Relationships, for most of us, are never simple. Perhaps when we were young things seemed straightforward. It was hard to understand why someone would stay with someone they don’t like being around when we were young, but as we grow older we feel the layers of dynamics in our relationships. So much of who we are - our pasts, our thoughts, our dreams, our fears, our own families of origin - holds the experience of our adult relationships the way a bag holds a pile of rice. Our minds shape the way we see our relationships, but that doesn’t change the reality of our relationships.
Whether we’re in an unhealthy relationship, healing from an unhealthy relationship, or simply going out on new dates, our minds will always shape our perception of who we’re with. And that’s not wrong or bad; it simply is what it is. When two minds see each other and love the contents of the others’ mind, it can be beautiful, but sometimes we only see what we want to see. So how do we know the difference?
Dealing with reality as it is is the first step in becoming truly present and mentally healthy, both within relationships and independently. Reality isn’t always pleasant, in fact, it’s often unpleasant. But not shying away from the things that cause us discomfort and not over-indulging in the things that are comfortable is how we become sustainably happy. There’s no need to sugar-coat things that aren’t what we want them to be; the trick is to see things as they are even if we wished they were different. This allows us to not waste our energy clinging to things that aren’t real or aren’t good for us.
Think of each relationship, whether with a person you’ve gone on one date with or someone you’ve been with for 50 years, as a cup. Each interaction with the person is a single drop of water. An interaction that is positive and encouraging is cold water, and one that is disheartening and negative is hot water. Let’s say you go on a first date and it goes really well. That’s awesome! That’s a drop of cold water into the cup. Are you ready to get married? Probably not, because though the first date went really well it’s still only a drop of cold water in a larger cup. You can enjoy and be happy about the cold water in the cup, and keep in perspective that it’s only a drop. It’s exciting, for sure, but the cup is not full enough to determine the entire temperature once it’s full.
Let’s say you go out again, and this time things are a little weird. It’s not bad, but it’s awkward. It doesn’t necessarily have to be hot water into the cup, but it can be lukewarm. With this date, that leaves a drop of lukewarm water and a drop of cold water into the cup. It’s still generally cold, so you go out again. The next few times you go out it gets less and less pleasant, and the water is getting warmer and warmer. After a few weeks, the water is pretty hot. Does the fact that the first date dropped in such cold water change the temperature of the water now? No, it doesn’t. It just is what it is, and you have to decide if you want to give them more chances to put cold water into the cup.
Wanting the water to be cold doesn’t make it so, and pretending the water is colder than it is is only going to cause more disappointment and pain later on. The fact that the first water in the cup was cold doesn’t change the collective temperature of the water since so many warmer drops have been added. Once the cup gets full of warm water, we can convince ourselves that a drop of cold water is more significant than it is in the scheme of the cup. Once we’ve decided that we want to feel something, we’ll often warp our reality to make it seem so.
The same applies for relationships that have lasted for years. Maybe the first few years were strictly cold water, but they were followed by 10 years of mostly hot water. The fact that the beginning of a relationship might have been awesome doesn’t change the quality of the relationship today. It takes time to fill the cup with either temperature of water. But, don’t let the water that first entered the cup warp your perception of the temperature that’s currently in it.
Dealing with things as they are and not as we wish them to be is never easy, whether there’s been abuse in your life or not. Relationships are always a challenge, but clinging to a reality that isn’t true makes the present harder than it has to be. Even when we’re married, or have been with someone for decades, our past experiences with that person combine and create the quality of the relationship as it is today. Seeing your own relationship as it is is what we need to know what to do next. Maybe it’s time to end it, maybe it’s time to go to counseling, maybe it’s time to get married, or maybe it’s time to have a baby. Only you or you and your partner know what to do with the temperature in your cup, but you can’t pretend that hot is cold and have a love that is thriving and fulfilling.