My Brother Is on His Third Divorce. Here’s What I’ve Learned.
The solution isn’t as simple as “don’t get married.”
I’ve been watching my brother get divorced for as long as I can remember.
The over-a-decade age gap between us has facilitated a great learning dynamic—as a child, I watched him become a young adult. As an adult, I’ve watched him become a middle-aged man.
During my years of observational learning, I’ve picked up several nuggets of wisdom. Here are the most important ones.
1. A long relationship doesn’t equal a secure relationship.
Years of history are just that—years of history. So many people conflate having a past with someone as an indictor of future security with that person, and it’s simply not.
Ten years of marriage does not promise any more relationship security than ten months of marriage. A better predictor of relationship security is clear communication and regular revisiting of mutual needs and expectations.
2. Unaddressed childhood trauma will haunt every relationship.
This one seems like a given, but I am frequently amazed by the amount of adults I encounter who do not realize that childhood sets the stage for all future relationship dynamics.
In childhood, we learn how to relate to future partners based on our relationship with our caregivers. If those caregiver-child relationships were turbulent, or if we witnessed trauma and strain between caregivers, this will ripple through all of our future interactions (even those that are non-romantic).
Most everyone has experienced relational trauma in childhood, and one of the best ways to explore and heal that trauma is through therapy.
Speaking of which…
3. Patterns will be repeated until the loop is closed.
My brother has repeated the same cycle on a loop for over twenty years. To any onlooker, it’s easy to pinpoint why—the underlying pattern has not been addressed.
The patterns may be different for everyone. For some, they constantly look for the same type of partner, unaware that they are unconsciously seeking out toxic attributes. For others, they can’t seem to make a consistent effort toward growing out of old, stagnant mentalities or healing from childhood trauma.
The patterns that cripple relationships and relationship-attempts are almost entirely psychological and pathological. Compulsive people-pleasers, codependents, narcissists, and anyone locked into a specific behavior-set tend to replay the same relational events with different partners over time, completely mystified as to why they have “bad luck in love.”
4. Requiring validation from a partner is a recipe for disaster.
Whether it’s sexual, emotional, or mental validation, leaning on a partner to provide it is a dangerous game. Even in instances where a partner’s love language is specifically geared toward providing this validation, the day they are unable to do so may capsize the entire relationship.
Ideally, a relationship is made up of two self-validating individuals who are able to give of their “overflow” to one another. If one or both of the individuals are constantly relying on their partner to self-actualize, feel valid, or feel “real” and lovable, the dynamic immediately becomes lopsided.
Even the most well-intentioned partner will be unable to give out infinite amounts of validation, and resentment will eventually begin to fester on both sides when they are unable to provide it. Less well-intentioned partners may force their validation-hungry partner to earn their approval, engaging in all sorts of manipulation and unhealthy gameplay (often unconsciously)—until, of course, they get bored and move on.
5. Where there is no self-love, resentment festers.
Resentment-rich relationships occur for one reason, and one reason alone: at the root of it all, neither of the partners love themselves.
In a culture that still sees self-love as a narcissistic and dangerous concept, it’s not surprising that so many people refuse to represent their own best interest. No one wants to be called selfish and cold, and yet society fails to recognize how cruel it is (not just the to the self but to the partner) to falsely represent one’s desires and needs.
If someone wants a relationship simply for sex and to enjoy meals and weekends together, there is nothing wrong with this. Unfortunately, what most people do is paint themselves as what they think the other person wants, rather than courageously being forthright about exactly what they want and need. It often isn’t until significantly later when they’ve both committed to each other that both people realize they’ve been deceived, and then resent the other person for it.
Self-love represents its own best interests courageously and lovingly, knowing that true connection and authenticity with a partner can only be fostered where there is deep connection and authenticity with the self.
On a similar note:
6. People are not who they say they are.
People aren’t who they say they are—they’re how they behave.
A great way to get a feel for a partner or potential partner is to state needs and desires clearly, and then see how they respond with action. Of course, if it’s impossible to even have a productive conversation around the topic, then getting to the behavior stage is immaterial.
Too often, individuals want to believe that their partner is who they say they are—it fits the narrative that they themselves have created. No one wants to discover that their partner is abusive, even if the evidence is right in front of them. No one wants to believe that that their partnership is truly incompatible and that they do not share the same wants or needs.
To break unhealthy patterns, to spare children from becoming collateral damage and to live a peaceful life, it’s critical to be honest about the behavior a partner exhibits.
Behavior doesn’t lie.
7. “Love” is less important than compatibility.
“But I love them.”
Those words have facilitated more violence against humanity than the words “I hate you” ever have.
One of the biggest myths that society has sown is that love is rare. Love is not rare. An open, healthy heart is capable of finding love, both platonic and romantic, everywhere. Love is easy to come by.
Great compatibility can seem a little trickier to come by, but any difficulty finding it is greatly reduced by representing oneself honestly. Self-discovery is a fantastic tool for developing relationships with great compatibility, and compatibility is essential to allowing a relationship that fosters mutual growth, pleasure, and enjoyment. When two people are compatible, both of them find ease in being in their natural state. There is no walking on eggshells, no acting, no manipulating, no passive-aggression, and no shame.
8. Unhealthy people will seek out unhealthy partners.
This is the most important lesson of all, and by far, the most difficult to reconcile.
It’s painful to watch someone you care about suffer, and seeing my brother traverse his relationship dramas over the years has taken a toll on everyone who loves him. Unfortunately, until someone is ready to address their personal wounds, the cycle continues.
Unhealthy people will seek out unhealthy partners because like attracts like. An individual who has spent time investing in their mental and physical health develops a level of self-love that sets a standard for their partners. The higher that standard is, the more unlikely it is that they will end up with an unhealthy partner.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true—individuals with low levels of self-love will not invest in their health where it matters, and are highly likely to attract other individuals with the same low standards due to their self-destructive patterns. Sadly, two empty cups do not a full cup make.
If you can do just one thing, it’s love yourself.
If you want to dramatically increase the quality of your romantic (and platonic) relationships, love yourself. Invest in your mental health first and foremost, directing your resources toward therapy, a spiritual practice that you love, and a strong support group of people who are smarter and healthier than you. A strong mental health foundation will naturally evolve into health in every area of your life.
If you’re someone who thinks you can’t be happy without a partner but hasn’t yet dived deeply into therapy, mental health improvement, and deep introspection and reflection, you may be surprised to find that you don’t need a partner for the reasons that you think you do. Somewhere deep in the midst of the self-love journey is a realization that you are capable of feeling complete within yourself—and it is precisely at that junction in the road that a relationship can ever truly be satisfying.