The Ups and Downs of Navigating Relationships
This piece was aired at 14 East’s virtual live storytelling event on the theme of wilderness in May.
Everyone experiences love differently. It manifests itself in varying ways according to relationship. But regardless of the nature of relationships, one thing is certain: navigating them is not easy.
When you choose to wander through the wilderness, there is a risk that goes along with it. You don’t know who or what you’ll encounter. You may have a course mapped out, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to stick to it. Even the most rigid algorithms cannot help you in the wilderness; it remains unpredictable.
Similarly, figuring out someone else’s style of loving and communicating is not just difficult, but sometimes impossible. It’s a wilderness and we’re all just trying to make our way through it.
Despite the tedious navigation that accompanies relationships, everyone takes part in them.
I spoke with three different pairs — all with differently defined relationships.
I asked each of the three pairs the same questions about their relationship, their intimacy and how they navigate it.
Vulnerability was key to all three. Just like the wilderness, intimate relationships expose us mentally, emotionally and at times, physically. The vulnerability that is evoked by the wilderness forces the navigation of both ourselves and others.
Kennedy & Ivie
Kennedy Cadichon and Ivie Obrimah met in August of 2018 during the first week of their freshman year of college. Neither was from the Chicagoland area (Kennedy, from Florida, Ivie, from Nigeria), and they were both on their own. They were each other’s first point of contact at DePaul and their friendship came naturally.
Bato & Gabbie
Bato Mihajlovic and Gabbie Hay first met in 2008 when they were in second grade. They, too, are roommates and spend time together both in and out of their apartment.
“I feel like there’s definitely some codependency, but not in a bad way,” said Bato. “I just rely on Gabbie for a lot of emotional support – which she’s really good at giving. I know she’s my rock in that sense.”
Keith & Camila
Keith Norward and Camila Barrientos first met last March in their study abroad class and began dating last October. They also are both officers in DePaul’s Student Government Association (SGA), they cook together often and have many mutual friends.
The Experience of Love
There are three main types of love, according to Tim Cole, an associate professor at DePaul University’s College of Communication. They are compassionate, companionate and romantic.
Cole holds a PhD in interpersonal communication and specializes in romantic relationships, and attachment and relational communication. Cole says that one of the central principles to navigating relationships is understanding how another person experiences love.
Compassionate love is marked by feelings of respect, care and trust. The affection in compassionate love is manifested through trust and companionship. Kennedy and Ivie’s relationship is an example of compassionate love. Their trust and respect towards each other is that of a strong and caring bond that is unwavering in everything they do.
Companionate love is a love that is slow to develop, marked by strong affection, interdependency, intimacy and commitment. Bato and Gabbie’s relationship perfectly exemplifies the tight-knit affection bond of companionate love. Their bond slowly grew over a 10-year span. They’re each other’s go-to person for anything and everything.
Romantic love is a love marked by sexual attraction, shared enthusiasm to be together, loyalty and devotion. Keith and Camila’s relationship is representative of romantic love as they are in a committed romantic partnership of which loyalty and devotion are cornerstones.
Considering the different dynamics that are present in relationship of the three pairs, I made sure to emphasize the following question in their interviews:
“Do you think you should approach romantic and platonic relationships differently? If so, why and how?”
The consensus from all three pairs was, no, romantic and platonic relationships should not be approached differently – with exception to sexual relationships, and Cole agreed.
“Both romantic and platonic relationships share knowledge, trust, and social support,” he said.
However, a key difference that he noted was the presence of social control. That’s when one tries to mitigate or control the behaviors of another. It is usually accompanied by nagging and a show of concern or discontent with the other’s behavior.
Social control is often present in romantic relationships. Whereas in platonic relationships, a person is more willing to accept the other for who they are and do not make any attempt to change them.
Patterns of Love
According to Cole, a large part of navigating relationships is becoming accustomed to the other person’s patterns. The pattern of their behavior and their reactions both tie into their experience of love. Learning someone else’s pattern — especially in relation to their vulnerability — allows one to better understand where they’re coming from when they act or react a certain way.
Patterns are unique to every person. Along with the individual experience of love, other factors of the love patterns are as follows: who we choose to love, how we interact with them and how we allow them to treat us.
Because of their longstanding relationship, Bato and Gabbie have spent years learning one another’s patterns.
To them, understanding patterns manifests itself through recognizing each other’s fears. As the two prepared to move to Chicago in the fall of 2018, Gabbie sensed apprehension from Bato.
“We sat together and talked about all of the things we were worried about and our fears,” Gabbie said. “Being able to open up with each other and establish that we weren’t just going to be roommates going into this, we were going to be best friends and be able to talk about anything.”
Committing to learning someone else’s patterns requires a conscious, voluntary choice, as well as the understanding of the unpredictable nature of another person’s intimate behavior.
Kennedy and Ivie are no strangers to each other’s patterns. However, they commented on how they tend to feel unsure when committing to learn someone’s behavioral pattern.
“Sometimes, relationships don’t last very long, sometimes people do grow apart. It happens,” Ivie said.
“Exactly,” Kennedy said. “You never know who you’re going to meet and encounter, or how long that relationship is going to last.”
“Sometimes when you’re getting to know someone, you try to lay out all of the possibilities of what could happen. Are we going to continue this or not? Sometimes things happen. It’s life, you move on.”
Cole’s professional definition of intimacy included aspects of mutual knowledge and understanding, and shared knowledge and experiences, as well as a sense of trust and vulnerability and overall social support.
How do you define intimacy?
As it happens, Bato and Gabbie’s definitions were not much different.
“I would define intimacy as a very unique, special feeling,” said Bato. “It’s shared with someone who you can talk to about anything and feel safe with them and feel safe talking to them about anything. With intimacy, there are really deep things you can talk about and light things as well.”
Gabbie followed up with, “Intimacy, to me, is having a mutual vulnerability,” she said. “An intimate relationship isn’t a relationship you have with just anyone, there are a select few and you both pick each other.”
Love & Attachment Styles
Each individual’s desire to take part in intimacy is connected to both their love style and attachment style.
There are six different love styles with which to identity.
Agape: selfless; care-giver; puts their own needs last
Eros: romantic; chemistry
Ludos: manipulative; love is a game
Mania: obsessive; love at first sight
Storge: based in friendship, then grows to more
Pragma: common sense; logical
What’s your love style? Take the test!
Similar to love styles, everyone has an attachment style.
Secure attachment: confident and satisfied in their relationship
Anxious attachment: lacks confidence in the relationship; constantly worried they’re not enough for their partner
Avoidant attachment: emotionally distant; extremely independent
Fearful attachment: inconsistent; afraid of attachment; over analytical of the relationship
What’s your attachment style? Take the test!
When it comes to Keith and Camila, they weren’t afraid to talk about what they need (or what they need to work on) regarding their own love and attachment styles.
Keith commented on his struggle to make himself available to others. Although no pairs took part in official love style or attachment style tests, what Keith described reflects an avoidant attachment style.
“I’ve always been independent so having to open up and think about another person more often has been the hardest part for me,” he said. “That’s the hardest part of navigating a relationship for me.”
In contrast, when discussing her needs in a relationship, Camila demonstrated an extremely strong agape love style.
“I am a very 110 percent type of person. I’m very overcommitted in all my relationships in my life. I always do too much, love a little too much, give a little too much, I’m not very good at asking for help and asking for things to be reciprocated when I need them to be,” she said.
“I always try to meld too hard and be one with the other person. It’s very hard for me to just be me and care about me. I’m the very opposite of selfish in a relationship. It can be very detrimental to myself and to the relationship.”
Due to COVID-19, the three pairs are practicing social distancing in different locations, forcing them to navigate a new kind of wilderness, this time away from the people that matter most.
For Keith and Camila, a relationship that’s built on romantic love, being hundreds of miles away — Keith in New York and Camila in the suburbs of Chicago — quarantine presents a new type of challenge: one without physical intimacy.
“It’s hard being apart because we are so used to taking classes together, going to the gym together, hanging out with friends together, cooking and eating every meal together, sleeping over at each other’s places, watching TV and doing homework together and FaceTime can’t substitute all that,” Camila said. “It’s hard because we miss each other’s presence the most, because our relationship was based in friendship and is so deeply rooted in us being each other’s best friends almost.”
For Bato and Gabbie, a relationship that’s rooted in companionate love, they miss the level of vulnerability they share with each other that they don’t with others.
“The hardest thing is not being able to be as expressive of myself as I usually am with Gabbie,” said Bato who quarantined with family in Indiana while Gabbie is in the suburbs of Chicago.
For Kennedy and Ivie, a relationship of compassionate love, they just miss doing things together.
“The hardest part is not being able to explore the city together,” Kennedy said.
When you choose to take part in a relationship, you are willingly stepping into the vulnerability of the unknown. You can try to control it, but chances are you won’t be successful in doing so. Embarking on a journey with someone else may not be easy but it’s always worth it, despite the risk.
Because at the end of it all, love truly is a wilderness and we’re all just trying to make our way through it.