Relationships are like glass – but the glass is already broken

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There are many versions of the story symbolizing how relationships are like glass. Relationships are fragile and easily broken. After the damage, you can pick up the pieces and put them back together, but you rarely find every piece and the glass never looks the same again.

Then the advice continues that the real question is deciding whether it’s worth piecing the broken glass back together or whether you should throw it away and move on; and that many times, it’s better to leave the pieces broken on the floor rather than to cut yourself trying to put them back together.

Well, these quotes are badly misleading.

They assume relationships should be perfect and that there’s no room for human error; that even the slightest human mistake can crush the glass into pieces.

But all people make errors, with zero exceptions. We’ve all unintentionally broken a glass in the past; and we’ve all (un)intentionally hurt people in our relationships before and other people hurt you. Because there are two apes within us, fighting, and one ape is always eager to break the glass.

Good and bad

The story of the two apes

Two apes reside in all of us. One ape is selfish, egocentric, brutally competitive, constantly wants to have sex and fulfill other biological, materialistic and status desires, wishes and needs, no matter who gets hurt and what is the price.

Such an ape exists in all of us, and this ape doesn’t care about the glass. This ape only cares about instinctive impulses, primal appetites and instant gratification. In some people, this ape is very strong, in others not so much. In psychology, this is called id.

The other ape is the complete opposite. The other ape cares about others, doesn’t want to hurt people, has empathy and knows when to draw the line and curb instant gratification for the greater good. This ape takes care of other people, especially loved ones, and always takes them in consideration when making decisions.

The second ape cares about the glass; it wants to protect the glass, nurture it, polish it and take care of it. This ape knows how bad it feels when the glass is broken.

Therefore, it puts breaks on all the behaviors that are toxic to relationships and pays careful attention to not break any relationship agreements and rules. This ape is something we would describe as superego.

But it’s not the only ape living in every individual. In some, the second ape may be strong and knows how to tame the first ape with guilt and shame, but it’s never strong enough to always overpower the first ape. Nor should it.

Because a life without the first ape wouldn’t be passionate, competitive and satisfactory at all. Without the primal ape, you would never strive to fulfill your needs and you would never strive for progress in life.

You’d just agree with everyone and exist, without living. And every once in a while, you would snap and go crazy because you were repressing all your needs. The key lies, of course, in a healthy balance. Fulfilling all the needs you have in a healthy assertive way without hurting others.

You can fulfill your needs either by going after your goals in a healthy manner or with the sublimation of needs you can’t fulfill, and in that way you transform the raw impulses into higher levels of energy, be it humor, art or any other value creation.

Following that kind of recipe, keeping the highest possible integrity on the one hand and not hurting yourself with guilt and shame on the other hand, is the middle path everyone should find in life.

But not many people can easily achieve this kind of a balance. It’s not easy to consider both apes equally and manage them properly when they go wild.

Usually, one ape is just too strong compared to the others and it takes many life experiences and high levels of wisdom to tame one of the beast, or sometime even both of them if they’re brutally fighting (internal conflicts).

One of the apes will break the glass sooner or later

It takes a lot of hard work and wisdom to find the right balance between id and superego. Even when you find it, periods of life come when you’re thrown out of balance.

After you develop enough life wisdom to deal with both apes, there are still two types of life situations when you’re most often thrown out of balance and apes go crazy – when things go really shitty and when things go really well in your life.

Extremely good times and extremely bad times are actually real relationship tests; in extremely good and bad times, apes start playing with the glass. And most people fail to keep it in one piece.

When one person in the relationship is thrown out of balance, the other party is usually also automatically thrown out of balance – no matter if it’s friendship, an intimate relationship or a business relationship.

When an extreme is met, all apes just go crazy. It’s hard to keep a rational frame of mind when the people dearest to you threaten the relationship you have with them.

Here are a few examples of tough life situations that throw people (both individuals in a relationship) out of balance and cause the apes to go crazy:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Job loss
  • Accidents
  • Bankruptcy
  • Addictions
  • Being completely unsatisfied with life
  • Depression etc.

And examples of flourishing life situations that throw people (both individuals in a relationship) out of balance and the apes, again, can’t keep their cool:

  • Large sums of money on the table
  • Fame
  • Entering new influential social circles
  • Other types of winning

When extremes happen and apes start to go crazy, there are only two options. Either you manage to tame the beasts with calm self-awareness and that usually straightens the relationship even more, or the relationship goes south. If apes aren’t tamed in extremes, then cheating, stealing, fighting, manipulating, hurting, etc. come into play.

This kind of craziness can either happen as one big crazy act to let the primal ape blow off steam (you get too aggressive, you cheat, etc.), or it can be a painful and long-lasting decay of a relationship (you are constantly too critical or passive aggressive, etc.). In any case, this is when the glass gets broken.

Yes, there are two options:

  • An ape can just throw the glass to the floor with all its force and completely break it
  • An ape can be slowly breaking down the glass piece by piece

Interestingly, sometimes you don’t even need an extreme for the apes to go crazy. Because some people are just crappy people or really have no idea how to deal with apes.

Relationships are like glass

Your wrong expectations about relationships

We people love to wear rose-tinted glasses when it comes to relationships, looking at them from a very naïve perspective.

Those rose-tinted glasses are the main reason why we see relationships as so fragile. Like a beautiful piece of glass that should never be broken; and once it gets broken, all is lost and we suffer in pain.

In an exaggerated example, if you’re a perfectionist with naïve rose-tinted relationship glasses, you may want to find a partner who’s good looking, smart, faithful, meets every one of your expectations and never makes a mistake.

As a perfectionist with rose-tinted glasses and many cognitive distortions, you build completely unrealistic expectations in your head and leave no room for any error. A fart is inexcusable and anything else is just unimaginable in this perfect picture.

But then when a mistake happens, relationship suddenly goes from everything to nothing.

Then you wonder how unlucky you are and why this always happens to you; but all there is to it are completely wrong expectations. You expect other people to deliver something that even you can’t. Because you’re also mortal, you aren’t perfect and you are no exception to the fight of the two apes within you.

Therefore, you must take off your rose-tinted glasses and have a more realistic perspective on relationships and realize that they aren’t a piece of glass. In reality, relationships are a piece of glass that’s already broken. The apes already broke it.

“The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places.” ~Ernest Hemingway

Relationships are like glass, but the glass is already broken

People are hell or heaven on Earth. Relationships are hell or heaven on Earth. That’s why we like to see them as fragile as glass. But guess what, the glass is already broken. The apes fighting inside us broke the glass a long time ago.

Becoming aware of this is the only way you can really detach yourself from perfection and enjoy relationships to the full.

I know it can be a little confusing, so here’s the broken glass story from Buddhism, to better understand this piece of wisdom:

Two monks are talking: “Do you see this glass? I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully.

But when the wind blows and the glass falls off the shelf and breaks or if my elbow hits it and it falls to the ground I say of course. But when I know that the glass is already broken every minute with it is precious.”

Or maybe you heard for Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.

When the traditional Japanese mend broken objects, they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with precious metal. They believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.

This kind of act is about embracing of the flawed or imperfect and shows fully existence within the moment, in a state of non-attachment, of equanimity amid changing conditions.

“Why be broken when you can be gold?”

Kintsugi art

The lesson of the both storise is very simple:

  • There is no perfect form
  • There is no flawless human
  • There is no ideal piece of art
  • There is no flawless body
  • There is no absolute good
  • There is no unmarred glass
  • There is no bulletproof relationship
  • Especially with time passing by, life challenges and all extreme life situations

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Don’t expect any relationship to be perfect. Don’t expect from yourself to be perfection personified in any relationship and don’t have that kind of expectations toward others. There are apes battling in every one of us. When we are thrown out of balance, apes go mad and the relationship gets put to the test. That’s just how it is, that’s reality.

Ironically, people often hurt other people only because they’re hurting themselves. And even more ironically, they usually hurt the people they love the most. When apes go crazy, there isn’t any logic anymore, only madness. But again, that’s part of reality.

People often hurt other people only because they’re hurting themselves.

So in any kind of relationship, you will sooner or later encounter one of the behaviors listed below indicating that the apes are going crazy. Sometimes they go only a little crazy, sometimes they go completely mad. It’s a very unpredictable thing.

  • Lying
  • Hiding the truth
  • Stealing
  • Cheating
  • Controlling
  • Verbally abusing
  • Physically abusing
  • Humiliating
  • Manipulating
  • Betraying
  • Gossiping
  • Being passive-aggressive
  • Ignoring

These are all the things that happen in a relationship. They aren’t an exception; they are rather a rule. And strangers aren’t the ones doing them.

It’s the people closest to you who can hurt you the most. If you assume a relationship is like unbroken glass, you bet against human nature. You bet against the wild apes. Never bet against human nature.

Never bet against the markets and never bet against human nature.

There are, as always, exceptions, but your odds are similar to playing the lottery. If an exception happens to you, excellent, I’m extremely happy for you. But don’t have the expectation that relationships in your life will be an exception.

Superior relationship strategy

There are three important rules you must always follow in life.

  • Never go against the markets. Markets always win.
  • Never go against the human nature. You never know when the apes will go wild. They’re just too unpredictable.
  • Never go to war, especially not with yourself.

These are the foundations on which you should build your superior relationship. Based on that, below are the general elements of a superior relationship strategy that make much more sense than feeling sorry for yourself after a disappointment, only because you were wearing rose-tinted glasses and you can’t put the glass back together as it was in the beginning.

  1. Your greatest power is that you always have the option to walk away from a relationship, if you want to. When a person becomes a zombie, if they stop investing in the relationship as much as you do, if they cross the boundaries, you can always walk away. It’s not a thing to be misused, or threatened with in a relationship. If you do that, you are obviously out of the center.
  2. Always have a center on yourself and never on any other person or a relationship.
  3. Become the best version of yourself. With higher awareness, more knowledge, health, and other resources, you can provide more value to relationships. Constantly improve yourself and constantly strive to improve relationships. The more value you provide in your relationships, the more stable they will be.
  4. Bring out the best in people in your life, empower them, encourage them, mentor them and help them become the best versions of themselves. Expect a similar approach in return.
  5. Have an abundance mindset, there are so many relationships you can form in life. Never assume there’s only one person you can have a really good relationship with.
  6. Set strict rules and boundaries in a relationship and take them seriously.
  7. Legally protect yourself if necessary (prenup, shareholders’ agreement etc.), especially when it comes to business relationships. Contracts are nothing bad. They are written for bad, not good times. And as you know now, bad times will come.
  8. Know and expect that things will go wrong, especially in long-term relationships that last for years. So know which things are deal-breakers and which things can be forgiven. When the lines and boundaries are crossed, take action.
  9. Don’t do things to a partner in a relationship you don’t want to experience. Don’t have double standards. Be fair.
  10. Forgive, but never forget; behavioral patterns always repeat themselves. What you have experienced once, you will probably experience again soon.
  11. The investment and reward from a relationship should be approximately 1:1 from both people involved in the relationship. If you invest 10 units of energy into a relationship, you should also expect the same from the other party. The interest to form a new relationship should be approximately 1:1 as well. If you chase people, they will never respect you enough to keep a healthy long-term relationship.
  12. Never stop investing in a relationship and make sure it’s always growing but, as mentioned, both parties should be committed and invest into growth. When a relationship stops growing, apes start to go crazy.
  13. Communicate and communicate a lot, especially when you find yourself in extremely good times or extremely bad times.
  14. Know when it’s time to try harder and when it’s time to let go. All good things come to an end. It’s one of the hardest things to accept in life.
  15. Enjoy life and enjoy relationships in the present moment. It’s the only moment you’ve got. When you love, love with all your heart, knowing that there’s nothing to be really broken.

When you follow these rules, you can enjoy relationships much more. You can be committed, show integrity, have serious and best intentions at heart, but you know that things will probably go wrong at some point.

And when things go wrong, then you’ll be hurt, then you’ll have to work harder to fix relationships as well as to find and build new ones from time to time. But that’s how reality works.

The fact that the glass is already broken is primal human nature, something nobody can run away from. It’s something you have to accept if you want to live life to the full. When it happens remember:

When the wind blows and the glass falls off the shelf and breaks or if my elbow hits it and it falls to the ground I say of course. Accept it and let go.

See the beauty of life and relationships in all its imperfections. When you know the glass is broken, every minute of every relationship is that more precious and meaningful. Because you feel much safer and you know that nothing can go wrong. Because the glass is already broken.

Scarcity mindset

Broken glass doesn’t give you the right to be mean

You can easily misinterpret the whole story. If the glass is already broken, then I can abuse relationships and hurt other people without any moral constraints. If other people hurt me, why wouldn’t I hurt other people. If the glass is already broken, why not break it even more. Who cares.

Well, that’s an entirely wrong perspective. The idea of the story is not to become angrier, more frustrated and bitter, but to let go and free yourself from unrealistic expectations. The lesson of the story is to have a stronger center on yourself. The idea is to enjoy relationships to the full without being scared about what will happen in the next moment.

You absolutely must give your best in relationships and demand the same in return. It’s the only way to have deep, healthy and meaningful relationships.

Without mutual investments, there is no depth and there is no quality. Without quality relationships, there is no happiness in life. People are the ones making your life on Earth heaven or hell. You don’t want to intentionally make it hell.

So you absolutely mustn’t hurt people on purpose. There is zero benefit in that. First of all, if you’re intentionally hurting others, it only means that you are either hurting a lot or you are a psychopath (literally), which I hope not.

Then it brings drama, fights and severe negative consequences into your life. Not to mention all the karma points you lose.

Your action should be the opposite. You should invest a lot into being a happy person with a center on yourself, managing both apes properly and not having unrealistic expectations towards the people in your life.

Only on rare occasions it may happen that you get to lose control, because at the end of the day, you’re only human like the rest of us. And when it happens, you do everything possible to fix the damage and forgive yourself.

Even though your apes may go crazy from time to time, always make sure that the apes don’t go too wild and really do something stupid that would permanently damage your life.

Making one big stupid decision (stealing, cheating, using violence …) or several small ones (constantly hiding the truth, flirting with others, being passive-aggressive etc.) in relationships is one of the most common ways of how people mess up their lives; sometimes for years.

So no matter how wild the apes go, make sure you know where to draw the line. You must always keep a long-term perspective and no matter how strong the temptation is, make sure that instant gratification doesn’t bring you just a moment of delight and then long period of suffering and bitterness.

Man is still good. We break things, tear them down, but we can rebuild. We can be better, we have to be.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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