Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.

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Unless you live alone in a cave, you can’t avoid people. The cashier at the grocery store who always asks if you found everything you wanted. The server in your favorite restaurant who knows more about your night out than your mother. The family get-togethers and neighborhood hangouts. Most of all, your co-workers who have the pleasure of you eight hours every day. Your significant other and kids, if you have them, who share your home space. Like it or not, you have many relationships.

The MedStop nurse asked me if I am in a relationship last time I went to get an STI order form as part of my annual “check everything” strategy. “I am in many relationships,” I told her. She disappeared for a few moments and re-appeared with the form and a frown telling me to renounce my evil ways. “I can’t help it,” I said, “there are people everywhere!” She didn’t find it amusing, failing to appreciate the joke.

According to Esther Perel, famed relationship expert, we exist in the mids of two relationship revolutions – one taking place at home, the other at work, both very similar in what drives them. At home, we’ve transitioned from production based relationships  – the institution of marriage for the preservation of wealth and growing one’s resources, to service-based relationships – we want pleasure, fun, someone to fulfill us and help us become the most we can be as individuals. We’ve elevated personal relationships up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from survival, through love and connection, to self-actualization. Which is to say, we now leave relationships not because they are bad, but because they are not good enough.

We used to look for steady, secure jobs to pay the bills. Now we look for jobs that help us live meaningful lives. We expect our bosses to motivate us, praise us, challenge us, mentor us, and inspire us. We leave jobs not because they are bad, but because they are not fulfilling.

We used to know the roles we should play and appreciate the simplicity of knowing what those were. Now, we’re redefining everything including ourselves. In all this freedom to choose, to change, to explore, we find no stability and security. For most, this causes existential anxiety. The more choices we perceive, the more we question if we made the right choice. We struggle with FOMO. We compare ourselves to others in an attempt to gauge how we are doing. Unfortunately, we find those others on social media where they construct the best version of their lives. In the absence of close relationships, we have no one to talk to about things that matter deeply. We have no one to tell us how and when we are wrong. No one to mentor us. No good, attainable examples of how to solve problems, what to value, how to prioritize, when to quit.

People come to me, the life coach, or go to therapy, to talk about things they used to share with their grandmother and best friends. I can’t help but notice how our relationship narratives show up everywhere, including in the workplace. Are you task oriented or relationship oriented? Are you collaborative or competitive? Self-reliant or interdependent? What do you value more, autonomy or loyalty and tradition? There are benefits and an opportunity cost to every inclination. Knowing who you are and how you are, may be helpful to navigate both your work and personal relationships. We individually, and collectively, are charting new relationship territory, negotiating between the past and the future, trying to define the present.

We need conversations. Lots of them. As we try to converse, we must put into words the stirrings within, giving them shape and space to emerge. Allowing others to peak in and reflect back, we have a chance to see and hear ourselves through the eyes and ears of others. In the process, we discover how universal our individual concerns are. We could learn from each other’s success and mistakes. We could appreciate each other’s language and style. The most task-oriented, autonomous, self-reliant people can meet the most relationship-oriented, loyal, and interdependent ones somewhere in the middle. We can do this by making an effort to talk to each other, open up, be curious and genuinely interested in others.

How things evolve on the personal and professional relationship fronts depends on each one of us. The only thing certain is that uncertainty is the new normal. It might be unsettling, but it’s full of opportunity.

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