A few years back, I was at a picnic when an old friend of mine came and sat down next to me. “James!” she said, and gave me a huge hug.
Annabeth had been a good friend of mine for a long time. I asked her how she was, and she caught me up on her life. Then she nudged my arm and pointed across the lawn at a tall blond man.
“And there’s my new guy,” she told me. “Callum. Nearly six months now.”
“Congratulations!” I said.
I noticed a shadow cross her face, and I thought I knew why. It hadn’t escaped my notice that Callum was surrounded by several women, all laughing and hanging on his every word.
Annabeth lowered her voice. “James, you know about this stuff. Whenever we go to events like this, Callum always goes off on his own and ignores me. I know it shouldn’t bother me—I know it’s harmless.”
She sighed. “But it would be nice if he’d pay some attention to me. Any ideas?”
A Change in Perspective
Because Annabeth was such a good friend, I shared with her something I don’t always share with my coaching clients.
Usually when clients come to me, they want advice on how to draw their men closer. They’re not interested in asking whether the relationship is a good fit for them in the long-term.
But I knew Annabeth, and I knew her long-term goals.
I wanted to make sure this relationship was truly supporting her.
So I shared a framework I adapted from former Google strategist and Oxford-trained philosopher James Williams.
Williams distinguishes between three types of attention: spotlight, starlight, and daylight.
When you are focused on a problem you have right now, you bring the spotlight of your attention to bear on it.
You’re bothered that he’s spending time with other people rather than you. You notice that it tends to happen when you’re at social events. Because your attention is so narrowly focused, you conclude that what you need is a way to make him pay more attention to you.
But there’s a different way to see the situation, and that’s to look at it from the perspective of what you want in the big picture.
When you navigate by starlight, you’re using fixed points in the sky to guide you. You keep one eye on your long-term goals while you navigate your way through the present.
Steering by starlight keeps you on track. If you don’t know what you really want for yourself, you can end up going back and forth and never really getting anywhere.
I asked Annabeth if she knew what she wanted for her love life in 5 or 10 years.
She told me that she hoped she’d be in a long-term committed relationship by then, with someone who was an equal partner. She wanted to have children and she wanted her career to thrive, so she knew she would need a partner who’d contribute 50/50.
“Do you think that’s the kind of relationship Callum wants?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“Do you think he’s ever had a relationship like what you’re describing?”
“Probably not.” Annabeth frowned.
There’s a third way of looking at a situation as well, and that’s through daylight.
This is when you look at all the factors and associations related to the situation you’re in. You can see clearly, because the sunlight makes every groove in the landscape visible.
For Annabeth, this meant exploring how she felt when Callum spent social events chatting with other women. It meant reflecting on how she expected a boyfriend to behave, and how she expected to feel in a relationship. It meant exploring whether she was jealous or whether Callum was crossing a boundary.
Finally, she was ready to ask herself one last question:
Was Callum’s behavior a challenge to be overcome… or was it a sign?
A Challenge or A Sign
So that you can use this process yourself, let’s quickly recap how it works.
When you are in a painful situation with a man, your main focus is the spotlight. You see something that’s hurting you, and you want him to change that one thing.
But why? What’s your long-term goal?
Imagine yourself in 5 or 10 years. What would you hope to have achieved in your love life by then? Is this relationship moving you in the direction of that goal?
Finally, what other factors are playing into this situation? If you broadened your perspective and looked at everything—including his behavior in other areas—can you see patterns or connections that you didn’t see before?
Now you are ready to ask yourself the final question:
Is this a challenge or is it a sign?
In other words, is his behavior a challengefor you to figure out and resolve…
Or is it a signthat this is who he is? And, if this is who he is, does the relationship still feel like a good long-term fit?
Annabeth left the picnic that night with a lot of food for thought.
When I saw her next about a year later, she was single and happy. She wasn’t with Callum anymore, but she was enjoying life and exploring her romantic opportunities.
“Life is too short, James!” she said. “After talking to you, I realized I’d rather hold out for the kind of relationship I want, rather than try to make something work that wasn’t really working.”
The next time you have an issue with a new guy you’re dating, give this technique a try. Look at it in the spotlight, in the starlight, and in the daylight. Then ask yourself:
A challenge or a sign?