Choosing, not settling

Life is complicated. Few things, indeed, are perfect. Certainly no relationships meet that standard. So what does it mean to accept imperfections, or even differences, in another person? And does acceptance mean that you settle?

We’re initially drawn to others for the positives: the things we have in common, the personality traits or the physical characteristics that we admire in someone. Humor. Kindness. Creativity. Attractiveness. Love of adventure. Intelligence. Emotional maturity. Energy. Ambition. In the beginning, it’s all good. There is excitement in each connection, in every conversation. There’s so much to be explored, to be revealed.

In the beginning of a relationship, there’s big talk. Life, death, history. It seems like you could talk forever.

But eventually, the everyday crowds in, and the business of life takes over. After 29 years of marriage, we don’t tell each other our history. We don’t have to; we’ve lived it together. And we long ago shared our opinions and beliefs of many of the big life questions. We’ve had some evolution over time. But still, for the most part, we know who we are as individuals, and who the other person is.

We have some differences in our views. Differences in what we deem important. We have this conversation: have we just settled? Are we in a rut of relationship? We shouldn’t be clones. My life coach says, “If two are the same, one is unnecessary.” Meaning, unless you’re into having a spare of everything, you don’t need two people who are exactly the same. The differences add the spice, the variety, make the relationship unique among relationships.

I believe that in the end, we choose the significant others in our lives as much for their faults as for their good traits. Yes, at first, we’re drawn to someone by what we have in common and by their positive qualities. But after we see the negatives peek through, there’s a different process that occurs. Whether we recognize it or not, whether it is done subconsciously or not, there is a second process of selection, and this one is based on the negatives. We begin to determine what we can live with. As in, yes, there are things about Rob that annoy me, that irritate me. There are ways we are different. And I know, because over the years, he’s given me a hint or two about this, that there are things about me that frustrate him. I am not perfect for him. He is not perfect for me.

But I have chosen, not settled. Long ago, I saw the heart of this person that drew me. We were babies then, not even out of college. I don’t know how we beat the odds to survive this long. Somehow we did. It hasn’t been easy. We’re not perfect together. But we have created a dance between the two of us. It’s a unique dance, one that only we two know the steps to. I know when he’s having a bad day and needs quiet. I see him when he’s singing to oldies with the music cranked up so I worry the neighbors will complain. He knows when I am in sync, at peace. He sees me when I’m troubled and unhappy. He bears with me.

He’s turning 50 in a few weeks. We talk about a birthday plan. Should we go somewhere? Just the two of us? What does he want? I tell him I don’t care. It’s his special day. But I will choose to be with him, wherever he is. I chose long ago, and I’m still choosing.

It’s good now and then to revisit this in my mind. To know that I choose. To know I am not settling for what’s in front of me, just because the relationship exists.

As you think about your life, your commitments, I wish you the same peace, the same assurance. I wish for you the the certainty that comes from choosing for yourself, with full knowledge of the good, the bad, and the unique. And remember, if two are the same, one is unnecessary.

“How can I love you better?”

A few weeks ago I came across a simple but intriguing question: “How can I love you better?” Catherine Newman, writing in the October 2010 issue of the magazine Whole Living, describes her experiment with asking that question of her family and the surprising results. She anticipated that their responses would require some difficult sacrifice or change on her part, but found that the reality was much simpler. The requests weren’t big ones after all, and yet simply asking the question had a profound impact on her spouse, her children, and the author.

Isn’t it an unspoken expectation in relationships that you are always trying to love others better? Does asking the question remind those in the family, the marriage, the friendship of that goal? Do relationships deteriorate because people quit trying? Who can consciously try to love the others in their lives better every day?

Maybe that’s where the simple act of asking the question comes into play. None of us is perfect. None of us can love the others in our lives more each day, every day. We have more capacity to love, to give of ourselves, to be unselfish, some days. Less ability other days. But when we ask the question, “How can I love you better?” we remind the people in our lives that we are paying attention, we care, we are noticing our behavior. We are trying. The times we are successful at loving better carries us through the moments when we fail. And isn’t that what relationships are about anyway? We try, sometimes we fail, we forgive each other, we try again. Loving better is a never-ending quest, a reach for perfection that none of us can ever fulfill. But we can ask the question, we can consciously try.

I asked my own children, grown now and living on their on, how I can love them better. My son tells me if I understand more of his interests, I can be a better friend to him. Fair enough, I can do that. My daughter’s first response, which she self-edits even as she speaks it, is that we live closer to her. But at the moment that’s not feasible. So I am waiting for her answer still. But she knows I want to love her better. My husband knows. I like the self-challenge to be more engaged, to be consciously and actively looking for ways to demonstrate what is truly and deeply in my heart: that I want to love them all better, more deeply, with intention and ferocity.