I recently read a letter that John Steinbeck wrote to his son, Thom. He was giving Thom some advice about love and relationships. If you’re interested in reading the entire letter, you can follow this link. What really caught my eye were the last few sentences: “And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
That, my friends, is some very sage advice. Sadly, wisdom like this seems to be all but lost in today’s society. Having been happily married for over two years now, I feel like I know at least a few things about relationships (though I’m sure I’ll continue to learn a lot more in the years to come). Thus, I’m always amazed at our society’s views about love and relationships. Whether it’s in romantic comedies, sappy pop songs, or relationship blogs, there are a myriad of misconceptions about love in American culture. Now, we can debate whether life imitates art or art imitates life, but I think we would all agree that something has gone terribly awry when 40-50% of all marriages end in divorce (and that’s not counting all of the other failed romantic relationships).
So what are these misconceptions? We’d probably be here till doomsday if we recounted them all, but here are some of the most damaging misconceptions I’ve observed in American views on relationships, and they all relate to Steinbeck’s golden words of wisdom.
“I need to be in a relationship to be happy.”
Some people seem to think that they must have a significant other in their life for their life to be significant. They bounce from one relationship to another because they can’t stand being alone. If they’re not dating, they’re miserable. Chances are they’re not very happy when they are dating, though. If you define your life by someone else—be it a parent, a friend, or a lover—you will probably not find true satisfaction and fulfillment in life. You’ll constantly be striving to meet someone else’s expectations. A related misconception is when people seek a relationship as the solution to their unhappiness. If you’re waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right to solve all of your life’s problems, you’re going to be waiting awhile. No matter how good a person is, all humans are flawed. We all come with our own set of problems, our own baggage. Hoping that a relationship will solve your problems is like pouring bleach on a stained pair of jeans. You might get rid of one problem, but now you have another.
“Being in love makes me crazy stupid.”
The other day I read an interview with Taylor Swift where she commented on her numerous and oft-reported relationship woes (some of you may have seen my earlier post about this). She said, “I think I am smart unless I am really, really in love, and then I am ridiculously stupid.” There’s this notion that love makes you go absolutely nuts, that you completely lose your senses and do crazy things. There is a half-truth here. Love does make you do things you wouldn’t normally do (at least I hope so; it would be really awkward if you wrote love poems for everyone you ever met). But I challenge the notion that love makes you stupid. I can confidently say I am really, really in love. I haven’t lost my senses, however. I can still think critically, which is an important skill considering I’m one half of the most important human relationship I’ll ever have. It isn’t love which makes us stupid in relationships. That would be infatuation, lust, or obsession. When some people say they are “in love,” what they really mean is they are infatuated. They are completely head-over-heels for someone; they’ve let their emotions run rampant. When that happens, people do tend to lose their senses. We do stupid things when we make decisions on a purely emotional level. How many times have you heard this line in movies: “Follow your heart, not your head?” That means, “Feel, don’t think,” and it’s a recipe for disaster. Lust can also make you do foolish things. It puts your hormonal urges in the driver’s seat where your better judgment belongs. We’ve all heard jokes about men who think with what’s between their legs instead of what’s between their ears. Women suffer from this problem as well. It’s a bad idea for either gender to submit our power of reason to our libido. And obsession will likewise rob us of common sense. Some people don’t even have to be obsessed with a particular person; they can simply be obsessed with the idea of being in love, and it makes them do insane things. They compromise where they normally wouldn’t. They gamble their entire future on even the smallest chance that a relationship will last. They completely lose themselves in their obsessive quest for “love.” None of these things are really love, however. Infatuation, lust, and obsession are poor substitutes for true love. And true love does not make you stupid.
“If I don’t pursue this relationship, I’ll always wonder, ‘what if?’”
Some people will pursue what appears to be a dead-end relationship, justifying their self-destructive course by saying that if they don’t take this chance, they’ll always wonder: what if he/she was actually The One? First of all, I have a problem with that concept of The One, but I’ll leave that for another blog. The biggest concern here, though, is how some people will sacrifice so much for even the slightest chance that this relationship will be successful. I worry about these people. Do they have to satisfy some sort of morbid curiosity by staying with this sinking ship of a relationship? Or are they hopeless optimists who hold desperately onto the infinitesimal chance that they’ll find true love and happiness in this relationship? Or are they just so terrified of being alone that they can’t let go of a relationship no matter how terrible it is? Maybe it’s a combination of these. Maybe it’s none of them. What I do know is that it’s an unhealthy way to go about finding true love. There is a time to assess a relationship and choose to walk away from it. Sometimes that moment comes even before you’ve entered the relationship. Don’t pursue a relationship just because you wonder, “What if?” The sad reality is that there are plenty of people who did just that, and when it was all said and done, they looked back and asked themselves the same question: “What if? Where would I be if hadn’t pursued this relationship?”
“I know that he/she has problems, but I can change him/her.”
Some people go into a relationship realizing there are red flags. They ignore the warning signs, however, and tell themselves they can “change” the other person so that they’re more suitable. First of all, this is rather misguided. What happens if you can’t change your significant other? Are you willing to live with the problems they have, the ones you thought you could change but couldn’t? Second, this mindset is selfish. It basically says, “You should change who you are to meet my standards, and I will try my darndest to change you into what I think you ought to be.” Take a step back and think about this: what if the other person wants to change you as badly as you want to change them? Are you willing to change yourself to the same degree you want them to change? If the focus is on changing the other person so that you can be satisfied, that’s a selfish motivation, and it’s a relationship killer. In a future blog I’ll talk about selfishness in relationships.
So what does all of this have to do with Steinbeck and his advice about love? All of these relationship problems would benefit from his wisdom: Don’t hurry love. First, don’t rush into a relationship because you think it’s a requirement for happiness (or a cure for unhappiness). Instead, learn to live with yourself first. Find out who you really are and get comfortable with that person. If you’re not comfortable with you, why should anyone else be? Second, don’t fall for the myth that love makes you stupid. If you find yourself making bad decisions because of a relationship, consider that perhaps you’re getting in too deep too fast, or maybe the person you’re pursuing really isn’t very good for you. Granted, you can be in a truly loving relationship and still fall victim to infatuation, lust, or obsession, but you can resist those things by remembering that love does not rob you of your senses. You can find true love and still use your head. Slow down; in a healthy relationship, you have time to think. Third, don’t pursue a relationship only because you have to know if he or she is The One. That’s like gambling. There’s a small chance you might win, but there’s a much greater chance you will lose. Finding true love isn’t about gambling and getting lucky (more about that another time). Don’t rush in because you need to know the answer to “what if.” Wait. If that relationship is worth having, it will still be there after you’ve taken the time to think things through. Finally, don’t get into a relationship with someone thinking you’ll change them so they’re suitable. If that person already has problems that are deal breakers for you, perhaps you should stay away. Wait and see if that person can solve their problems before you begin a relationship with them. Being in a relationship is not a magic bullet for changing people and solving their problems.
I believe that God wants us to find happiness in a fulfilling relationship. We can trust Him to help us find true love. In future blogs I’ll get into some of these issues in more detail. For now, I’ll close with this: John Steinbeck said, “Nothing good gets away.” The Bible says, “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; The Lord gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).