How would your life be different if, alongside learning algebra and history, you had received a course on relationships that included a manual on how to love? Most people never use algebra after ninth grade and forget historic dates the moment the test is over, yet we're in intimate relationships for decades, if not our entire lives, and we receive little to no guidance on how to navigate these sometimes tricky waters.
What we do learn we absorb from popular culture, which largely derives its wisdom from the Disney paradigm of love: Meet, fall in love, know you've met "the One", feel instantly and always attracted, have wild, passionate sex, live happily ever after. Despite our conscious awareness that real love in the real world doesn't always work that way, we still adhere to these images and beliefs that we absorbed pre-verbally and have been infiltrated into the collective mainstream as the expected blueprint for how love works.
Perhaps the most damaging message we receive is that love is supposed to be easy. Without a paradigm that allows for difficult times, and even expects difficulty as it understands that intimate relationships are an opportunity to heal ourselves and grow our capacity to give and receive love, it's frightfully easy to run when the going gets tough.
This is why the manual is so important. In order to soothe the storms of doubt that inevitably infiltrate into relationships once the honeymoon fades (if there ever was a honeymoon), we need to have accurate information on hand.
Had we received the manual, it would have included reminders that went a little something like this:
1. Love is complicated and messy.
It is also mysterious and multifacted. Some people have a free-ride stage in the beginning of their relationship, but others don't. Either way, at some point you realize that love requires a fierce commitment to get down in the dirt both together and separately and do some hard work.
2. Love is a skill that can be grown.
Love is not just a feeling the shimmers over you like fairy dust. If you can learn math, you can learn love.
3. Attraction ebbs and flows.
Attraction also tends to be a function of connection more broadly: to yourself, within your partner, and to each other. In other words, when the channels of connection are flowing in all directions, you see your partner though clear eyes and attraction naturally follows.
4. Sex requires its own manual.
But suffice to say that it's nothing like what you learn in magazines. Every couple I've ever worked with in therapy has struggled sexually at some point in their relationship. Most couples have different drives or approaches to sex: one is low-drive and there other is high-drive. And this, in itself, creates conflict.
5. Love is not something you get from your partner.
It's actually what you give. In other words, it's not your partner's job to make you feel alive, fulfilled, sexual, or whole. That's your job, and when you learn to create fullness and alikeness from within your own self, that love naturally overflows onto your partner through an organic act of giving.
6. Romance isn't only candlelit dinners and roses.
It's also your partner showing up every day: clearing the snow off your car when it's ten degrees outside; leaving a love note in your backpack; attending your extended family gatherings with a bright smile and an open heart; saying I'm sorry.
7. Real love always includes fear.
So remember that the presence of fear in all of its manifestations, including doubt and anxiety, doesn't mean you're in the wrong relationship. In other words, doubt doesn't always mean don't.
8. There will be times when you want to jump ship.
These usually precede the times of deepest learning.
9. Take time to educate yourself about "projection."
This psychological concept, in a nutshell, means the tendency to displace your own inner demons onto somebody else. So when you find yourself irritated with your partner or suddenly not attracted to him or her, the first place to look is inside of you and ask yourself, Am I off-kilter in some way?
10. Just because you have a thought doesn't mean it's true.
Whether it's an insecurity or a judgment (or another intense feeling), negative emotions can take hold of us easily. But just because a thought is filling our minds and even our bodies, it doesn't mean that it's true. When a thought takes hold of you, observe it, but don't necessarily believe it to be a hard-wired fact.
11. Sexual dreams about ex-partners don't mean you want to be with someone else.
Dreams speak in metaphor, the language of the unconscious, which means that these types of dreams are often communicating your soul's longing to unite with unintegrated parts of yourself.
12. You don't have to react to all of your feelings.
This holds true especially the negative ones. Feelings, like dreams, are not always meant to be taken at face value.
13. Nagging never helps.
In fact, over time it will erode the warm waters in your relationship pool. One of the most important relationship skills you can learn is to zip your lip. This can feel like a herculean effort, especially if you come from a long line of naggers.
14. Expressing appreciation is essential.
Connecting to gratitude is one of the biggest gifts you can give to yourself and to your relationship. Keep a gratitude journal, and express your appreciation generously. This will help you be present and aid you in keeping all of these other reminders in place, while maintaining an open heart and mind,
15. You will go to sleep angry sometimes.
Contrary to the popular advice doled out at weddings, you will invariably leave some fights unresolved before bedtime. This isn't cause for concern; conflict is a normal and healthy part of any intimate relationship. What matters is how you repair, and what you learn when you reflect on the conflict with your rational faculties intact.
16. Conflict resolution requires its own sub-manual.
But the most important skill you can learn is to disengage the moment one of you is triggered. Conflicts are never what you think they're about, and when you react to your emotional response instead of respond to it you're much more likely to spiral and escalate into an argument.
17. It's OK to feel bored, indifferent, and ambivalent sometimes.
You're not always going to feel overcome with feelings of lust and appreciation, and that's normal.
18. It's OK not to miss your partner when he or she is away.
In fact, enjoying your solitude is a sign of health, as you're not two halves joined together to create a whole but two wholes creating a third body of your relationship.
19. It's OK to imagine what your life would have been like with someone else.
That doesn't mean you've picked the "wrong" partner.
20. There is no "right" or "wrong."
There's only learning. If you can adopt a learning mindset instead of one that pigeonholes your life and choices into categories of right/wrong or good/bad, everything will shift and open up inside of you.