Something I’ve noticed when I listen to people describing their relationships is that they talk about what the person does and often link it to what a previous partner wasn’t doing.

“They text/call me regularly.”

“They don’t stand me up.”

“They’re not treating me like a booty call.

“They seem like they’re over their ex.”

“There’s no harem with this one.”

These rather funny descriptions provide clues about what they deem as their barometer for feeling comfortable or even compatible.

While this stuff is all well and good within the context of a mutually fulfilling relationship, when focused on too much, we won’t really have a sense of what makes a relationship work, never mind what is making this (our) relationship work.

Sometimes we focus on these details because we’re unsure of what to look for emotionally and in our relationship’s overall feeling and substance.

We might get so caught up in breathing a sigh of relief that the person isn’t messing us around like a past partner that we fail to acknowledge genuine positive qualities and characteristics as well as components of our relationship or fail to acknowledge incompatibilities caused by clashes in core values.

For example, I hear from many women, in particular, who, because they got dinner, flowers and romance periodically, it took them months to a year or so to realise that they weren’t in a relationship. They fell into the trap of relying on what I call ‘hallmarks’.

A relationship with hallmarks isn’t an automatic precursor to a relationship with the landmarks of healthy relationshipsintimacy, consistency, progression, balance, and commitment.

The landmarks, along with shared cored values and care, trust and respect that lead to love, are what are present in relationships that not only stand a chance of going the distance (in whatever form that may take. Remember that marriage isn’t the only form of commitment!) but are present in relationships where we feel secure, content and basically happy on a consistent basis.

The hallmark issue shows itself around meeting friends or parents, sleeping together, going on holiday, etc. Humans often regard landmarks as indicating where we’re at in the relationship. They’re not; they’re hallmarks.

There was a time when you could typically expect that these (well… minus the sleeping together) were strong indicators that the relationship was/is serious. Now, however, casual relationships (ones that we actually know we’re in and those we don’t) are far more prevalent. There isn’t as much societal pressure to commit. Some people also use, for example, their parents/friends to test out their partners or sabotage the relationship due to fear of commitment. It’s as if they smile to your face while secretly pulling the lever that will set off the commitment panic button and bring about their self-fulfilling prophecy. Some also do it because it enables them to get what they want in the present, a.k.a. Future Faking and Fast Forwarding.

When we experience these hallmarks within the context of a mutually fulfilling relationship with the landmarks, they’re emblematic of where we’re at. If, however, we don’t have the substance of the landmarks, it leads to confusion and problems.

A relationship without the landmarks isn’t going to work. That’s not to say that we won’t try to make it work. Often, we persevere because we’re focused on investment and/or betting on potential. Still, if we substitute hallmarks for landmarks, we significantly short-change ourselves.

We can like and love someone, but if their actions undermine intimacy, balance, progression, consistency and commitment, we’re trying to row a boat with one oar.

As I explained to someone recently, it’s the equivalent of showing up ready to get your hands dirty in the relationship, going, “Gimme 5, ” and being left hanging. Each time you try to show up and say “Gimme 5”, you won’t raise your hand as high as before. Eventually, you end up meeting the other party at their comfort level— unavailable. After all, no one wants to be left hanging, so you stop expressing your true self, including your needs, and start holding back.

It’s very easy to focus on acts like texting or what they say or the types of things that they’re doing that you think symbolises a relationship. If you’re finding this exhausting, look at how you feel, who you are in this relationship, and the net result of everything that’s happening. Are you experiencing the landmarks?

Here are some clues…

Are you emotionally open with each other and willing to be vulnerable? Are you both getting emotionally closer?

If it feels as if you take a step forward and then there’s a gradual reshuffle to the status quo of their emotional comfort zone (going into reverse), ground yourself. Try to ascertain what is going on in your relationship. Are you both at a similar stage, or are there things that your partner is not voicing but showing in their behaviour?

Are you being yourself?

If you’re not, that’s in itself a far bigger problem than the relationship itself. You cannot know where you’re at, including whether you share core values and whether you’re truly intimately engaging with your partner if you’re afraid of being seen, which equals fear of vulnerability. You need vulnerability for intimacy and commitment, plus you can’t have other landmarks either because you’re not being them.

Can you have conversations and discussions without barriers? If something is bothering you, can you ask questions and be vulnerable?

Loneliness is something that happens when we stop expressing our innermost feelings and thoughts. It’s a horribly lonely feeling when this happens within a relationship. If there are barriers to expressing your respective feelings, get honest with yourself (and them) about why these exist.

Have you had experiences of conflict, criticism and disappointment and navigated your way out of it?

The true test of a relationship isn’t about how it operates when you don’t know each other or the going is smooth; it’s about whether you remain a team or are divided by life’s inevitables. You also get a true sense of who a person is when you say or show no or when life doesn’t go their way.

Do you both honour separateness in the sense that you are interdependent in the relationship but remain individual entities? Do you know where you end and they begin?

If not, this creates a balance issue due to codependency (excessive emotional reliance). If you lose yourself in your relationships, this means that the landmarks [of healthy relationships] are absent.

Are either of you in a child role or are you both engaging from an adult to adult perspective? Do you feel superior or inferior?

If you’re very aware of power in the relationship, this is a code red alert that something is very wrong. It’s either in the way that you’re both conducting the relationship and/or the way that you see yourself in the relationship. If you’re not equal, you’re not copiloting the relationship. It means you’re definitely not being you, and you definitely don’t have the landmarks.

Are there illusions and bullshit in the relationship?

If yes, this puts a wrecking ball through the possibility of the landmarks. You know you’re being you when you can each name and own your bullshit and stand together in an honest place.

Are either of you living in the past?

Not in the present, hence not showing up, hence can’t really copilot the building up of those landmarks.

Do you both take responsibility for your own stuff?

It’s got to be two of you or there’s going to be big problems. You don’t want to end up playing Florence.

Are you getting on with your own growth? Do you want him/her/them to evolve, or do you feel threatened by the possibility of it?

If the answer s no, you will be too enmeshed to engage from a place of love, care, trust and respect. You won’t have the self-esteem that gives you the confidence to be yourself and enjoy your relationship.

Do you give wholeheartedly in the relationship, or are you keeping score?

If you do the latter, it quickly leads to resentment. It stems from people pleasing to create a tipping point that you, on some level, hope will make them cough up the relationship or person you want.

Remember that we’re all different and express ourselves in different ways.

If the net result of how you each engage together is that you’re sharing emotionally in the relationship and collaborating to copilot your relationship in the same direction while being your true self and accepting them for who they are, that is what matters.

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