Relationships / by Michelle Cowan

Relationships are difficult for me. Not just romantic relationships, but any kind of social interaction. I tend to put on my performance face when I’m with people because it takes a less personal kind of energy to entertain than it does to honestly share who I am. But relationships teach me things no other tool can. Books, personal reflection, writing, music, therapy, and anything else I use to examine my heart cannot match the uncovering power of relationships. However, when I use those other tools to examine the dynamics I experience with other people, it always amazes me what I discover.

Now, to many people, the importance of relationships is rather obvious. Not so for me. I long denied that anyone had any need for anyone else. And truly, maybe we don’t need others. But history shows (when one looks at recluses and isolated artists) that life is typically much shorter and much darker without regular interpersonal exchange. So, what is it that I am currently learning from others? Why do I choose not to shun people and turn completely inward? I require an enormous amount of room for introspection, but I am finding that I need a regular social injection in order to achieve a peaceful balance.

For today, my relationships are teaching me that I need love and need to give love. Secondarily, they teach me how to love others and how I need to be treated in order to feel love. How about a summary of some points recently brought to my attention?

First of all, I need attention. I need a lot of attention. I crave it. I fear that if I don’t receive enough, I will go slipping off the face of the earth, and no one will ever notice. It seems that many people need much less of this precious commodity than I. And I tend to berate myself for craving so much from others. But once I accept my need for attention, I see that there are many people out there more than willing to give it. Besides, I am always excited to attend to others. When people bless me with their interest, they receive it back. The difficulty, for me, is asking for this attention.

I also need touch. I used to shun physical contact. I was so protective of my body, I couldn’t handle any sort of invasion. Now, I long for someone to reach out and hold me. I ask for hugs. I need them. I need these things. No shame in that.

I also need challenge. I need people who challenge me intellectually, especially. And this can be hard to find. I’m an intelligent woman, and I find myself bored by some crowds. It’s a treasure to find someone I can learn from. Of course, I learn something from everyone, even people who might be categorized as “less intelligent” than I. Perhaps emotional intelligence is more specifically what I crave. People courageous enough to look deep and make bold statements fascinate me. Knowledge of politics, engineering, history, or any particular topic only half-impresses me. People with self-knowledge and a spirit hungry to learn more…now that intrigues me.

I try to cultivate these same abilities and interests in myself as I interact with others. I seek not just to learn facts, but to remain hungry for any kind of knowledge. I pay attention to what people say and do and attempt to verbalize things I notice. And I am willing to touch others, to give myself to them. All of these developments come at their own pace within me. It can be tough to sit still and truly be with someone, to put my racing mind on the backburner. But it hurts people’s feelings when I am only partially with them. I can turn off my cell phone and release my to-do list long enough to have a thirty minute conversation. I hope to receive that from others.

I can be vulnerable and give someone a hug, come closer and really look someone in the eye. I can ask people questions about their lives instead of always trying to give them advice about how I think they should live it. They probably know best what to do for themselves. Personally, I want help making up my own mind, not the ideas of others forced upon me.

It can be difficult to remember these things when faced with people who have not developed these characteristics or curiosities. I can forget how important it is to truly pay attention to someone when I am not being paid attention to in a kind, caring way. I begin to think that that sort of self-involvement is perfectly fine. But it’s not. I can be concerned with myself. I must take care of myself first. But when I am engaged with someone else, I must ALSO consider the other person. I am not the only one who matters. Being with people who are overly concerned with themselves is tiring and frustrating. Distraction like that impedes connection. Perhaps there are relationships I have grown away from. People change, after all, and we cease to connect sometimes.

So I cherish the reminders I receive from people as they pay attention to me. It spurs me on to pay attention to others. When touched, I am more ready to touch. When challenged, I am more ready to challenge. Love is out there. And I’m learning where I can expect to receive it, where I like to give it, and where I am not receiving what I need. In the end, I hope to let it all go and pursue true love.

I am ready to take care of myself. And I am ready to be taken care of. Relationships teach me how to do these things.