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Of all of the divorces I see around me, there is a common refrain that drives the separation: he doesn’t see me; she doesn’t value what makes me me.
My one friend considered her empathy and nonjudgmental view of people to be her richest gifts. Her husband at the time had no use for them. My other friend’s creativity—which manifested in beautiful, intricate woodworking—was a prized part of his self-expression. His partner dismissed it without ever really looking.
What we want is for our deepest, truest self to be reflected in our partner’s gaze. When we reveal our gifts, the parts that make us stand out from others, we want them to be truly seen.
The tricky part of relationships is that our sense of self can get muddied as we interact with people who don’t fully get us.
Do you see me as the house warden, as the tired mom who needs to get to sleep by nine, as a control freak? Or do you see me as the giving, sentimental, nostalgic, artistic soul that I am? Do you value the parts of me that I value most? Do I get to put those parts on display or do I have to keep them sidelined?
And if you don’t see me as I see myself, where do I go to get that part of my identity confirmed, to make sure it continues to exist?
The reality is that we turn toward people and experiences that confirm the best parts of us. We bask in the attention of those who see us in the most gracious light. For me, that would be my high school friends. They see me most closely as I see my true self: passionate, bold, romantic, a good writer. Whenever I am with them, I feel affirmed. No matter what anyone else thinks of me, how I am perceived in an argument, or how bad I feel when I’ve failed at something, their confirmation holds.
Conversely, we slowly back away from those people who’ve got us all wrong, or who miss the parts of us that matter most. When that special part of us isn’t acknowledged and celebrated, we cannot feel deeply loved.
With children, the stakes are even higher. Our kids present to us different parts of their identities, and we praise some and reject others. It took me a while to stop buying skirts or dresses for my daughter, even though at five, it was clear she didn’t like them or see them as a part of how she saw herself.
As kids enter adolescence, the identities that they show us—the master gamer, the transgender creative, the knowledgeable sports statistician, the nurturing animal whisperer—need validation if we want our kids to find peace within. We don’t stand any chance at being close to them as they become adults if we haven’t allowed their true selves to show up. They will seek that validation elsewhere.
Even with my own dad, I didn’t have a full picture of his unique gifts until I went to his hospital when I was a kid. I saw a different side of him, one that was patient and doting and nuanced. I already knew he was a good doctor in the technical sense. People told me that often. But that wasn’t the part he was most proud of. It was how he treated his elderly patients, how present he was for them in difficult times. And once I saw that, it changed the way I saw him.
In romantic relationships, we often start out as one thing to our partners, only to have it shift later on. Our partners reflect back to us something cherished: the tender way we listen, a talent, a generosity. But then we do the messy work of building a life together and they begin to see us at our worst. They see us complain or nag or control. And then they build a new vision of us, which we feel every time we are in their presence.
In any type of relationship, when we feel a misalignment between how we see ourselves and how others see us, we have to fight through an often negative vision that the other holds of us. It becomes exhausting, the flash point of many arguments and misunderstandings. Eventually, whether with our partners, our parents, or our boss, we stop bringing our true selves out.
So how do we maintain the alignment, the harmony, between how those closest to us see us and how we see ourselves? The first step is to indulge every part of your identity that needs to express itself—to feel bold and entitled in being exactly who you are. Dye your hair pink, write a poem, volunteer at the Humane Society, take a language class—anything that feels like you. Reveling in what we like, in what makes us special, is always a worthy endeavor.
The second is to stay in touch with that identity, to find ways to bring it into our responsibility-laden lives, to honor it with time and attention. Your spouse may need a reminder that you are an adventurous soul with a spur-of-the-moment trip. Your boss may need a copy of the recent thank you email you got from a client to remember how you go above and beyond. You may need a day off to paint plein air style at the local beach.
And lastly, we thrive when our unique gifts are embraced and celebrated by those around us. If our inner circle consistently misperceives us, assigns characteristics to us that don’t fit, perhaps they don’t deserve to be there. We must surround ourselves with people who want to know and love the most true versions of ourselves.
They are out there, our kind, our people, who recognize us and smile in acknowledgement.