Riding the Rollercoaster

Note: This essay is a work in progress, and reflects a struggle I have had (and still have) to understand the dynamic of relationships. It is certainly not the final word, and may even be totally off base. Especially for that reason, I welcome your thoughts.

Some years back, I noticed a pattern whenever I took a new job. As I started in the new place, I was very happy, delighted at my new opportunity. On a honeymoon, you might say. Then, usually mere weeks later, I looked around and thought, "What was I thinking? I must have been crazy!" And I was in the dumps for a time. After that I got out of the ditch and began taking ownership of the job, making it mine and putting my stamp on it. And in time I came to enjoy it.

It's a little like there's a wave, or perhaps a mini-rollercoaster sort of thing going on. From a baseline, the emotions go up into a great happiness, remain there a short time, and then plummet. Then they climb back up to something near the baseline and level off.

This isn't always pleasant, and I don't enjoy it, especially the down part, but it seems pretty consistent in my experience.

Recently, in a conversation with a good friend (he has to be a good friend to engage in these sorts of conversations, which we do with some regularity), it occurred to me that this pattern of up and down might apply to more than jobs. It might also apply to moving into a new house, for example. Or, more importantly, to relationships with other people. And with God.

I don't think the pattern holds for all relationships. We're unlikely to have this sort of pattern with, say, the guy who fixes the car. Or your hair stylist. But it would be especially true for relationships where there is an expectation of some measure of intimacy. In other words, in close relationships, including but not limited to marriage, it's a real possibility. Not universal, but not unheard of.

In this situation, both people enter with expectations that are somewhat higher than where they normally live their lives. And their individual expectations are similar, but not the same, and perhaps not equally high on the curve.

Then comes the real world. Few of us live in the "real world" of relationships before marriage. We don't see the flaws and quirks of another person until we have been together in marriage for a time. But they are there. Guaranteed. And as they come into the picture, expectations will to some degree be lowered. In fact, expectations have to be lowered or there will be no peace in the relationship. At some point, the dreams of a life together imported straight from heaven diminish, and a more realistic substitute comes into play, as we begin to interact with real, fallible and quirky people.

Further, we often underestimate what's needed for success in a relationship.

Example: I once listened to a small group of Christians discussing what was necessary for a couple to have a successful marriage. "Jesus," they agreed. "If they both know Jesus, they have what it takes to succeed."

So I proposed a situation: Joe grew up in New York City, the privileged son of a wealthy family. He went to the finest schools, speaks a couple languages, plays more than one musical instrument, and is by most standards a man of taste and culture. And he loves Jesus.

And now along comes Maria. She grew up in a village of a few dozen people in the desert mountains of Mexico. She has never seen electric lights or running water. She has minimal education - is illiterate - and has never been more than 20 miles from her village. But she loves Jesus.

How likely is it, do you think, that these two would enjoy life together and have a successful marriage? There's a pretty big gap between them, right? Not insurmountable, but an extremely difficult task.

That sort of gap can be equally large even if both people have similar backgrounds, but one person has a large, expansive worldview, and the other has a small, constrained world, seen only through peep-holes in the sides of the box that contains his or her world.

The descent from euphoria to reality is not a big deal for most people, but it can be a very big deal. For example, it can be a big problem when backgrounds are radically different, as in my example. It also becomes a problem when one (or both) of the individuals involved professes love with the other person, but is in fact in love with the dream the person stands for, with what the person "does for me." When it's not, "I love you," but rather, "I love how I feel when I'm with you. You make me feel so good," there's a problem.

Nobody can always, on a long-term basis, make someone else feel good. Even the attempt is a heavy load. So as the dreams are shattered, whether gently or rudely, what happens? That's a tough question, but I have an idea.

People live with different degrees of interaction with reality. The more closely my "world" coincides with the real world, the more mentally and emotionally healthy I will be. But many of us don't accept the world as it is, instead creating our own "reality," which is not real at all.

For example, someone who lives in a world that excludes God is not living in reality, especially if that person believes in the existence of God. Someone who builds walls and excludes other people and anything that appears unpleasant or threatening is not in reality.

Perhaps everyone has some area of life where there is some denial of reality. But there are limits. Consider this:

Could the difference between sanity and insanity be marked by the extent to which one's "personal" world corresponds with reality? Put another way, the greater the extent to which we create our own reality, the less emotionally healthy we are. And the less able we are to engage in solid, healthy relationships with other people and God.

Consider our "worlds." Some of us live in large, wide-open worlds, where we are unendingly curious and in awe of God's creation. In this world, other people are welcomed. These are places where we investigate new things and grow into a deep interaction with the people and places around us. It's a rich place and produces rich lives.

Others, however, live in a small, carefully fenced, tightly secured world, in a place where we live alone and others are not welcome. We're safe behind our shields. "Safe" but unable to truly enter into the worlds of those around us, and so unable to enjoy the gifts and richness brought into our lives by others. Small worlds result in small lives.

This is because people who live in small, boxed-in worlds always avoid reality. Always. And because of that, their lives are distorted, based in an illusion.

So when one person, a "big world" person, comes together to build a life with a second person, one who is a "small world" person, there are problems. The first will struggle with the shallowness and constraints of the relationship, and the other will be afraid, feel threatened, and "circle the wagons."

A couple things might happen in this case. The big person might decide the relationship is worth the sacrifice, and attempt to squeeze into life in the small world. But it will be nearly impossible, and this person will never have peace.

Or the small person might decide to take a chance and come out of the box, considering the relationship worth more than the "security." This process would also be difficult, and would probably require assistance. It could also be richly rewarding.

For the relationship to last, something must change. Either the small world has to come up or the big world come down. At some level, the two must come together in a synthesis in which both people can be content. My suspicion is that only the first is ultimately possible: Someone must come out of the box.

Otherwise, there is no future for them together.

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