It’s ridiculous at how little I once knew about relationships. Aside from one brief and very embarrassing sex monologue by my mother, neither she nor my dad ever talked about the art of relationships or how they make a thirty-year marriage work. They didn’t share tips on how best to argue and why it’s better not to go to bed angry; that beauty is temporary and money won’t solve any of your problems.
Left to television and my own devices I moved into adulthood with a distorted perception of relationships, based mainly on what my buddies and Hollywood had to say. This left an impression somewhere between a thing to be avoided at all costs and something at which – as a guy – I would be forever unsuccessful. With no grasp of reality, I thought that to win at love was less about what I did or didn’t do and more about Providence or dumb luck.
Add to this flawed thinking a painfully low self-confidence about women and I was passive and gullible for most of my single life. Utterly petrified of rejection in every form, if her interest wasn’t obvious to a four year old I preferred my intact dignity to asking her out. My unwillingness to hear ‘no’ bred a willingness to tolerate certain qualities, in those who said ‘yes’, more confident men would have quickly rejected. I would ignore these ‘red flags’ because doing otherwise meant the relationship would be over; and I was never sure if or when there’d be another to take her place.
Thinking any of this might have changed with marriage would be common sense. Someone did pick me for ten years, which should stand for something. But such was not the case. All that changed in the decade intermission between my first and second acts of singlehood was the Internet. I was no less frightened of rejection and loneliness after my divorce and still persisted in the belief that luck was the key to love. Only now I could hide it all behind a snappy tag line and carefully chosen headshot.
Technology certainly sparked my confidence and my social life; rejection comes easier in pixels and online dating is inherently a numbers game. But it also poured gasoline on my anxiety. During what seemed countless dates and a failed long-term relationship, I finally reached a point where I thought I’d never find the ‘right one’. From what I hear, it’s a common ailment. But frustration can be a fantastic motivator, usually leading to unhealthy behaviors but every so often some good comes from it and one of those is introspection. When you ram your head through enough brick walls you eventually look at the blood streaming down your face and start asking why. It was through this soul searching that the unavoidable realization surfaced. The lone commonality within all these relationship and dating failures was me.
Each relationship starred myself in the lead role with different supporting actresses. And while every relationship died for vastly different reasons I was always the one sitting in the front row at the funeral. What was this fascination with habitually choosing the wrong one? Why did I overlook in the moment what seemed so obvious later? Why did I ignore intuition and friends’ sage advice? If I could discover these things about myself it stood to reason the outcome would change.
This decision led me through a long and very painful process that is sometimes called, ‘getting right with oneself’, I called it my Emotional Winter. Just as a Medical Examiner investigates a body for the cause of death, I began examining each of these failed relationships, including a marriage, in search of what led to their demise. A process that involves humility, solitude, and a brutal honesty.
I’m reminded of all this when I hear friends talk of being unable to find the ‘right one’. Somewhere in the conversation I regularly ask, ‘well, are you the right one?’ At which point I either get blank stares or stammering replies. I ask this question because one of the harshest lessons learned from all my self-scrutiny is that we can never find the ‘right one’, until we become the ‘right one’.
Relationships, like anything else, demand preparation if we hope to win at them and that always begins with preparing ourselves. Seeking to understand our motives, strengths and weaknesses, why we want a relationship, what qualities in another are most important, what we are willing to look past in exchange for something more, and what we consider deal killers – the non-negotiables we demand in another. We prepare by digging into our past relationships to understand why we acted how we did, what was our motivation behind dating that person, uncovering why the relationship failed, and then accepting ownership for the parts we played.
Through all this there invariably surfaces common threads, similarities in our behaviors, expectations, and thinking that were shared in each of these different relationships. In my own story, I finally realized that I chose these women not based upon higher ideals or divine qualities, but how they made me look on the back of a chopper, forget everything else. In my marriage I was trying to run away from who I was and where I came from. But it was only in learning the ‘why’ of my past decisions and the ensuing failures that I was finally able to change and grow.
‘Getting right with yourself’ is what it means to become the ‘right person’. And it’s vital if we ever hope to find a relationship that will thrive. But the fact is that many of us spend more time getting ourselves ready for bed than we do getting ourselves ready for a relationship, especially in the wake of a failed one. But if we don’t take the time to do this, and it always takes time, we miss out on our best chances for relationship happiness. Because in our search for the right one we often forget that isn’t a one way street, we too must be the right one as well.