Relationships are messy. They’re complicated and confusing. They can be fickle and fragile or as loyal and dependable as a granite shelf. Some days they seem more hassle than they’re worth, others you couldn’t do without them. Our friends and family, our lovers, our life-partners, these relationships aren’t merely the landmarks we pass along on our journey through life. They are the journey, the road, the passengers, the very car itself. Relationships frame our lives; they make them worth living.
Nowhere is this manifested more than in the story of Christopher McCandless.
Life’s Most Important Lesson
Chris was ever a dreamer. After graduating from college in the early ’90s, he donated his entire life savings to OXFAM and set out on a new life as a hitchhiker and professional vagabond; christening himself Alexander Supertramp.
Chris had troubles with his family. Lies had been told; deceit had been woven into the fabric of his life. His parents he forsook. But his sister, he missed. And though that hurt him, he had a mission. He was going to live free, a lone man against the world, in Alaska. The last of the wilds.
Along the road, Chris became friends with those he met. A pair of deeply in love rubber-tramps invited him to stay. A young teenage girl became madly besotted with him. A farmer gave him work and listened to his woes. And an older man, alone in the world, was inspired by Chris’ thirst for life, offering to adopt him as his grandchild. Everywhere he went, Chris left his mark.
But none left their mark upon him. For he never stayed— ever onward, towards the Alaska he idolised.
Eventually, reaching Alaska, he survived out in the wilds for several months. Until one day, he ate a root previously unknown to be poisonous. Slowly, Chris started to die. In these moments, alone at the edge of the world, he reflected upon his life. Upon meaning.
There he found serenity. Truth. Writing in his journal, he realised,
‘And so, it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness… And this was most vexing of all. HAPPINESS IS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.’
Too many go through the entirety of their lives without realising this simple truth. Relationships are not a means to get what you want; they are what we want. Deep down. So how can we make them more rewarding? How can we embrace Chris’ truth and live a life shared?
Quit the Unhealthy Behaviours
Families from the outside can look perfect. But, like an ancient building, once inside we see the wreckage. Codependency is passed down through families. It is an unhealthy pattern of behaviour, whereby relationships are formed which are one-sided and emotionally destructive. Such behaviours occur when people feel emotionally abandoned, and so repress their feelings and thoughts.
If you’re codependent, you might have low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism, poor boundaries, difficulty communicating thoughts and feelings, a fear of being alone, or an addiction. While not everyone who experiences these symptoms suffers codependency, they are an indicator.
It’s vital to find out, as codependency can ruin a person’s relationships throughout their life. Childhood trauma or other underlying causes must be explored and dealt with. A licensed physician or psychologist can help with diagnosis and treatment.
Self-responsibility is an essential step for everyone growing up but holds the key to codependency and dysfunctional relationships too. If you believe you are obligated to make your partner happy, that puts tremendous strain on a relationship. It’s also unachievable. You cannot control someone else’s pain. You can help. Comfort. But not remove it. Nor should you. By solving someone else’s challenges, you deprive them of a chance to grow. To take responsibility.
But, self-responsibility cuts both ways. By taking ownership of your happiness, you bring joy to the relationship. As the old saying goes, to love others, first one must love themselves.
Different but the Same
When you enter into a relationship, you sacrifice a part of yourself to become part of a greater whole. That’s the definition of intimacy. It is a union. Together you achieve a life neither could have created alone.
With rewards come responsibilities. Firstly, honesty is vital to a relationship. That doesn’t mean listing off every aspect of your life. Even conjoined twins are allowed their secrets. But honesty is more than just telling the truth. Acting honestly, means accepting responsibility, being reliable, forgiving and forgetting. Nor does it give you carte blanche to say what you think. We all know the type of person who says cruel and means things, but passes it off as “speaking their mind”. Tread carefully. For with intimacy, comes vulnerability. Words hurt.
When you act honestly, you develop trust. You become a team. Now you can plan together. Explore each other’s interests and connections. Set joint goals. By having an aim for you both to work towards, it creates a shared sense of purpose—a spirit of cooperation and compromise. But also, a profound sense of romance and intimacy. You’re in this together after all!
Don’t lose yourself.
As we’ve seen with codependency, that’s extremely unhealthy. Don’t spend every hour of the day together. Variety is the spice of life. Dullness leads to dissatisfaction. So, take a break. See your friends. Visit your parents. You’ll feel refreshed when you return, with experiences to share and stories to tell.
Or vice versa. Though it’s become a cliché, half of communication is listening. Hearing your partner – and being heard – are vital to deepening intimacy. After all, good news is only good if you’ve got someone to tell.
You’ll also learn about your partner, as you come to appreciate their differences. Their unique perspective.
However, though differences can make relationships stronger when they’re complimentary, for instance one might be a dreamer, while the other is practical and grounded, sometimes people clash. Their personalities don’t fit. And what seemed perfect at first grows crooked.
Don’t assume maturity is battling on with the broken. Sometimes accepting it isn’t working out is the first step towards finding a relationship that will.
It’s not the end of the world.
Just because a shoe doesn’t fit, doesn’t mean you stop wearing shoes. Life’s always going to be trial and error. If it worked out the first time, it wouldn’t be exciting.
It’s Supposed to be Fun!
Remember what Chris wrote, ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ But not everything shared is happy. Arguments can serve a useful purpose once in a while to destress a relationship. But they’re not supposed to be the built-in release valve. Communication is essential, but consider how you’re speaking to each other. Don’t call each other names. Let the other finish their sentences. And never go looking for a fight.
If your partner makes a mistake, do you laugh or shout? If times get tough, do you walk away in a huff, or do you stay and try to resolve the issue?
Don’t be ashamed if you need a few sessions of counselling to get you back on track. Studies have shown, relationships which engage in counselling during rocky times are more likely to last. It helps to get perspective.
Then, in the good times, keep up your sense of wonder. Make time for one another. Have a date night. Or just be spontaneous. If you’ve got the cash in the bank, a weekend away can bring the mystery back and strengthen your relationship. Or day-to-day, check-in on how the other is doing. Oh, and don’t plan sex. There’s nothing less sexy than a schedule!
Relationships ARE messy. But then, nothing worth having comes easy. We battle on because we need them. Because we want to open up, to care about another. Because deep in our bones, we understand Chris’ lesson. But though we might feel this truth, there never was much sense to it. Why we’re attracted to some and not others can be as strange as it is ineffable. You might just think it’s a trick of the mind or you might believe it’s the very purpose of the universe. Either way, to grow our relationships, to enjoy their rewards and intimacy, it’s crucial to appreciate the roles we play. Whether that be taking responsibility, acting honestly, or giving the other space.
If we master that, happiness will never be far away.