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By Nicolle

Know thyself, said the great philosopher Socrates. While that evocation seems trite and menial, to actually pursue such an idea is a great undertaking. As you begin to peel back the layers of yourself, you may find hidden motivations, dirty secrets and shameful mistakes.

I’ve recently realized that my psyche wages an internal war anytime I’m in a relationship. It won’t last, I whisper unconsciously to myself. You can’t keep him. You’re not quite good enough. Remember what happened last time? You’ve seen who he dated before. You know you’ll never measure up.

And so it goes. That voice forces me to analyze every inflection, every tone, every short remark, every glance, every move until I’ve literally given myself a stomachache.

Now, some of that, as I’ve mentioned before, is just a personality trait, one that I’m learning to accept. But the vengeful attack that coerces my thoughts into repetitive formations is more than a natural tendency to think things through. It’s a deliberate attempt at self-sabotage.

I begin to believe those lies whispered to me and I feel strangled. I outwardly act as if nothing is wrong but inside, I’m slowly killing myself.

A good friend of mine recently gave me sound advice. “You’re never going to have it all figured out,” she said. “No matter how many books you read, no matter how many times you try. So, know yourself and stop trying to figure it all out.”

The trick is to balance understanding the baggage and wounds and scars and hurts I bring to a relationship while still living presently.

If I spend all my time trying to be self-actualized, I’ll miss out on what’s actually going on in my relationship. But if I ignore my past experiences and how they impact my actions, I’ll never move past those self-imposed attacks.

An open, willing spirit, I’m learning, is much more valuable than any attempt at self-protection. Once I’m aware that I’m unconsciously feeding myself lies about my worth based on who I am (or am not) dating, what he thinks of me or what’s happened in my past relationships, I can begin to enter my internal battle. I can actively combat whatever line my psyche uses on me next – and I can win.

Note: This is the last Unhooked and Unsettled post that will appear on Reactionary Century, but check out UnhookedandUnsettled.Wordpress.Com to keep following along every Tuesday.

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By Nicolle

Last Friday night, my best friend and I received a phone call from one of our college roommates. “I’m engaged!” she screamed into the phone. “It’s going to be an October 2011 wedding!”

That phone call came on the heels of a discussion with another friend about the state of her relationship, and how engagement might be in her future as well. Their different relationship stories got me thinking: As much as we’d like to put our relationships in neat little boxes, complete with an instruction manual and timeline, things are rarely that black and white.

Another friend of mine is dating a guy who I’m sure she’ll end up with. They’ve been dating for almost four years – but there’s no engagement in sight.

Another friend is dating a guy she’s been with since last winter. I’m pretty certain they’ll be engaged within a few months.

Yet another friend dated a guy for two years, broke up with him for two years and is now engaged to him.

And those are just my friends.

Clearly there is no formula, which just about anyone will tell you if prompted. The difference is whether or not we actually believe our relationships don’t have to fit into someone else’s idea of perfect timing.

I can’t see myself ever being ready to make a declaration of lifelong commitment after dating someone for less than a year, so my confusion and (sometimes) jealousy of friends who have it figured out sooner often overrides my inward excitement about others’ relationships. Why is it that some people “just know” right away, while others take years to decide – and sometimes they still don’t know?

My conclusion is simple. There is no conclusion. There is no one reason why it seems easier for some people to figure their relationships out than others. Sometimes I’d like to sit in my ivory tower and declare that I’m much smarter, more mature and more realistic than those who, in my eyes, dive into a proposal and wedding planning before they’re actually ready. But the truth is that I can’t see into anyone’s relationship but my own – and most of the time, I don’t even have that figured out.

While I think there are definite red flags that everyone should look for in their relationships and in their friends’ relationships (i.e. a really short dating time, the inability to answer legitimate questions about the relationship without getting defensive, etc.), the most important thing to remember is that we can’t know what’s going on in others’ heads or hearts. At the end of the day, whether I agree with my friends’ relationships or engagements or not, the decision isn’t up to me. And I’m not the one who has to live with the consequences, good or bad.

By Nicolle

Britney Spears got married there. Katy Perry wrote a song about it. Friends’ Ross and Rachel woke up hitched there. The guys from The Hangover lost their friend on a rooftop there.

What is “there”? Vegas, course. Sin City, with its infamous motto of “What happens here, stays here,” is the place where crazy things happen – but you don’t have to tell anyone about them.

That is unless you get married, win a huge sum of money and try to get divorced and split the $3 million winnings, but a judge won’t let you because he’s sick of seeing Gen Y disregard the sanctity of marriage.

Unrealistic? Probably. But it’s the basis of the Cameron DiazAshton Kutcher rom com What Happens in Vegas. And while such a scenario is more than unlikely to happen in real life, what the characters inevitably learn along the ride is a lesson we could all stand to ingest.

After a wild night in Vegas where they end up hitched and win $3 million, main characters Joy (Diaz) and Jack (Kutcher) are forced to remain married for six months or receive none of their winnings.

(SPOILER) After six months of honesty, self-revelation and letting down their traditional relational defense mechanisms, Jack and Joy realize that they’ve fallen in love. Now, while I’d normally eschew such a predictable conclusion, this time I think the writers got it right. This lighthearted comedy unknowingly goes against the grain of usual rom coms and illustrates a different idea of the word “soulmate.”

The traditional definition of soulmate promotes an idea that there is one person on the planet for you. Once you find that one person (who you should fall madly, head-over-heels in love with instantly), you’ll experience no relationship difficulties, no hardships, no problems. Your feelings of passionate love will never dim, you’ll never want to look at another person of the opposite sex and life will be easy now that you’ve found your partner for life. “Soulmate” implies that if you miss that one person, you’re doomed to live a life alone, while all your soulmate-finding friends skip into the sunset of happily ever after.

That may be a little over the top, but you get the picture. The traditional definition of soulmate seems to necessitate a “right place, right time” idea of destiny, and places an extreme amount of pressure on any romantic relationship you have. Then, when that soulmate relationship falters due to normal relationship stresses, instead of sticking around to fight for what could be the best relationship for us, we feel we have the right to bow out because a relationship we have to work for isn’t what we signed up for.

Instead of searching for the person we think will make our romantic lives seamless, we should be paying attention to the people who challenge us to be better. The truth is, there are likely a lot of people with whom we are romantically compatible and with whom we could sustain a marriage. Because of that, the question we should be asking ourselves should morph from “Who’s perfect for me?” to “Who’s the best for me?”

If I think back to the guys I’ve dated and imagine myself married to any of them, I can come up with a ranked list of which fantastical marriages would be easiest. One of my high school boyfriends would be easier to be married to than the other because we share more of the same values. A marriage to one of my college boyfriends would be most difficult because the way his extroverted personality interacts with my introverted one is exhausting.

I’m not implying that we should date or marry someone for whom we have no romantic feelings, or that we should stay in a relationship just because we want to be married. What I do mean to say is that we shouldn’t necessarily be searching for someone who completes us perfectly, because our search will then be never-ending. Instead, we should be looking for someone who makes us better, who challenges us to be better versions of ourselves in constructive ways.

What we’ll find then is that while we’re focused on the betterment of ourselves and our significant others, we’ll become each others’ soulmates. In the process of putting our energy into our relationship instead of concentrating on whether we’ve finally met the perfect person, we’ll begin to grow into a version of a soulmate that redefines our traditional meaning.

A soulmate shouldn’t be something we search for. It should be something we strive to be as we interact, relate, learn, grow, understand, love and change with another person. It shouldn’t be accidental; it should be intentional.

While the fictional relationship saga of Jack and Joy wasn’t intentional, it does demonstrate that in our single-minded search for our soulmates, we run the risk of overlooking possible partners who have the potential to grow into the best relational match for us. And that’s the kind of revelation I hope doesn’t stay in Vegas.

By Eric

Everybody is either breaking up or getting married. Hyperbole, perhaps, but it certainly feels that way.

From the outside looking in at these crumbling or (theoretically) burgeoning relationships, it seems to me that the success or failure is rooted in change. Specifically, change in the people involved. And while I am the antithesis of a relational expert, I have become a self-appointed expert on personal change over the last year or so.

People change. People change constantly. But people also change at different times, rates, and in a myriad of ways. It is how one deals with their own change that allows them to deal with the change in others.

Everybody who is old enough to have experienced the post-college, early-twenties lifestyle—a lifestyle that can only be described as an enigmatic mystery riddle—says the same thing: Nobody knows what the hell they are doing in their twenties, but eventually you begin to figure it out.

Everybody who is in the midst of experiencing the post-college, early-twenties lifestyle is coping with the realization that they have no idea what the hell they are doing while, with as much confidence as they can muster, doubtfully proclaims that it’s okay, because eventually they will figure it out. Cuz that’s what them old folk say.

And while them old folk may be right, everyone is so caught up in the mess that is their own life, that they’re too busy to get caught up in the mess that is anyone else’s life.

Basically, you have a group of people who have no idea what they’re doing, assume everyone else does, and are trying to process the changes they are experiencing in their own lives. Difficult, no?

Now add another person to the mix.

Beyond just romantic relationships, any sort of bond becomes stretched, weakened, and possibly broken by how you cope with your own changes, while simultaneously dealing with the changes in others. While changing in perfect unison is the perfect scenario, the reality is that perfect change doesn’t exist. Change is imperfect. Change is human nature—the most imperfect of all natures.

The problem is that self change is a wholly selfish construct. It’s rooted solely in yourself and your own experiences. And while, generally, selfishness is bad, sometimes it is necessary—as problematic as it can be.

Now consider a relationship. Something that should be selfless is tainted by the necessary selfishness of those involved. It seems like an insurmountable problem. It seems like we should all hole up to discover ourselves and re-emerge upon self-realization to unite with others and form friendships and relationships that are confident and solidified.

Depressing.

However, the fact is, periods of change and self-realization are good things. The key is surrounding yourself with people who understand what self-realization and change are. Not because you will be changing at the same time and in the same way, but because you will be realizing your changes together. Finding out if the people you are becoming are people who want to be together.

In some cases, the relationship will become stronger, while in others it will completely collapse. Neither is wrong. Moving apart is natural. As people change and mature, the people who are unwilling to accept the changes in others will be the ones that will see their relationships fail.

The ones, however, who realize the changes in themselves and others, and decide to move on anyway, aren’t experiencing failure. Those relationships didn’t fail, they just didn’t evolve, and as painful that discovery can be, in the end everyone is better off—even if one of them doesn’t believe it.

Change is a good thing. Change, like the people involved, is an imperfect thing. How you accept the changes in yourself and others, is how you become a better person for yourself and others.

By Nicolle

With the intention of making my unloading job easier, I once grabbed four dinner plates from inside the dishwasher. As I began to lift them, the wet, slippery underside of the bottom plate got the best of me. I dropped all four dishes on our ceramic kitchen floor.

That incident (along with a few others) convinced my family that I can’t be trusted with dishware (even though I’m still the chief dishwasher-emptier). I’m forced to absorb jokes and jabs about my butterfingers, and the mismatched dishes in the cupboard don’t do anything for my dish-breaker reputation.

My family thinks I’m just careless, that I don’t pay attention to how easy it is to break the dishes (I disagree and argue that if we just used plastic dishes or had rubber floors, the problem would be solved). Their arguments remind me that even things that are really quite delicate can sometimes appear unbreakable. Friendships are one of those things.

One of my closest friends is dating a guy I think is wonderful for her. I don’t believe in soulmates but if I did, I’d claim he was hers. That said, her relationship with him means she spends less time with me. And I get jealous.

Now, she’s also pursuing a degree, living 45 minutes away from me and in the middle of an internship, so I can’t entirely blame her boyfriend for the fact that I don’t get to see her as much as I’d like. But occasionally, I feel like she’s choosing him over me when her schedule opens up and she has a night free.

And, honestly, sometimes she does choose him over me. One of the reasons, we’ve recently discovered when we confronted this very issue, is that our friendship feels more dependable, more stable and more reliable. If we neglect our friendship for a few weeks (or months), we’re both confident that we’ll easily be able to pick right back up where we left off, no worse for the wear.

But, to neglect a romantic relationship for that same period of time is relational suicide. It clearly states to your partner that s/he isn’t as important as your job, your friends, your softball team or your book club.

In general, we demonstrate that we value our significant others more than our friends even though our friends are sometimes the people we turn to in our most difficult times. We devote more time and energy to our romantic relationships because they feel more fragile, and seem to need more attention, while our friendships seem stable, consistent and dependable.

There’s a lot of truth in that evaluation, especially to the unmarried. Right now, I’ve been “with” my best friends for more than six years. I’ve never had a boyfriend that long, so in my perspective, my friends are more dependable than a guy. I value my friendships more than any relationship I’ve had because my friends held my hand after my awful break-up, jumped up and down with me when I got my new job, visited me after I had my wisdom teeth pulled out and missed me when I lived in Australia. That kind of community is invaluable.

At some point, I realize, that could change. As my friends get married, their values have to shift in order to insure a successful marriage. I can no longer expect to share the same space as her husband on my best friend’s list of priorities.

While that shift is expected, anticipated and even welcomed (I honestly want the best for my friends), it’s not easy or fun. And until that shift is necessary due to formal nuptials, I don’t want it to come early. I want to remain a priority in my friends’ lives until they tie the knot.

We forget that our friendships need as much time, intentionality and deliberateness as our romantic relationships. Friendships take planning, phone calls, dinner dates, sleepovers and movie marathons to keep them thriving.

In other words, they take sacrifice. The fragility of our friendships is often hidden behind strong bonds, but to guarantee their success, we have to be as diligent about them as our romantic endeavors. We have to be willing to give up a little of our free time, a little of our sleep time and a little of other-relationship time to keep our friendships strong.

Without sacrifice, friendships, like my dishes, can easily be shelved, dropped or even broken. And while I can take the teasing about being a butterfingers when it comes to dishware, friendships are a much more serious and worthwhile matter.