Here’s some front-page news you just might want to sit down for: Relationships are messy.
And the best relationships?
They’re still messy, just at a very high level.
Lest we be lulled into adolescent notions of Hollywood fairytale romance, of squeaky-clean happily ever afters…
Caveat emptor: There will be dirty dishes, hair-clogged drains and, if there’s a dog, cat or free-range fish, it will – guaranteed – puke indoors.
Now that we’ve dispensed with the niceties, let’s get down to it…
There are clichés aplenty – and drippy motivational posters to go with them – suggesting that business and leadership are all about relationships. They suggest that, if only you mind the interpersonal bits, success is just around the bend.
And then there are the complexities of life out here…
I was in conversation a couple of weeks ago with a dear client navigating the river of one of those pesky real-world relationships.
After pulling out our metaphorical flashlights and having a look around the basement, we discovered that the relationship in question was firmly in the grips of a pair of adolescents.
The inner teens, having consumed a few too many romance novels and seen more than their share of “boy-meets-girl, blah, blah, blah” movies, couldn’t figure out why things weren’t going according to the script.
With the adolescents at the wheel, the actual adult humans in the relationship weren’t driving.
They may not have even been in the car.
And while wild, creative adolescent energy can infuse all sorts of goodness, idealism, and fun into relationships – particularly romantic ones – it’s not that useful when the time comes for substantive conversation, boundary-setting, or clarity.
To say nothing of budgets, planning or other grown-up stuff!
The challenge is that the adolescent parts of us (who tend to enjoy drama) don’t have any more sophistication than we did when we were actually at that stage of development…
And yet, they are tenacious, and in the rush of newness and discovery, it’s not at all uncommon for people well-beyond their teen years to unconsciously hand the keys off to these Hollywood- and hormone-addled parts of ourselves.
It doesn’t just happen in romantic relationships, by the way. The same sort of energy shows up in new business partnerships, when teams form, and just about any time the air is infused with the thrill of the new.
It’s not a bad thing, of course. It’s just that the qualities of the inner adolescent, while hugely valuable when consciously harnessed and leveraged, can easily go sideways when left to their own devices.
That we live in a culture that tilts relentlessly toward adolescence doesn’t help.
From ideals of youthfulness to distorted “can do” energy, (burn out) from reality TV to petty office and national politics, it’s the water we swim in.
The good news is that once it’s seen for what it is, the boundless energy and creativity of adolescence can be harnessed beautifully.
Conversely, we can choose consciously to move that part of ourselves aside in clear, healthy ways.
Back to the session I mentioned above: We had a good chuckle and, grown-up hands firmly on the wheel, the client left with a plan for an adult-level conversation with their partner.
And with their level of awareness, they still get to tap into all that wild energy when – and if – they choose.
And knowing that even the best relationships are messy, I imagine that without their inner adolescents at the wheel, they’ll be fumbling fabulously forward!