September 29, 2021
Early in my first marriage, I remember having a conversation with my wife about sex. I told her I thought it was the deepest expression of love. She didn't see it that way. I asked her how she saw it and she told me, "It's just something fun we do together." Who was right? We both were. The physical act of having sex comes with certain bodily sensations and responses. Those are the simple facts. But the meaning is up to us. It has the meaning we give it.
Most of life is the same way. It is our blessing and our curse. Think about how many men have gotten in trouble over the years for forgetting a wedding anniversary. Why? Well, to them it was just another day and the pressing needs of the moment took priority. To their wives, missing the anniversary felt  symbolic of the idea that their husbands didn't care anymore or didn't cherish them. (By the way, guys, you should know by now that anniversaries do matter to most women and give them their meaning.)
Whatever I experience in life, I live it more in my head and heart than in the outside world. A special day, like an anniversary, is special because we choose to give it meaning. Every year around Christmas, somebody knowingly says from the pulpit at church, "now, we know that December 25 is not the actual date of Christ's birth." Fair enough. But it remains special to us because that is the day we choose to commemorate Christ's birth.
Many things we experience in life that we chalk up to objective "facts" are actually the subjective interpretations we are giving to the facts. They are the stories we tell ourselves.
If you are turned down for a date, what are you inclined to think? "I'm not desirable" or "I have a boring personality" or, maybe instead, "this rejection has more to do with the other person than anything about me." Which of these meanings make you happiest? At the end of the day, the meanings I give to other people's actions will become the truth for me. The meanings they give those actions will be the truth for them. Either way, the meanings we choose to give things will largely dictate our happiness or misery. And we ARE free to choose. (2 Nephi 2:27.) In fact, we are destined to make our own choices between happiness and misery. As the scripture says, we are "free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for [our]selves and not to be acted upon." (2 Nephi 2:26.)
In his book, "Man's Search for Meaning," Victor Frankl wrote about his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He said the last ultimate human freedom is to choose the meanings we give things. In general, those who found meaning in their suffering survived where others who saw only meaningless suffering and death did not. Frankl came to understand as a prisoner that he could not change the facts of his life very much. But he had a great deal of control over the meanings he gave them.
As you are dating, if you find someone you really like, but some of the things they do bewilder and puzzle you, try on some new meanings. Don't assume the other person sees the world or even his or her own conduct the same way you do. Inquire about what these particular events or actions mean to them; share with them what they mean to you; and be open to change the meaning you give things to something that serves you better. Many, many misunderstandings in relationships happen because two people give the same event or action a different meaning.
Do you remember that 1990s film, "Father of the Bride"? There is a scene where the fiancé gives the bride "Annie" a blender as a gift. He said he did it because he knew she liked smoothies. When you look at it that way, it seems like a thoughtful gift. Annie interpreted it as an attempt to domesticate her through kitchen work. "Give the little wife a blender?" was her question.
This fictional story is typical of many disagreements that we have in relationships. One partner thought he was being thoughtful and giving his partner a gift she would like, and she adopted a narrative of oppression. How many times do we do that in real life? We choose to give other people's words or actions the worst possible meaning instead of the best.
Good communication is part of the answer to this, but only part. It is important to understand our partners' meanings the best we can. The bigger factor, however, is in the meanings we individually choose to give the events in our lives and the actions of our loved ones. That will determine more of our happiness than the actions themselves. This can be a tricky minefield for mid-singles who have been hurt in the past. We use the term "red flag" all the time, and I don't really like it. Looking deeply for red flags is expecting to be hurt. Be conscious of actual conduct, not the "flag" that signals it--not the sign that something bad might happen someday. Seeing red flags often leads to overreacting to actions that are actually innocuous--like your fiance buying you a blender because you like smoothies. Annie's dad attempted to correct her overreaction by saying, ”He just thought you might like to blend something sometime and that's all!"
In relationships, it's a challenge to question the meanings I give things, when the meaning seems so obvious to me. As Dr. Stephen Covey said, "we see the world as we are and not as it is." Choosing to alter the meaning we give the actions of a partner is claiming our agency and becoming free to act, rather than allowing ourselves to be acted upon. Most of the time, we are acted upon by emotions created by our own thoughts--which give meaning to those actions.
Ponder it friends. If you can grasp what I'm saying and internalize it, relationships get a whole lot easier.
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