Relationship Rules – Don’t “Should” All Over Yourself

How aware are you of what motivates you? Can you really tell the difference between what you are choosing to do and what you think you should do? Who or what told you how you needed to be in the world and relate to others?

While you may not consider yourself politically correct, perhaps you subscribe to an emotional and sexual correctness, which you may not have signed up for. Yet, you may not know how to navigate different conversations or approaches.

In relationships, there are often many unspoken expectations and rules that almost all of us tend to follow. Are we following these rules because we are choosing to or are we following them because we assume we are supposed to in order to receive love and acceptance – from our partner, family, and culture? Think about how satisfied and fulfilled you feel following the rules you currently follow.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand what is most important to you and what your needs really are without knowing what motivates you. And shoulds cloud this understanding.

Not that shoulds are necessarily bad, shoulds and social norms often exist to help a society function, but I think the better you understand what motivates you on an individual level the more easily you can move towards and embrace what’s genuinely most important to you within your own value system.

With a clear understanding of yourself, the easier it can be to recognize another person who shares the same values as you (i.e. someone who could be a potential partner or connecting more deeply with your current partner). In order to gain this understanding though, you have to be honest with yourself about who you are and be willing to examine the context around makes you feel alive and inspired when you relate to others. Maybe you are someone who really craves touch but have been told the need for physical affection is a weakness, maybe you are someone who is attracted to a certain gender or body type but have been told you shouldn’t be attracted to that, or maybe you are aroused by a certain sexual act and have been made to feel your desires are shameful or inappropriate. Whatever your shoulds are, I encourage you to explore how they influence your mindset and actions.

How culture shapes the way we relate

Throughout history, there have been many variations of “normal” socially acceptable relationships. What is highly valued in one time and place might be less valued in another time and place. A variety of factors play a role here, but a lot of it seems to boil down to supply and demand of men, women, geography, and resources. For example, in situations where there are more men than women and fewer resources, such as migration into new lands (i.e. colonial America) or in cultures that practice sexual selection, the family and traditional sex roles are more stable and valued, and sexual morality – especially for women – is emphasized. In situations where there are more women than men, such as after wars, family and traditional sex roles are less valued and women demand increased rights as they need avenues for economic mobility other than through marriage. When there is an abundance of resources, sexual morality is less emphasized. In the US prior to World World II, there were about 104 men for every 100 women, but since then there have been more women than men. In 1970 for example, if you removed married couples from the count, there were 81 men for every 100 women of reproductive age (source). It’s interesting to think about how this imbalance may have impacted the rise of second wave feminism.

Today, supply and demand has an added layer of complexity: technology. For example, the average child today treats watching TV like a full time job. Add on the time spent on computers and gaming consoles and contrast that time with the 21 hours per week children spend with their parents. Family and technology sometimes provide contrasting narratives yet children are learning lessons about their value, purpose, and how to relate to others from both sources. This in turn influences motivation – what we think we need to be and what we think we need to do in order to receive love and acceptance. Later, these narratives butt heads with swiping dating apps that inflate the potential number of available partners.

How our family upbringing shapes the way we relate

While culture shapes family dynamics somewhat, before we are directly exposed to culture we are often exposed to the day-to-day interactions of our parents, siblings, and other family members. The people we are surrounded by growing up largely determine how we self-regulate. Through our caretakers and early experiences we learn how to process our emotions. We learn what should stress us out and how to remain calm and we learn how to identify a threat and what is benign. We then start to apply these fundamental templates of what is “good” and what is “bad” when we start relating with others outside our families and incorporate the feedback others give us.

How we choose the way we relate
In the last year, both Keeley and I went through big breakups. We went through a lot and learned a lot. We supported each other as we moved between houses and into new jobs. Our approaches to relationships evolved based on what worked and didn’t work largely from our own experiences versus the suggested relationship success formulas that outside sources told us should work. It makes sense when you’re just starting out in love to rely on outside sources to help guide your approach to relationships, but as you grow older you start sizing up your experiences against those sources and start making adjustments.

We are often told we need to leave part of ourselves out of the equation when it comes to finding love and getting our needs met, so I’ll end this post with some food for thought from Iyanla Vanzant, author of In the Meantime, Finding Yourself and the Love You Want:
We believe in the necessity of giving up one thing in order to get something else. We especially believe this about love. We do not understand that the highest expression of love is the experience and realization of more – more of who you are, what you do, what you believe, and what you have. Love has the ability to bring all of you together under one roof, at one time, as one experience. Love is the experience of oneness, a union of the mind and heart. Unfortunately, we believe we can establish this union with others only if we give up something. We attempt to create this union with others before first creating it within ourselves. This is absolutely impossible. You cannot get love from the outside until you are love on the inside… We go into a relationship looking for love, not realizing that we must bring love with us.

Vanzant is talking about love, which also encompasses intimacy and sexual needs. The pleasure of giving and sharing all parts of ourselves with our partner (and them doing the same) offers an expansive feeling of possibility and growth versus a contained feeling that accompanies staying within the parameters of the shoulds. Of course, there are trade-offs if you decide to go down one path versus another, but I think the heart of her message is to explore the depths of yourself and hold space for whatever you find. Think about how someone else might share or welcome what you have discovered about yourself. If you feel like you have been living according to shoulds in place of what you truly fulfills you, have compassion for who you are and give yourself a chance to go deeper. Consider giving someone else the opportunity to do the same with you.

– Nikita

Featured image via WeHeartIt.