I know that titles a mouthful ;-) but we decided on it being the best fitting and most appropriate for what this article conveys. Derek, a close friend of mine and myself co-wrote this one together as we both believe, via our own personal experiences, preferences and additionally likely a result of our mutual artistic and romantic temperaments, that challenging relationships are generally the better way to go. As opposed to easier, more mundane, simple relationships, if you will.
First, its important to define what exactly we mean by challenging.
Our definition of a person who might be more "challenging" if you will, would likely fit many of the following descriptors:
Intense, sensitive, more emotionally attuned to others, analytical, passionate, potentially more opinionated, ambitious, empathetic, more prone to moodiness, intellectual and curious, daring, critical, interesting life experiences, romantic, a thinker, adventurous, brave, a seeker, risk taker, and *a great communicator.
*Important note: "Great communicator" is a prime differentiating trait on this list, as without this trait, someone is less likely to be "challenging" in a healthy, growth inducing, engaging way and more likely tending towards being something of a train wreck.
Now, conversely, by a person or relationship being "challenging," we do NOT mean:
Controlling, emotionally chaotic, abusive, manipulative, dishonest, someone with addictions, arrogant, self righteous, selfish, self serving, bombastic, or toxic.
And now, with the definition of what "challenging" means out of the way, here are the reasons we think that having/being engaged in/part of a more challenging relationship (as opposed to a more simple, easy one) is usually the more fulfilling way to go:
1. When something is challenging, it keeps your attention. Sustaining any relationship over the long term tends towards having difficult aspects, often becoming more so as time passes further. Now, add in the inevitable downward tug of domesticity and routine, which can nudge relationships toward the especially mundane. When relationships go this route, it can leave people listless, less emotionally involved, and less engaged. We can mistakenly take these relationships for granted over the years. When something is easy, we also sometimes value it less. Something that continually challenges us tends towards holding our attention and interest.
2. When something is challenging, it brings you face to face with learning, not only more about another human being and how to relate closely with someone, but more about yourself. We all have certain ways we believe ourselves to be. A particular idea and perception about who we are, the values we believe ourselves to hold true, what we imagine ourselves as being capable of. A challenging relationship can often turn many of these beliefs on their head, and in a great way. Pushing you in ways unlikely imagined. Ushering forth parts of you that you hadn't imagined existing. Bringing about life experiences you might never have explored otherwise. Shattering emotional, intellectual, and literal (experience based) personal ceilings.
Brooke: In my first relationship, I entered into it with very low self esteem and little sense of self worth. I didn't see myself as being loveable. Over time though, this relationship was a stepping stone in helping bring me more face to face with my own lovability. Something that, prior to and during that particular time in my life, I hadn't experienced. Slowly but surely coming to (finally) see that I actually have much to offer, that I am intelligent, strong, and very worthwhile.
Additionally, growths and shifts I have experienced as being prompted by other connections in my life (both platonic and romantic) have included: challenging myself to be more patient, reconsidering my ideas about what it means to be faithful, calming and maturing in my communications and approaches to sensitive issues, and continuing to challenge myself when I feel afraid of trusting (something I still fluctuate back and forth between succeeding with and having moments of shakiness/not doing so hot on). Each of these, specific things I have been prompted in within my connections to various others. All, worthwhile personal challenges. All, resulting in my continually learning more about myself and the others to whom I have been connected.
Derek: I have been challenged by friends on lifestyle choices. I’ve had friends challenge me to question monogamy and consider polyamory. I’ve had friends challenge the language I used when, as a teenager I used the word “retarded”. I’ve had roommates help me to be better at cleaning and keeping up with chores. I’ve had friends and partners challenge me to stand up to people when they are saying something sexist or racist or unkind. I’ve had friends inspire me to improve upon my punctuality, to brighten up my fashion, and to be more free on the dancefloor. I’ve had friends challenge my assumptions about marriage and urge me to consider the wisdom in potentially not having children, or to at least adopt if I do decide to have kids. I have had friends inspire me to garden and to live simply, to leave a smaller footprint. I’ve had friends inspire me to learn languages and to travel, which I am still planning on getting around to. I’ve had friends help me to empathize more with a myriad situations, to slow down, and more closely consider how to truly best assist.
I think the sort of people that accept challenging others into their lives are open people: open to new ways of thinking and doing things. But I also think that I have come to learn the difference between toxic conflict and constructive challenge, and this is an important distinction. Sometimes in life, it is hard to tell the difference and I like to think as I get better I’ve narrowed it down more. I know the type of challenge I want in my life. I want someone to challenge me to be a more compassionate and selfless person, a better therapist, friend, ally to marginalized people, a better community member, and a more skillful songwriter. I want someone to inspire me to grow toward the light and someone who will, in turn, take inspiration from me.
3. Through challenge is where we often grow the most. Personal growth isn't prompted by routine, the mundane, the easy, or the uneventful. Its spawned by things that make us pause. By moments that push our comfort zone. By experiences we never imagined encountering or navigating. By feeling and exploring emotions and thoughts we had typically avoided, or just never touched on previously. This is where the most prominent personal growth is found.
Brooke: One relationship in my life, while not the right fit because of a particular demon he carried, as well as some emotional maturity and ambition issues, coincidently brought out my best side. With this person, I was the partner I wished I had been earlier. The one I was too much of a mess to be prior. In this relationship, I was a far more centered, healed, much more ready version of myself. I was patient. More emotionally flexible. Braver. More communicative. And far more vulnerable and open with my heart. I loved who I was as a partner in that relationship.
However, I realized that the real challenge of my second major relationship was to be found in the admitting that we weren't meant to work out. That I needed to both see that in its fullness, and accept it. That I was far beyond him in terms of my ambitions, sense of adventure, personal excitement and just general hunger for life. That he was stuck, while I was moving forward in a blur of color, while continually mistakenly reaching back and grasping, attempting to pull him along with me. Instead, I had to acknowledge that letting go was the best decision I could make, and further, that only in letting go could I spring forward and bloom into all I was meant to become in my life overseas. I saw this in its starkest clarity only after I was able to fully let go. (It can be quite hard to see clearly when still clouded by being within the emotional midst of a situation) Realizing that in fact, holding on had been hindering and stunting me. Sometimes, we mistakenly think that holding on is the stronger, more commendable action or declaration of love. When in reality, equally as often and depending on the relationship and time, its in letting go that can also be the stronger, braver, more right act.
For another poignant relationship example, I will reference one of my closest friendships that's spanned the past decade (Ill call her "S"). Never have I felt more loved, supported, nor more truly seen by a friend than I have by S. And yet, she is a friend that challenges me openly and honestly when I need it. If I am acting in such a way that is hurting or hindering myself, or might be expressing a point of view that seems a misperception, she is the one who lovingly points out where I might be stunting myself. She is one of the people who knows me the best, both my strengths and my weaknesses. Telling me often and with enthusiasm how much she loves me, lamenting my strengths and lovability regularly. While also reminding me, in the most loving of ways, where my weaknesses or personal struggles lie when they come towards the surface, and helping guide me back towards seeing more clearly. I have flourished and grown immensely through the course of our friendship, as a result of her insights, and in coming to see the Brooke reflected back at me through her eyes.
Derek: I've been in relationships with strong women who have inspired me to express how I am feeling instead of holding things in. In the past, when I've had reservations about an aspect of a relationship or an offhand comment that bothered me, I would hold it in and mull it over. But past partners have taught me to be more honest in the moment instead of having to wait to have it all neatly figured out in my head. They have challenged me to be more authentic. I've also had partners who have suffered emotional wounds, who have taught me to slow down and understand my blind spots and my own privileges. They have challenged me to be a better listener and to be more understanding. All of these relevant lessons have taught me to be a better person and though it was difficult and stressful at the time to look in the mirror and see areas I needed to resolve or change, they have made me a better person.
Ideally, we are in relationships where we can both constructively challenge one another. When someone challenges us it’s not always going to hit its mark. Sometimes the same people that have genuinely helpful feedback also challenge us in ways that we think are off or we don’t agree with. Sometimes a friend will challenge us and we will adamantly disagree with them until years or months later when we see their insight in a new light and reconsider it. Conversely, sometimes, we think that someone has inspired us to grow but we realize later that their advice was actually pretty terrible. It can go both ways.
But at the end of the day I would rather be with someone – whether close friend or partner - who is critically engaged with our relationship and the world around them. I prefer this as opposed to someone who is passive and only lives on the surface, who never questions themselves or those around them, and who never values change. If there is one constant with people who gravitate towards constructive challenge in their lives, it is that they value changing themselves for the better.
4. Challenging relationships are like a puzzle of sorts. If both people come to the relationship with the mindset of "we are two mysteries, ever in progress, complex, and slowly but surely unfolding, evolving and growing together over the course of our journey together," this makes it a far more engaging and exciting relationship. Approaching things as a perpetual discovery together. It can
makes disagreements or challenges less scary or potentially damning and instead, more something to navigate through using openness, interest, a sense of discovery and intrigue.
5. People who live life intensely can often be more passionate lovers, more emotionally attuned to others, and just more engaging and inspiring to live alongside of. Because their brain knobs are "turned up" and/or amplified, if you will, they can be more adventurous, captivating and emotional. On the flip side, this can mean their sometimes being moody and/or difficult. However, this is not the same as someone who is a loose canon or emotionally chaotic. What we mean is, someone intense but grounded. Someone who has harnessed their intensity, for the most part. Someone who may have had to work for it, and may still be to some degree, which is ok, but they are generally grounded.
On the flipside, one thing we would note is this: more fiery people may have a greater capacity to burn us. So while the payoff and potential for life enrichment is often higher within challenging relationships, the pain can possibly be more intense at some points as well.
6. In challenging relationships, these tends towards being ripe for greater emotional depth. In having the type of connection in which frequently delving below the surface, in pursuing growth and change, in being open to new ideas and altering the perception of who you are and who you can be, in being emotionally candid with one another and vulnerable- revealing your deepest selves to one another, this often results in something deeper than usual. More poignant. With more...invisible, entwined threads weaving between the two people, if you will.
Ultimately, Derek and I believe there are far greater riches, growth opportunity, poignant potential for emotional connection, more engaging learning, and generally further overall satisfaction that comes from a more challenging relationship over the long term, as opposed to an easier, simpler one. We aren't saying one is better than the other, but more so that one offers greater overall life potential and satisfaction. With greater possibility for paramount moments, potent personal evolution, intense emotions felt, and life changing experiences to be navigated through.
And, the two authors of the article. Great friends for going on 16 years now!