When I was younger, I thought that a connection with someone else could only be achieved in the absence of difference. I believed that I could only get along with people who think and act like me one hundred percent of the time. While it may be somewhat normal for the kid version of me to struggle with being comfortable around behaviour that is different from what I was taught to be the ‘good’ way to behave, holding on to the belief that there’s only one right behaviour became problematic later in my life, especially since this would have called for me to stay the exact same over time. Therefore, surrounding myself with people who basically are the same as me at a particular moment and expecting all of us to stay that way indefinitely is a surefire way to prevent growth and create frustration.
I grew up in a family that wasn’t (and isn’t) very open-minded when it comes to difference. There are a number of long-held beliefs that things should be a certain way and everything that diverges from these beliefs is therefore not right. There isn’t much (real) openness about ways to live life, clothing preferences or relationships that aren’t in line with what is believed to be ‘the way things are supposed to be’. There is very little curiosity about difference and instead quite a bit of judgment of those who don’t adhere to the same beliefs as they do. I too used to be very judgmental and am now working hard to ignore the automated judgmental voice in the back of my head. I don’t think it will ever entirely go away, given the lifelong conditioning I’ve been subjected to, from numerous sources. I know now, however, that I can choose not to listen to that evil voice, which has made a world of difference for me. In fact, I realised that whenever I judge others, I judge myself as well – judging others is nothing more than a reflection of my struggle to come to terms with my own shortcomings.
There is difference in any relationship, no matter its nature. Different relationships can handle varying amounts of difference. In romantic relationships, there obviously should be some basic compatibility: are both partners looking for the same thing? Is there some agreement concerning core values and plans for the (more or less near) future? Are their lifestyles compatible?
Over the past years, I have learned that people don’t need to act, think and be the same as me in order for me to love and appreciate them. I’ve tried my best to be less fixated on what I think people’s behaviour means and ask them about it instead, and I’ve also tried my best to do this in a curious and non-judgy way. I’m sure I haven’t always succeeded, which probably means that I’m only human. 🙃
I also try really hard to detect, acknowledge and appreciate acts of kindness from other people, even if they don’t come in the same shape as mine. Different people use different ways to express their love and/or appreciation. I try not to assume that people don’t care about me just because they don’t behave the same way as I would. This has without a doubt been the hardest part for me.
When I feel like I’m being left out or ignored or treated differently than I think I deserve, and when this hurts my feelings, I try to let people know instead of expecting them to read my mind and I believe I’ve done my best to communicate my feelings in a non-hostile way. So far, I think I’ve been doing okay.
There’s a Luxembourgish saying that popped into my head when I was thinking about difference in relationships. It goes like this: ech hu geléiert, Waasser a mäi Wäin ze schëdden. It translates to I’ve learned to pour water in my wine, which I think exists in the English language as well. It means that I let go of the idea that everything I believe and do is the ultimate right thing and that different than me doesn’t necessarily equal incompatible – it’s about being open to compromise.
Part of what instigated my change of behaviour is the fact that I discovered that I no longer appreciate being alone as much as I used to. I used to pride myself with not needing anyone, being independent and autonomous and perfectly fine by myself and not like those people that are unable to function outside of a relationship (which is incredibly judgmental, I’m aware). I used to think that this was a black-and-white type of situation, that there couldn’t be a middle way.
Do I still enjoy time by myself? Yes. Do I want to be alone all the time? No. Can I do things alone? Yes. Do I want to do everything alone all the time? No.
I used to be so convinced that I was better off on my own and that I didn’t need anyone that I haven’t even been able to sleep (well) in the same room as people that aren’t family for the longest time. For some reason, this has felt like too much of a vulnerable situation for me to be able to get some rest. I’m still not entirely sure what has caused this, but I’m sure it’s a combination of many little factors that have accumulated over the years, shame and fear of letting my guard down definitely being among them. Regardless of the causes, I’m now left with having to work on overcoming this obstacle, one sleepless night at a time.
So, I’m now aware that my former autonomy-over-everything mindset was/is rooted in shame, as I subconsciously considered needing someone a failure. To this day, I still struggle with asking for help and/or needing someone, it makes me feel ashamed and like I’m not good enough (→ if I were better, I wouldn’t need anyone 🤷♀️). This too is a belief that was probably passed on from one generation to the next in my family – there has always been a lot of pride and validation associated with family members achieving things without any help (which is not supposed to be an excuse but merely part of an explanation).
It took me a while to figure out and then admit to myself that I actually like having someone around to share mundane moments with. I like knowing that somebody cares, that somebody’s there. I like being needed and feeling included, even though I’ll always appreciate alone time and will probably never be one to spend all my time in the company of others1.
The shame that occasionally comes with not wanting to be alone is partially heightened by the ‘self-love movement’. You probably know the saying that goes along the lines of you have to love yourself first before you can be loved by someone else – while I get the gist of it, I don’t think this is right. I found that I have grown and learned the most through my relationships, be it with family, partners, or friends. Relational skills can only be acquired through relationships. People can love and appreciate me and I can love and appreciate other people, even if I don’t particularly love myself on any given day. Don’t get me wrong, self-love isn’t a bad thing – it just isn’t the one-fits-all solution it’s sometimes portrayed to be.
I digressed a little from what I was initially going to write about (fun fact: my blog posts never actually turn out the way I plan for them to be), so here’s where I was going with all this: I believe that the success of relationships lies in the acceptance and management of difference. Even though most of us sometimes feel the need to control and/or change how our partners/friends/family members see things, no good can come from this. We can always share our point of view (unless it’s completely uncalled for) and, depending on the context, it may be more or less important for everyone to be on the same page, but we shouldn’t give the people we care about the feeling that we can’t accept or love them unless they are, think and/or act like we do because that isn’t how love works.
We can, however, adjust how we relate to people in case the difference becomes too important or even damaging to our own wellbeing.
We have the power to decide how we want to deal with what is presented to us, but not to change other people – it’s that simple.
1 I’m still an introvert, after all!