How do you know when you’re actually ready for a relationship? Not just how do you know when you’re available emotionally for a relationship, but how do you know when you’re healthy enough to be an asset to a relationship?
When you’re ready and able to treat your beloved, your “soul-mate,” this person who you’re intensely drawn to like no other and who’s eliciting all of these wonderful and intoxicating feelings in you—when you’re ready to treat this person as a real human being and not just a prop or an extension of yourself, then you’re just about ready for a relationship. Almost, but not quite.
There’s still something missing.
It’s when you’re ready and able to treat another human being like a real friend, that then you’re really ready for a truly Loving and extraordinary relationship.
The capacity for genuine friendship is and will always be one of the most pivotal factors (if not the most pivotal factor) in determining the health and longevity and depth of a relationship.
Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, goes into great depth discussing the types of relationships that we tend to imply by the word “friendships”—few of which actually should count as genuine friendships, but rather are better described as very temporary relationships of convenience or even just acquaintanceships. Real friendship is based on (at least) two things: being virtuous (i.e genuinely being a good and decent person), and not “needing” much from one’s friend (i.e. it’s not a utilitarian relationship). Friendship, in Aristotle’s estimate, is a relatively need-free relationship that takes place between two people who are genuinely decent and morally upright, and who instead of using each other and treating one another as props or as extensions of oneself, they instead come together to share who they are and what they’ve made of themselves (all of the good and healthy things) with each other. Real friendship definitely has spiritual and moral overtones to it.
They’re not two people who have come together to repeatedly “scratch an itch”—either physically or emotionally. There’s much, much more to it than that. If anything, they’ve come together to rub minds together and scratch each other’s soul. And who among us starts off relationships with this intention?
Again and again in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes it very clear that a person’s capacity for friendship is tied to his or her capacity for virtue—i.e., the person’s level of moral development. In other words, the more truly virtuous we are, the more capable of genuine friendship we will be and the better friend we will make, and thus the better life partner.
As Nietzsche put it:
“Friendship and marriage. The best friend will probably get the best wife, because a good marriage is based on a talent for friendship.”
And if you stop to think about it, this just makes sense.
The more virtuous or morally well-developed we are, then the more we will tend to be loyal, honest, trustworthy, persevering, more generous and willing to share and invest of ourselves, and the less parasitic and exploitative, less needy, less deceitful, and so on, we will be.
And so if all of this is true for friendship, then it’s equally if not even more so true of Love, which is an even more intimate form of friendship—a friendship that has caught fire.
Except . . . that there’s all of the emotion involved in “love”—all of the feelings and intoxication. And so in most cases, a relationship doesn’t start out as a friendship that has caught fire, or even as a fire that has caught fire between two healthy people who are mature and well-developed enough to be capable of genuine friendship. Rather, “love” tends to be a fire that has started between two people who are not too concerned with their character or level of moral and personal development, and who are more or less looking for an ongoing thrill / high and a convenient place to pleasurably scratch an itch and have someone make them feel wonderful about being less than their best.
And so how can something like that be anything but something very temporary and unstable, no matter how wonderful and intoxicating and life-enhancing it feels initially?
For a relationship to be lasting and healthy, both people in the relationship need to have a proven track record of being a good friend, and being a good human being.
Simply put, when you’re capable of actually being a very good friend to another human being, as well as being a good friend to yourself, and treating both the other person and oneself consistently in a very friendly and honorable way, then you’re ready for a relationship. You’ll be the right type of person for a relationship.
Yet many people never reach this level of psychological development, nor even appear interested in it or aspire to it.
And so because of this, many people are apt to do all sorts of hideous and cruel and unkind and unfriendly things to their supposed partner. And all in the name of their own feelings—either because the other person wasn’t meeting all their “needs” (or heaven forbid “anticipating” all of their “needs” and wants), or because the other person wasn’t making them feel the way they used to, etc, and so they feel permitted to revenge themselves on the other.
Bottom line: Where there is no real virtue or concern for moral goodness in oneself and another, there can be no real friendship. And where there is no real friendship, there can be no real love.
One day Ananda, who had been thinking deeply about things for a while, turned to the Buddha and exclaimed: “Lord, I’ve been thinking; spiritual friendship is at least half of the spiritual life!”
The Buddha replied: “Say not so, Ananda, say not so. Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life!”
(Samyutta Nikaya, Verse 2)