Relationships and Romance

Are you the smartest person in the room in your relationship?

One of my favorite quotes is: “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.” It’s been attributed to a number of people, including Confucius. At its core, it means in order to be your best self, you should surround yourself with talented, interesting, intelligent people. (Also, strive to see those traits in others rather than assuming your own superiority.)

Listening to other people talk about things they’re knowledgeable and passionate about is invigorating. I love learning new things, and even if the particular subject doesn’t interest me, I love seeing others light up when they discuss the things that bring them joy.

As such, I prioritize connecting with people who have unique passions and interests. I’m astounded on the rare occasion I meet someone who doesn’t seem to have any passions or interests or hobbies. Surely you must do something–something you actually enjoy–to keep busy when you aren’t working, sleeping, or eating?

A couple of months after a confusing break up I made a list of takeaways to try to quantify the value of the time I’d spent with him (and to justify it as not wasted time). What did I learn from dating him? What vices and virtues did I adopt? How did spending time with him make me a better person?

(Yes, this was a “me” centered exercise. It’s difficult to say how you made someone else’s life better since you aren’t living their life. It can also be an infuriating thing to review after the end of a relationship–listing the myriad ways in which you supported someone and never felt that support reciprocated.)

This was the first time I’d formalized the exercise, though the concept itself wasn’t super rare to me. I think fondly of most of my exes–about the artists I learned about from their mixed tapes, the movies and TV shows we watched together, the history and trivia they were passionate to share with me.

I spent at least an hour, wracking my brain for even the most superficial things I might have learned and created lists. The activity had to be fully introduced by him. And it had to be something I enjoyed and would continue. Those hours being yelled at by his friends for sucking at yard games weren’t going to make the list at all. These were things I was taking with me from the relationship–concrete or abstract, superficial or significant.

One of my relationship beliefs is that you should somehow make each other better, make each other stronger. But after an hour of list making about this particular ex, I had a list full of vices. I hadn’t learned any new music or new sports or new activities (that I enjoyed). But I had learned to smoke a cigar and drink way too much and eat less healthy.

I struggled to see any virtues I’d acquired in the relationship. In fact, I had become smaller and more insecure over the course of that relationship. I’d responded to a constant belittling of myself, my opinions, and my emotions by him and his friends by becoming a more petty, more angry, and more anxious person. To the point that even before the end of the relationship I’d sought professional help for suddenly unmanageable anxiety culminating in panic attacks.

This revelation distressed me. This had not been a short relationship. How had I spent two years becoming a less fulfilled person?

In reflection, I turned those negatives to positives. I learned what I wanted and who I wanted to be.

I learned that I’m not going to prostrate myself to befriend people who don’t want to befriend me. That I’m not going to endanger my own financial security for other people. That I won’t tolerate partners who avoid conflict rather than enforcing healthy boundaries. That I won’t apologize for my hobbies and interests.

I learned that I don’t just want someone who makes me laugh and who can hold a conversation. I want someone who is actively compassionate and considerate of others, someone who takes as much time to show me that they want to be with me as I spend showing them. More than anything, I want someone who takes the same approach to their friendships and relationships. If you’re dating the smartest person in the room, maybe they’re in the wrong room. And maybe the fact that they’re comfortable there is a warning sign.

Maybe at the end of this relationship, my columns of vices and virtues didn’t sum up the way I want. Maybe from this one-hour exercise I learned more about myself and what I needed than I did from a two-plus year relationship. But that’s still a net-positive at the end of the day.

Have you taken inventory of your past relationships in this way? What have you learned from your friendships and relationships, even the ones that have gone south?

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