners, we tend to place too great a weighting factor on attraction.

There are several challenges with this. First, the person that we first meet (at the office, taking a course, dancing, skiing) is often not the person she is daily at home. She's on her best behavior. She's likely actively being attractive. It's not false advertising per se... well, maybe it is; but it's socially accepted (expected) false advertising.

Second, attraction is more about you than it is about the other person.

When I played music in clubs, I used to hear a phrase, "Two at ten, ten at two." It meant that, at 10:00 PM you might see two people in a bar that you find attractive; by 2:00 AM, you'll see ten people who you find attractive, even if no one has entered or left the bar. Attraction has a lot to do with how you feel and what you're looking for at the time.

Third, attraction is contextual. The person who you find appealing in the boardroom may be less so on a mountain-biking trip. The person you find attractive at the gym may be less so at the premier of a foreign movie. The person who looks great from across the room might only look great until he walks up and opens his mouth.

Attraction, chemistry, etc. are all great. However, they're just part of the mix and they're not foundational.

Believe, Know, Pursue
I believe that we can each have an amazing relationship if we:
a) decide that we can indeed have (are worthy of) the relationship we want,
b) stop talking about what we'll accept and get really clear on what we want
c) take steps to encounter the person we're looking for and then pursue the relationship

By the way, all the above apply to pretty much anything we desire.

Happy Friday!

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