Maverick Life Op-Ed
Relationships: The meaning of connections
Whether we are dating, making friends, meeting someone for business or simply looking for a doctor, we often look for that connection – one that makes us feel safe and on which we hope to build a long-lasting relationship.
In therapy, I often hear the words: “We really have (or had) a connection,” as a good enough reason to foster a lasting relationship. For years, I’ve been reflecting on what a connection is, its many variations and when it can, indeed, be the first block of a strong bond, or instead, a deceitful experience.
When we want to connect with someone, we seek similarities and understandings of each other on many levels: physical, intellectual, sexual, cultural, spiritual and emotional. In a dating process, for example, we often move from physical attraction to some mental connection to finally, dating.
The “connection” can come from genuine mutual interest: when someone shows a real interest in who we are. It can also be influenced by charm; projecting good first impressions is a skill we can acquire. Charm is all about knowing what looks good, how to speak and present ourselves in the best way possible, and how to, ultimately, get what we want. Some people know how to pepper their charm with the language of popular psychology and use tips given by self-help books. But charm can both impress and deceive.
When meeting someone, it seems important not to rush: look at the layers of attraction; look beyond the physical attraction and what seems like a mind connection; try not be blinded by a physical and intellectual connection, as this is often not enough of a basis for building a healthy relationship, but instead, look beyond the first attraction and get to know the person you think you want to be with — in fuller dimensions. The more accurately we see people, the better the decisions we make about who we allow into our life. How a person engages with their emotions will be at the heart of the future experience of a relationship.
The desire to connect can also emerge from a desperate need not to be alone. When we are desperate to connect, we might accept less than we want or deserve. We romanticise the impossible, colour our needs with imagination, ignore the obvious red flags, in the hope to be accepted and loved.
The belief that our dreams and desires for a relationship will never be met, can fuel the thoughts and feelings of a connection. Even if our heart tells us we’re pushing a square into a circle, our mind will override the realities through intellectualising and rationalising the obvious truths. We sometimes fall in love with what we don’t have and what we think we need. Yet, candid needs do not have to lead to desperate decisions. Again, there is no need to rush.
Real connections don’t live in isolation. The questions I ask in therapy are: What is supporting this connection? What gives it a chance to live and feel alive? What gives it the chance of a lasting future?
A few factors can affect the longevity and strength of a relationship:
When you date someone in their twenties and you’re in your, say, forties, age becomes relevant over time. An age gap of more than 15 years can work at a certain point in time, but throughout the years, the gap seems to grow. This is not about being defined by age but about being aware of the reality that two people in two different phases of their lives would want, need and desire different things. If you get involved with someone significantly older or younger than you, you just need to be aware of it and manage the reality of age over time.
Control and manipulation
Skills necessary for success in business might not apply in an intimate space. Someone may know how to manage a team to achieve specific goals and targets (which is great for someone’s career and scoring points at work), but excessive and unhealthy control can become hurtful in intimate relationships. To connect, we need to allow space for vulnerabilities; people don’t often like to be intimately managed. It is important to watch out for signs of control and manipulation that can stand in the way of an authentic connection, like walking on eggshells and being scared to speak your mind, or not being empathetically considered.
Being on different socio-economic levels and having different income streams often have an impact on relationships. Being able to eat at a specific restaurant or afford an overseas holiday together can affect the relationship. These situations often lead to frustration and confusion about whether we have permission to make our own decisions. Like any imbalance, an income differential is not impossible to overcome, but it does need some serious consideration.
What might be fine in the beginning, could become a source of resentment in the future. Even if one of you gives without expecting something in return, most people like to one day receive like they give. Letting go of the controls without creating financial tension, while also sharing the responsibilities of your long list of contributions, can be tricky factors that you’ll need to negotiate if your relationship is to move forward. The most important? Work toward a sense of togetherness and equality in choice and responsibility.
On a first meeting, we do not always speak about the dominant views and values that we believe define a healthy relationship. Because we are often scared of being judged or rejected, we don’t easily share personal and intimate details about our own cultures and beliefs. But parenting, money and gender roles are examples that often come up in personal cultural clashes in a relationship. Opening up about who you are and what you believe in from the beginning can avoid unnecessary later disappointments.
Meeting and connecting with someone who lives in a different city or country is an important future consideration. Distance has its own powerful energy, and is like a third force in any relationship — it will create obstacles. If two people are interested in each other and have a strong connection, they’ll have to accept that distance can create… distance. The more settled we are in our lives, the more difficult it may become to bring our worlds together into the same place when the time comes. No matter how strong a connection, the distance will affect it — sometimes to the point of financial and emotional exhaustion.
Having or wanting to have children is an essential consideration for any new relationship. If you want to create your own family, and your new partner does not, don’t think that you can change their mind over time. Accept the truth of the present, and not the potential of the future, and decide whether you can live with it. If you cannot, it might be better to step away.
Entering into a relationship that has existing children means becoming a parent or caregiver, even if this was not part of your plan. You’ll be sharing roles with all parties involved in the life of a child, and will, most likely, be communicating with ex-partners about child-care arrangements. If you’re not ready to be a parent as well as a partner, be honest as soon as possible.
Constant chaos and drama in the initial stages are usually a small taste of your future relationship experience. Of course, we need to give each other a few chances to move into more peaceful times, but when nothing changes, you should ask some hard questions. The belief that creating a loving environment, or saving this lovely person will eventually give you what you need usually feels draining. Sadly, you get used to chaos as your norm. Unlike a wild storm, connection thrives in safety, calm and kindness. Lasting relationships are like friends with inner quiet.
Connections are often what make us feel complete – they spark joy, wonder and excitement. However, not all connections are equal: they each require our attention, care and nurturing to grow into mature relationships. ML
Stefan Blom is a clinical psychologist who specialises in relationships. He lives and works in Cape Town and is the author of The Truth About Relationships (translated into Afrikaans and Romanian) published by Human & Rousseau.
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