Relationship goals: when to invest in relationship growth vs separation

Yesterday I spent my day coaching 7 different young adults through completely different stages of their relationship development.  All of them have proven to be tremendously capable in their chosen professional field.  Even in the teetering tech market of Silicon Vally they’ve earned impressive merit based raises, gifted pricy vacations abroad with company funds, landed on prestigious lists like Forbes Top 30 under 30, deemed essential in corporate leadership, and set trends in the startup world of the San Francisco Bay Area.  All of them are navigating the perilous task of determining who to invest in for a long term romantic partnership.  These are people prone to approaching goals with a steely pace and scrupulous plan for a high success rate.  Yet interpersonal relationship development and decision making doesn’t easily succumb to this style of problem solving.  How does one successfully determine when to invest in relationship growth versus separation, especially in the face of elusive feelings like ‘attraction, chemistry and connection’?  How much compatibility is enough?  How much compromise is too much?   This article aims to offer some guiding points to lead you in your decision towards continuing in the relationship or breaking things off with the hopes of finding a better fit.

  • Predetermine what matters most in ANY sort of close, long term relationship.  Do this exercise.  Pretend you’re searching for a new platonic best friend, based on what has proven to be the most essential qualities you’ve enjoyed in other close friendships.  Make a list of top 5 descriptive traits you believe would be most important for the friendship to be awesome.  I asked people with various types of personalities to share this with me, in order to get a sense of what people prioritize when they decide to invest in growing a relationship.  I was actually surprised by what some people said! (I won’t list any here because I think it’s more effective to create your list without external influences.)  Now ask yourself ‘How can I find out if this person has enough of my 5 most valued traits?  What will I look for? How long will it take?  Does this person demonstrate these traits consistently with me as well as other key people in their life, or are they sporadic?’  Are the qualities on my list part of how I’ve identified and maintained ‘chemistry’ with people in the past?  If you find yourself dating someone who doesn’t exhibit these qualities consistently with you, chances are it’s just not going to work.
  • Is there considerable evidence that this person adds measurable value to your life right now?  I ask this because many people decide to invest in relationships based on factors they believe will be valuable at some future point.  Nothing is wrong with considering things like compatible achievement/financial goals, similar hypothetical timelines for marriage, or believing someone would make an amazing parent.  The problem with this focus is that people lose track of evaluating how much they actually enjoy the relationship in the here and now.  I can’t tell you how many people come into my office stating “my problem is that I tend to date two different kinds of people; one is super hot and we have great physical chemistry but not a lot in common/we can’t stand each other outside the bedroom, and the other one has a lot of what I want in a life partner but I’m just not as attracted to them physically.”  Choices, choices people!  Here’s the bottom line.  If someone doesn’t currently hold your interest enough for you to exclusively focus on them on a day-to-day basis, chances are you’re going to be so focused on an upgrade it’s bound to fail!  It does not matter that their potential is great, or the timing is off, etc.  Move on.  But accept this:
  • THERE IS NO HOLY GRAIL of a partner.  It doesn’t even matter how much of a catch you are (tragically!)  Don’t believe me?  Do this: find an older person who describes their early relationship as having exactly the experience you’ve always wanted- that feeling of butterflies and fireworks going off, sitting and daydreaming about when you get to spend time alone with them again, listening to them talk in awe of how amazing/intelligent/funny/interesting they are, doing stuff with them is so easy and fun, the physical attraction is there, ‘this is THE ONE’ feeling is there, the feeling is mutual, etc. etc.  Even when this whole ‘madly in love’ experience remains unwavering for years between two people, they will STILL tell you that eventually the honeymoon phase does end (You’ve heard this before.  Still, you long to be impervious to this truth, so you avoid it by chasing new honeymoons with different people).  So this is when the hard work of committed relationship compromise begins, in order for you to enjoy the reality of a long-term relationship beyond the honeymoon phase.

Now if you’ve managed to make a connection with someone to even consider any of the above questions, you’re off to a decent start.  These days in the dating world it’s a challenge to even get beyond the right swipe of a dating app, let alone past the cutting room floor of a first date/hang out session.  Think about how you want to address the idea of investing in this next period of relationship evaluation.

  • Clarify the deal of commitment.  Even though these conversations are awkward, if avoid it you’ll have no idea if investing more of your time makes sense.  First figure out what you want.  Would you prefer if the two of you are only dating each other in this next phase?  Or dating other people but sexually exclusive?  Do you know if marriage is something they want for themselves, and if so, how soon do they imagine being ready for marriage?
  • Spend time thinking about where you are and are not willing to compromise. The other person may need more time to feel it out.  Many people operate under the belief that “compatible” people start out wanting commitment changes to happen at exactly the same time.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, some people just need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.  It is your job however, to decide whether the discrepancies that exist between the two of you are just too big to establish and maintain a fulfilling relationship.  How you ask?
  • Notice the patterns that exist between you:  Are routinely important habits in their life persistently difficult for you to bear?  Do you see a feasible way for you to accept these things, even if they never change?  Can you communicate while problem-solving without spiraling into attack or stonewalling mode with each other?  Do you set each other off in consistently destructive ways?  Is the emotional toll of engaging in this relationship negatively impacting other important areas of your life such as your ability to work effectively in your chosen path?  Are you able to maintain the relationships you’ve determined are important to you while you’re dating this person?
  • Make a clear decision about the relationship for a specific period of time and execute towards that plan, rather than spending days or even months going back and forth about whether to stay in the relationship.  ‘Should I end this relationship?  Yesterday I struggled with thinking I should, but today I feel like I want to make things work.’  This type of deliberation can be paralyzing and spiral into even bigger problems, like anxiety and depression, which exacerbate the situation.  You’re not going to move forward in either your relationship or personally if you remain plagued with indecisiveness.  By not committing to a concrete plan, you are not actively working to gain resolution.  The irony of staying in a relationship with one foot out the door is that you neither benefit from the comfort of intimacy nor gain the necessary closure for moving on with your life.
  • Accept that even the happiest couples have perpetual problems.  Manage conflict with the understanding that not all problems can be permanently solved.  If I learned anything from studying the work of John Gottman (the leading expert on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations) it was this- you are setting yourself up for failure if you approach all your relationship problems  with the expectation of permanent resolution.  Perpetual problems stem from fundamental differences in your personalities or lifestyle habits, and can lead to gridlock when attempts to communicate and compromise fail.
  • Learn to practice effective conflict management.  Enlist emotional intelligence skills and aim to avoid toxic communication styles.  Create a system of shared meaning in your relationship that fosters collaboration and friendship in order to bypass power struggles.  What matters is not solving perpetual problems, but establishing a dialogue that communicates acceptance of your partner with humor, affection, and even amusement, to actively cope with the unresolvable problem without it tearing down the relationship.

If all else fails, seek professional help to help you figure out how to effectively invest the time and effort necessary for building and maintaining a healthy relationship.  Work through your breakup story if that’s the route you take, but move on so you can benefit from the invaluable rewards of love and intimacy.

 

Strategies overachievers can use to find happiness and purpose

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Starting a new year is especially impactful for people described as ‘overachievers’.  I work closely with young influencers in the tech community of San Francisco, their struggles are as unique as their accomplishments.  From completing their own annual ‘Year in Review’ life progress report (yes that really is a thing) to calculating their financial growth trajectory against the top 1% of earners, they are quick to succeed at what they set out to do.  Most are well under 35, have founded and successfully run and/or profitably sold a company, and are already making more money than their parents.  Nothing to frown at, right?  Yet if this describes you, you’re probably thinking ‘meh, so has almost everyone else I know.’  It’s no easy feat to be impressive in the Bay Area.

Overachievers are known for their willingness to tackle new challenges, push themselves beyond their comfort zone in order to get ahead of their peers, and are highly effective at solving problems.  Yet high achieving people also tend to privately wonder “Am I the only one who has a hard time relaxing and enjoying myself?  Why can’t I stop worrying about falling behind in life?”  Overachievers invest much of their time investigating what ‘the right’ choices are, and can struggle with making definitive decisions out of fear of making ‘the wrong’ choice.  Committing to a specific career direction, choosing a spouse, or deciding which city to settle down in can all be paralyzing decisions for overachievers.  The painstaking (not to mention endless) deliberation of an overachiever can lead to chronic feelings of dissatisfaction, loss of authentic purpose, and ultimately, a barrier to enjoying the outcomes they’ve worked so hard to attain.

Effective Reframing Strategies overachievers can use to find happiness and authentic purpose:

Redefine Happiness.  Consider how often you think “I’ll be so happy when…or “I can’t wait until…” Stop placing a conditional clause on happiness, it prevents you from valuing your current circumstances as worthy of genuine satisfaction.  Ironically, this thinking style begins as way to sustain motivation and increase tolerance for challenging periods in life.  “I’ll be so happy when I finish this damn Ph.D.” (guilty as charged)  There’s nothing wrong with expecting to feel great once something difficult is over or a life milestone has been met.

  • The Stumbling Block:  When this ‘imagined future’ gets placed so far up on a pedestal that it diminishes your current circumstances, and prevents you from investing in present-day opportunities for satisfaction and joy.
  • The Faulty Logic: “If I let myself be happy with where I am right now, I’ll lose motivation to work hard, and I’ll stop striving for that next level of achievement.”  FALSE.  Work ethic is not driven by avoiding happiness.  You aren’t doing yourself a favor by adopting an attitude of ‘my current life isn’t good enough, and I shouldn’t indulge in pleasure, lest I become complacent’.  Nor does any particular achievement guarantee happiness.
  • The Solution:  Keep your happiness barometer focused on the here and now.  Allow yourself to experience real pleasure and contentment today, it will be the positive fuel that will restore and strengthen you for all your future endeavors.  What if you aren’t sure what makes you genuinely happy?  Instead of measuring every person, activity or experience as an opportunity to advance your station in life, start by asking yourself “Was that fun?”

“If you’re happy, that’s probably the most important thing. Everyone probably has their own definition of success, for me it’s happiness. Do I enjoy what I’m doing? Do I enjoy the people I’m with? Do I enjoy my life?”  Michael Dell, Entrepreneur and Founder of Dell

Redefine Failure.  Consider how often you label a situation or outcome in your life a ‘failure’. Many overachievers are quick to discount and devalue something that didn’t go exactly according to plan.  Part of how people successfully achieve goals is by creating highly specific plans with measurable outcomes.  However, overachievers are prone to self-punitive rumination when things don’t turn out precisely as planned, which leads to pervasive feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy.

  • The Stumbling Block:  Choosing to view something as a ‘failure’ blinds you to the value it can contribute to your life.  Tying your sense of worth to quantifiable ‘wins’ and ‘failures’ robs you of the chance to be a whole person, whose contributions and very existence is valuable beyond achievement.
  • The Faulty Logic:  “If something didn’t turn out how I wanted, it should be considered a fail.  I wasted valuable time and now I’m behind with my life plan.  This failure tarnishes me, and now I’m not as valuable as other people because of it.”
  • The Solution:  Practice finding (and believing) in silver linings.  In every outcome and life experience there is opportunity to learn and grow in profitable ways.  Finding out what problem solving strategies and solutions don’t work and why, developing newfound courage, building emotional strength, practicing patience, gaining insights about how people and groups think and behave, increasing your ability to offer encouragement and compassion, uncovering resilience, experiencing autonomy and teamwork in new circumstances, the list is endless!  The point is, the most successful, well-rounded people derive their critical personal development from all sorts of experiences and are better for it.  Do not short-change yourself by writing off even your worst outcomes as worthless.  Moreover, the value of your life cannot be quantified by successful achievement alone.

Success does not Guarantee Love.  This is a big one. Huge actually.  Many overachievers learned early in their life they are more likely to receive praise for their successes, which feels good- especially when it comes from influential people like parents or primary caregivers.  Alice Miller wrote about this over 30 years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child.  Being singled out for winning can make us feel special and desirable, increasing our awareness of social status.  Criticism for not achieving can feel rejecting and painful and can lower our sense of self-worth.  Over time, overachievers learn to associate social approval, love, admiration, inclusion, and even intimacy.as being dependent on one’s success.  It’s not that seeking social connections through common interests, values or achievements is misguided.  But relying on social status to serve as the most critical criteria for building friendships or finding a romantic partner can result in relationships that never feel good enough or genuinely fulfilling.

  • The Stumbling Block:   When we use our own version of ‘social status’ (prestigious academic or career achievements, artistic talent, wealth, power, socially recognized intellectual or physical superiority) as the primary focus for building our social circle or selecting a romantic partner, we can lose sight of the most important factors that make relationships feel good and lead to lasting love, happiness and intimacy.  We run the risk of developing relationships that feel inauthentic and insecure.
  • The Faulty Logic:  “My own relative success has led me win approval and special treatment from others.  I’ve also learned to avoid painful criticism and negative judgment by demonstrating superior abilities compared to others.  If I don’t choose someone whom matches or bolsters my success, I won’t feel genuinely good about myself or them.  I can’t really love someone who doesn’t measure up to my expectations for success. 
  • The Solution:  Building opportunities for growth through relationships is a healthy, if not critical part of one’s personal development.  However, overachievers can place a high degree of pressure on themselves to select their social circle strategically, or risk failure in life.  Many will point out quotes from high achieving leaders that suggest all social opportunities should be leveraged to boost one’s personal success.  Business philosopher Jim Rohn “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with” or Michael Dell, Founder of Dell “Try never to be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people … or find a different room.”  While this advice has merit, it can be misleading if taken out of context.  It’s understandable to admire and be drawn towards people who show potential to uplift and improve us, but friendship and romance can’t survive without tenets like mutual enjoyment of each other’s company, respect, genuine affection and good will for one another, reciprocal generosity, and willingness to compromise in order to overcome challenges or disagreements.

Further, overachievers can sometimes fail to recognize or appreciate opportunities to learn from people whose personality strengths and achievements contrast with their own.  Overachievers tend to want to find a spouse who ‘has it all’ which often ends up sounding like an ‘idealized and improved’ version of themselves.  Instead, consider what personality styles are complimentary to your own.  Keep in mind people can be ‘Type A’ at work, but ‘Type B’ in social and romantic relationships, or vice versa.  Who you work well with at the office or studio may or may not be who you are best suited for romantically.  People are often happier in relationships that provide an opportunity to balance each other in a way that is mutually beneficial.  So allow some flexibility in how you define ‘smart and successful’, you are increasing your chances for developing healthy, happy  and lasting friendships and romantic partnership.

Finding Direction and Purpose Through Self-Acceptance.  One of the biggest challenges for young overachievers is narrowing down what direction to take their career ambitions. One theme I have heard repeatedly among high achieving millennials in my practice is “I don’t want to just be really successful at something, I want whatever I do to have meaningful social impact.  It’s important for me to be a part of something that leads to positive change in the world.”  What brings them into my office is that in spite of graduating with prestigious accolades or achieving early success in the tech/business sector, they struggle with feeling they are ‘doing the right thing with their life’.  It’s not uncommon for overachievers to experience a surge of perfectionistic career-related FOMO that can be paralyzing and lead to anxiety and depression.

  • The Stumbling Block:  The challenge for overachievers is that they excel in so many arenas that they have less cause for ruling out career choices.  They can often feel pulled in many different directions at once, and experience heightened pressure to always “know what they’re doing, and have a plan”.  Further, many high achievers are so conditioned to rank jobs based on external markers of success that they have a difficult time identifying and valuing their own personal enjoyment as a reason for making choices.  The added pressure to “make a positive difference in the world” creates a feeling of constant unease and intimidation.

“These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They just know that they will jump the next hoop.  The fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll.”  William Deresiewicz, who penned the controversial essay “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” which reads like a self-help manual for ambitious yet internally adrift overachievers struggling to figure out how to navigate life.

  • The Faulty Logic:  I constantly feel like I don’t have enough concrete evidence to feel like I’m making the right major decisions, but I can’t afford to waste time doing things that aren’t part of a successful future.  If I don’t know exactly what I’m doing with my life all the time, I’m failing.”
  • The Solution:  First accept that NO ONE can know with certainty they’re making ‘the right or best choices’ for their own future.  Even people we believe turned out to be highly successful, happy and impressively socially responsible can’t look back and know they couldn’t have done things differently for ‘even better’ results.  The point is, let yourself live your life and appreciate a wide range of experiences, including the lulls and pitfalls.  Personal intuition and wisdom grow from a life full of twists and turns.  Learn to trust your own gut feelings, they are the ultimate decision-making tools for making choices, and you can’t hone these tools without testing them out on different experiences.  Feeling purposeful is entirely personal.  You can gather all sorts of facts, create decision-making diagrams and consider data taken from public opinion.  Sooner or later there will come a time when you cannot and will not know with any degree of certainty that something is going to pan out well.  What you CAN do is trust your future self to have the strength, courage and wisdom to handle the outcome if the day comes when you need to change course.  You’ll use the resources you have available, which will be invaluable wisdom gained from the experience, self-care strategies (you’ve hopefully been practicing along the way) and trusted social support.  That’s all any of us can really do!