Is the sum of the parts always lesser than the whole? That was what Aristotle suggested and maybe I shouldn’t be challenging the idea. Does collaborating with others always guarantee a better outcome? These were the thoughts that I found dominating my mind on a chilly January morning. Let me tell you why.
There are songs and pieces of music that seem to feature throughout my life, often for changing reasons as the years pass. Back in my teens when I still considered a career in rock music as a viable future career-path I had a band with my best friend and my sister. We were an eclectic collective of musicians (in the loosest sense) and I’m pretty sure that there’s no lasting record of our jam-sessions for anyone to judge; if there were, you could enjoy my fledgling guitar skills combining melodically with my sister’s deft saxophone-playing, all finely balanced by my buddy’s enthusiastic (if not completely on-beat) drumming. One of our first numbers was a cover of ‘Let’s stick together’ (the Brian Ferry version).
We were never destined for stardom but I’ll take the warming glow that accompanied the happy childhood memory as that song played on the radio during my morning commute to work. It was the first time in years that I’d heard it and ironically the first time I had really listened to the lyrics. It seems that the song was written when the composer and his spouse were going through a tricky spell and he was trying to persuade them to stick with him, to honour their vow and to ‘consider [their] child’ lest they should part.
It prompted me to consider whether two parents in a relationship really are necessarily better at raising happy functional kids than any other possible scenario, a topic that is close to my heart.
Parenting together or apart?
I’m a big advocate of alternative means of raising kids after separation, notably via shared-parenting; since divorcing from my first wife we’ve raised our daughters within a shared-parenting arrangement for the last 11 years. I firmly believe that divorced parents can successfully raise their kids via a non-traditional family set-up, each sharing 50% of the custody, the responsibility, the highs and the lows. On this basis and with a shared ethos, beliefs and values the kids are parented separately (but as part of a combined and co-ordinated unit) resulting in kids that are well-rounded, well-adjusted and equally happy (if not happier) than many kids who are raised by both parents in a conventional setup.
I wonder, are two people who are unhappy in a relationship together (but hiding this from their kids) doing them a better service than if they taught them the lesson that it is okay to take care of your own happiness and still fulfil your commitments to them? That was certainly one of the considerations that I made when processing the split from my first wife, mother of our children when we parted in 2005. The conclusion I reached (and which we mutually discussed when we were working through the various matters of administration as we parted) was that in making ourselves happy and being the best people we could be, we would ultimately be the best parents we could be to our kids.
My belief in this guiding principle has become more engrained as the years have passed. I’ve seen that the many challenges that families face in raising kids are no more catastrophic or severe in our separated family than I’ve observed in traditional families where the parents are still together. Furthermore, we have the same agility to react to the demands of our kids, respond jointly to challenges that they bring and ensure that we present a united front over application of rules and expectations of behaviour and their conduct so we’re no more susceptible to being played-off each other when they don’t get the answers they want from one or other of us.
You’d be right to expect that this situation hasn’t miraculously manifested itself but rather it has come at the expense of a great deal of time and effort on all our parts. Nonetheless with 10+ years of successfully being in place I can assure you that it works and that I believe it can work equally well for others in a similar situation too.
It shouldn’t by default be a case of parents and kids all settling for a life of ‘getting-by’ when families divorce and split; choose a way of living that gives you all what you need and want. If you want to read more, check out my book on the subject.
My Bryan Ferry-induced thought-process continued, prompting me to reflect on other situations and settings where the de-facto standard is that two is better than one and whether such generalisations are always fair.
A couple or two individuals together
Does being reliant on each other necessarily equate to being reliable and dependable for each other?
I see time and again instances where two people have sought to form an alliance or partnership (whether married or not) and subsequently come to place a burden of responsibility on their relationship to provide much more than is reasonable to expect from it. Too often relationships are used to prop-up the two individuals when one or both of them feel there’s a gap in their lives that they can’t reconcile themselves to. Being dependable and reliable is too-often blurred with being dependent and reliant on the other person (or in more severe instances, taking things they each do for each other and roles they fulfil, for granted.)
“We should each sort our own sh*t out before involving ourselves in other people’s”
Based on my life to date, I can vouch that the above quote from my dear sister is entirely true.
The genetically programmed human state that has evolved over millions of years drives us to find a mate, not just to pro-create but for support and companionship and to nurture and care for. That instinct can’t be fought against but wouldn’t we all make happier and more supportive and stable partners if we completely knew and could rely-upon ourselves before forming bonds with others?
Traits of independence and self-reliance in the individuals don’t replace the combined strength, support and companionship of being in a happy and loving relationship. Conversely though I believe that you need to be happy, confident and competent in yourself before you involve yourself in a relationship. To fail to do this risks you seeking for the other person to provide these characteristics for you if you can’t give them to yourself.
Some of the happiest and most fulfilled couples that I know (or at least that’s my superficial assessment of them) are those where they have regular enforced time apart; where one or other of them works away regularly or where each has interests, hobbies or commitments that demand regular time away from their spouse. Could this be merely because ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ or is it instead that each of the individuals first understands that they can rely on themselves and function well on their own as well as enjoying the times when they are together with their significant-other? I firmly believe this is the case in my marriage where our combined and amalgamated family is split over two locations and homes around 20 miles and two counties apart. The logistics at times are baffling but wherever my wife and I find ourselves we know that we can rely on ourselves, but also on the love and support we give each other even if we’re not in the same physical place. We both know that first and foremost we are complete in ourselves, as well as then being part of a complete-whole together.
Sort your own sh*t out before you involve yourself in someone else’s and you will be a better version of yourself and the best partner you can be.
Team Player or Self-Starter
The analogy stretches beyond family and relationships as well and into the arena of work.
In job interviews, people are all-to-quick to drop in that they are equally effective working on their own or with others to achieve a common goal. I’d contend though that this is one and the same thing, or it should be at least. Too often I see that people consider themselves to have had a productive day at the office if they’ve spent 8 hours drifting from meeting to meeting. Sitting in a meeting room for the allocated hour with 7 other people doesn’t mean that 8 hours of useful output are generated from the session. Similarly I can’t convince myself I’ve done an hour’s writing when I’ve sat at my computer with Word and Safari open, noodling on the Web.
An effective worker is effective because of who they are, how they work and based on the results they produce, not just because they always show-up and are at their desk for the expected 8 hours per day. I have had jobs that through paring out the wasteful tasks, distractions and interruptions I distilled the workload into little more than half a day of focussed activity that delivered the results that I was expected to deliver and paid a week’s wages for. Does this mean that I was acting deceitfully or had the role been designed without questioning the assumptions and many opportunities for time to be wasting that were taken for granted? In my view, I was achieving true efficiency and effectiveness because I was left to my own devices and focussed in my efforts. I worked as a ‘team-player’ too I should add, but I didn’t buy-in to the notion that time-spent is directly proportionate to results delivered. You can read more on how to challenge the status quo of work in the excellent ‘4 Hour Work Week’ by Tim Ferriss.
In many workplaces, is a team or task force more effective than a number of co-ordinated individuals working to each contribute to part of a shared goal? Meetings for the sake of meetings, getting everyone together in a room to discuss and ruminate on a subject (once all the people have got to the room, or onto the conference call, exchanged pleasantries and done with the small talk) doesn’t necessarily mean a good use of everyone’s time and won’t always bring about the best possible outcomes. The calibre of the individuals is what makes an effective team. More doesn’t necessarily mean better.
Diet and Exercise — Support or Corruption
In dietary terms, it is sometimes much easier to remain focussed on a goal or principle (no carbs, booze-free, no sweets and snacks) when there aren’t the whims and willpower of a second person to corrupt you and knock you off-track. The opposite can also be true and mutual support is often a big help (see Weight Watchers for a great example) but too often as individuals our ego tends to subconsciously want others to fail when we see them doing things we wish we could do for ourselves. For everyone commending your willpower there’ll be another detractor ready to offer you a well-meant slice of cake to make them feel better about their own lethargy and inaction over their ballooning weight.
In a similar vein, when exercising a training buddy or club can be useful in motivating you and adding a force of accountability. Sometimes though, getting in the zone and getting back to the reasons why you took up the activity, some loud rock music on your headphones and working up a sweat on your own can be the best way of releasing the endorphins. As a keen cyclist I appreciate that a ride with my buddies can be a great social occasion but I know I’ll push myself just as much on the hills (if not more-so) when I’m out on my own and trying to beat previous personal-bests; I’m also less likely to pull up at the side of the road to recover from a climb or eat another flapjack if there’s nobody with me.
Should We Stick Together?
Humans are social creatures and my life is certainly enriched by the many relationships I’m fortunate enough to enjoy with my wife, kids, my family, friends, co-workers and business acquaintances. This doesn’t mean though that I rely on each and every one of them for something that I should be accountable for giving to myself.
In each scenario we should all take a little more time to think about how we can get what we want by looking to ourselves rather than to others to give it to us. Whether that is love, contentment, stability, companionship, wealth, health or happiness, the buck really does stop with us.
When we want something from life, we should acknowledge that whilst others may be able to help us achieve that, the ultimate responsibility lays with ourselves in opening our minds to achieving it and making the efforts to get it rather than expecting it just to fall in our lap.
Dissatisfaction and discontentment are good prompts for change, and change is a good thing when it comes from a positive stimulus and is focussed on a positive outcome and aligned to your core values. When you are prompted to embark upon a change (such as entering into a divorce to dissolve an unhappy marriage), don’t view the outcome as inevitable or the ‘next best’ but rather be excited about it and focus on creating something that will give you what you need. It’s likely that if done for the right reasons and in the right way, you’ll end up with something far better than you could have dreamed of and which is based on the most solid of foundations; YOU!
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