On the Meaning of Love & Partnership

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This past weekend two of my close couple-friends got married. One of them in México and one in France. My decision-dilemma could be best described with a German saying that goes: "you can’t dance at two weddings at the same time”. Given that I was asked to be a groomsman in México, I was glad that the decision was taken out of my hands.

At one point, while we were standing in a close circle and signing the civil papers, my friend’s grandparents stepped up and said: “We have been married for 67 years and we hope your marriage stays as happy as ours”. This was quite an impressive moment given how visibly old they were and how they were holding hands. 67 years… my mind was blown. 

Having received 6 wedding invitations for this year and knowing that about 50% of marriages end in divorce, I couldn’t help myself but wonder what it means to find the right person for life. My former manager would probably conjure up a spreadsheet and say: “What needs to be true so that you know person X is the right one?”. Business jargon aside, I spent some time lately thinking about this topic and discussing it with some friends whom I would consider in happy relationships or marriages. 

Building a “we”, maintaining the “I” and loving yourself more than your partner

One of my friends made an interesting point about how a relationship is so much more a partnership than anything else. You have relationships with your family, friends and business partners. But with the person you want to share your life with, you actually have a partnership. Both sides bring together elements of who they are, give up a certain level of their autonomy, and form a new “identity” which didn’t exist before. It doesn’t mean that they give up who they are, but it means that they are committed to building a partnership that only enriches who they are as individuals. They form a “we” while they maintain the “I”. In fact, the “we” will make the “I”s only stronger, richer and better. It will unlock a lot of their potential as a human being – boost their overall happiness, confidence, and give them an increased sense of meaning in life. 

On my recent trip to México, my colleague mentioned how he misses his wife and how this showed him how much more complete he feels when they are together. Building a “we” doesn't mean that your “I” is not complete as it is, but it means that your partner will be the person who makes you an even better version of who you are. That said, while the “we” will make you a "better you”, maintaining your “I” is actually quite important for a healthy “we” (make sure you got that!). I have seen too many examples of people who completely gave up their “I” and defined themselves only through the “we”. Once the “we” didn’t work out anymore, they fell really hard. They had given up their own identity which would have been their safety net to keep them from being hurt. 

How to maintain a strong “I” while building a healthy “we”? Love yourself more than you love your partner. This sounds selfish, but you can’t love anyone else if you don’t love yourself first. Very often I see people giving up entirely who they are to be fully devoted to the “we”. They always say yes, compromise on everything, always put their desires second. They love their partner more than they love themselves. Believe me, this is a recipe for failure. As much as I believe in the importance of a strong “we”, I also believe that each person needs to maintain their own hobbies, their own friends, their own interests and their own space. Let the “we” make your “I” stronger, not replace it.  

Finding the right person

So how do you find the right person? Well, I don’t know the “how” (this is not an IKEA manual), but here are my thoughts on “what" you should look for. 

Let personality be your trump. While I certainly believe you should like your partner physically, do not forget that looks will fade over time. What will not fade are the person’s character and personality. We will all become old one day, so don’t let your partner’s physical appearance be the one thing that drives you into their arms. Be with someone because of the way they make you feel. Because of the person’s commitment to you and the way how they talk about you in front of others. The perspective and the energy they give you day after day. Love them for the way how they support you when you are down; not for how much money they spend on you to make you happy. The way they handle life’s complications because you, too, will have to overcome those together. You have to stick that personality until the end of your life. Make sure it’s someone who makes you a better version of who you are. 

Similarities help you get started. Differences help you grow. What is a recipe for success you might ask? Being very similar or being different? I have heard many people saying either or. Personally, I think it’s the healthy balance of both! On the one hand you want someone with whom you have shared interests and a common base on which you can build a future. I’m thinking here of similar interests (music, fashion, travel, life’s pleasures), a shared perspective on the world (values, political views, sense of justice), and certainly expectations that are aligned (founding family, place to live). On the other hand though, you want to ideally be with someone who *is* different from you in certain ways. Why? Because I think this is exactly what will make a partnership interesting and exciting. Let the other person be better and smarter than you at certain things so you can learn from them. Let the person be of a different background so you can appreciate a culture that you were not familiar with. You want to be able to throw an idea at that person and know that they can take it and expand it because they take different approaches to solving certain problems. The similarities give you a common ground to build a partnership and the differences will give you the opportunity to make you a “better you”. This way, 1+1 won’t equal 2, but 3. 

"What is Love? Baby don’t hu…”. No karaoke please. But seriously, what is love? I have come to believe that love is the feeling of wanting to make someone happy every single day of your life. It’s the desire to travel the entire world with that person. It’s the open-mindedness to experiment and explore new things in life together – from learning an unknown skill to doing drugs (hypothetically speaking). It’s the fascination you feel when you realize that your partner knows you better than you know yourself. It’s the urge to share your happiness and sadness with that person. It’s the acceptance of their flaws and appreciation of what they do 10 times better than you. It’s the pride you feel when your partner succeeds in life or at work. And it’s knowing that with your partner you can do just anything in life: spontaneously buy a ticket to a random destination, go to a multi-day music festival in your mid-40s, move to a new country together or simply sit at a window, watch the rain, and philosophize about life. Love is all of the above.