There are few people on Earth who would turn down the promise of unconditional love, but at what cost? The rare partnerships that seem unbreakable have committed to working though transgressions and choosing each other, like Jada Pinkett and Will Smith. In a recent Red Table Talk, the couple addressed Jada's controversial "entanglement" with singer August Alsina, which received some very strong criticisms from fans. As someone who looked up to the Smiths' 25-year marriage, it inspired me to delve deeper into how modern love accommodates the complexities of forever.
Many entanglement critics are, like myself, millennials or younger who have never been in a relationship for more than three years. Most of us are looking for love in a digital age when immediacy is everything, options are endless, and our attention spans are minimal. Our opinions about commitment are much more developed than our experiences are. If you think about a relationship like you think about a person, did you even know yourself at 20 years old? Much less know another person? We're constantly evolving as individuals, and we expect our family and friends to understand and support that, so why would we expect different from our partner? I spoke to Debra Golburn, a doctor of counseling psychology with a specialism in personal relationships, about the challenges that come with having someone in your corner.
"To become one means that you have similar ideals, similar goals for your future, but you are still two separate individuals who are going to react and respond to experiences quite differently, based on your level of development."
"Couples need a concrete understanding of what they're getting into from day one," Dr. Golburn explained. "What you're going to want when you're 25 is going to be very different to what you're going to want at 30, 35, 40, and so on. Your life is not going to be totally dependent and enmeshed with this other person. What is crucial to a relationship, to a marriage, is understanding that one needs to maintain their identity. To become one means that you have similar ideals, similar goals for your future, but you are still two separate individuals who are going to react and respond to experiences quite differently, based on your level of development."
Dr. Golburn explained that although we should certainly be looking for someone who, at their core, is an honest, genuine person with integrity, it is natural for desires to change with time and experience. "This whole thing about unconditional love, and growing with each other, is very, very difficult to come by," she said. It's difficult to accept that "relationships are fluid. And the core thing is about how well you communicate and how well the next person understands what you're trying to say."
Jada and Will's communication was healthy, according to Dr. Golburn, because "they had an understanding from day one that they were not going to divorce. You have to have those shared, core values that will hold you together no matter what happens. I like the idea that they gave each other a chance to explore themselves, a chance to understand their own development. Jada was carrying lots of baggage from childhood that she hadn't really dealt with. As you go through life, certain experiences will trigger something in you that you hadn't even realized in yourself. If you want a relationship that is going to be long-lasting, then you'll have to think about all of what that entails. It is going to mean commitment, but committing to what? You have to be able to answer those kinds of questions."
"Relationships are tough when you, yourself, are changing. It's hard enough for you to figure out what is going on with yourself, let alone explain it to somebody else."
For digital natives trying to build a long-lasting relationship, Dr. Golburn advises that "if you feel that you are not mature enough, and as soon as something goes wrong, you're gone, then that's all you're ever going to get. If the relationship is worth it, then you have to be willing to really give it enough time to work things through. Relationships are tough when you, yourself, are changing. It's hard enough for you to figure out what is going on with yourself, let alone explain it to somebody else."
Dr. Golburn explained that Jada and Will's Red Table Talk discussion was an example of a healthy, flexible partnership. They both seem to have an understanding of each other and their individual needs for personal growth, which is facilitated by honest, respectful communication. While naysayers will have strong opinions about how a marriage — or any relationship — should look, it's hard to relate if you've never been with someone for 25 years. What I do find a bit problematic is the maturity difference between a 48-year-old Jada and a 27-year-old August — as I think that's an unfair power dynamic — but would I still have that inclination if the genders were reversed? What I do understand is that if we are talking about unconditional love, then absolute respect, honesty, and open communication is the best you're going to get.