The Best Dating Tips & Relationship Advice We Heard In 2020
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
If there's ever been a year to test our relationships, it was 2020. Many couples found themselves needing to learn how to spend a lot more time around each other, negotiate alone time, manage unfathomable amounts of new responsibilities with kids learning from home, and more. Meanwhile, many single people faced the rise of video dating, socially distanced dates, and overwhelming loneliness.
But despite all the unprecedented challenges we faced this year, our relationships continue to be worth maintaining. Relationships are the stable ground from which we're able to steady ourselves and face the rest of our lives. Even the dating process itself is one of the few areas of our lives that we pursue simply for the pleasure we get from getting to know a new soul.
So if you're looking for a little inspo for your love life as we head into 2021, here are our favorite bits of dating and relationship advice our experts told us this year.
Communication is one piece of the puzzle—but it's not the only one.
"Feeling love and appreciation is necessary for good communication. Feeling a loving connection with your partner and knowing that you are appreciated can be more important than practicing the forms of active listening. People can always imitate the mechanics of communication; they can go through the motions. But if their heart is not in the right place, the very tools of communication that we say are so important can also be used to manipulate, avoid, or even attack the other person."
—Linda Carroll, LMFT, marriage therapist
Your partner cannot fulfill you 110%, and you shouldn't expect them to do that.
"You shouldn't be seeking full validation from your partner when you're married anyway. Right? There is a level of being happy with you that you have to manage in a relationship. And what I mean by that is, you can't look for another person, whether that is your spouse, to fulfill you 110%. You have to be happy with yourself. You have to give your own self-joy. You have to have your own career goals. You have to have your own passions. You have to be able to fuel your own self-love mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and all of those things. And when we look for the things that we should be giving ourselves to get from our spouse, that's when it becomes very dangerous, and it can become a detriment. Because now you have placed a huge responsibility that's supposed to be your responsibility on your partner."
—Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, licensed marriage and family therapist
Have sex with your partner to connect with them—not out of neediness.
"Many of my women clients say that when they visit their husband at work and see him in his power, they do feel turned on by him. But when he comes home, he becomes an anxious, complaining, needy little boy—and they are not turned on by that whatsoever.
"What's going on is that their husband is powerful in the work arena but self-abandoning—and thus needy—in the emotional arena. He wants sex to relax and feel good about himself rather than to connect with his wife. Rather than taking responsibility for his own feelings of stress and anxiety, he's coming to his wife expecting for her to make him feel better (or worse, to use her for his own comfort). This dynamic invariably leads to his wife feeling used by him rather than loved.
"There is nothing erotic about a needy person."
—Margaret Paul, Ph.D., relationship counselor
Just because you empathize with someone doesn't mean you must take responsibility for their emotions.
"Remember that just because you can feel other people's emotions does not make you responsible for other people's emotions. This is a big one for empaths, and something I cover extensively in my book Self-Care for Empaths. It's understandable that an empath would mistake feeling someone else's emotions for needing to manage, contain, or shift someone else's emotions. Your partner has a right to their own emotional experience. If the way they process or express their emotions is unhealthy or toxic for you, that's a separate issue to address with them and possibly a counselor."
—Tanya Carroll Richardson, professional intuitive
Breakups aren't always permanent.
"It is helpful to remember that breakups are not always permanent. You can always go back to that person with the added bonus of maturity and self-work, but sometimes it takes time alone to do it. If the ending of the relationship was done in love, there's always an opportunity to re-meet them later; just make sure it's for the right reasons and not because you're using them as a scratching post for loneliness."
—Julie Nguyen, relationship coach
It's OK—healthy, even—to masturbate when you're in a relationship.
"Talking about masturbation, like anything in a relationship, can deepen our understanding of our partner—and of their relationship to their body, their sexuality, and pleasurable experiences. Why do they masturbate? For release? For pleasure? To cope with anxiety? To detach and decompress? To stoke their inner sexual flame? I like to think of masturbation as one of those activities that couples can do independently of one another to keep the 'pilot light' of their desire burning, helping to sustain attraction to one another over time. Approached in this way, it's not divisive. It can create the psychic space needed to keep couples sexually differentiated, just distant enough to help couples continually find sex with one another interesting and worth reengaging in over and over again as they do their own 'sexual research' through masturbation with their own bodies. As Esther Perel has said of eroticism, 'Fire needs air.' Masturbation can provide some of that 'air' or space, helping each individual in a couple connect to a deeply personal erotic experience independently, as a way cultivating 'vibrancy' and aliveness."
—Alicia Muñoz, LPC, couples' counselor
Don't forget the mental load when splitting up the chores.
"Women do a lot more of what sociologists call 'invisible' or 'cognitive' labor. Examples of this are that even when husbands do unpaid work (like housework and child care) they still depend on wives to tell them what to do and when. So let's say a husband is going to grocery shop for the family. The wife will be the one who looks at their fridge, their pantry, thinks about what they are missing, what they will need in the next week or so, and makes a list. The husband goes and shops, often even calling the wife if he can't find an item to get her to guide him. So any negotiation of housework should incorporate this kind of work too."
—Aliya Hamid Rao, Ph.D., sociologist
Be reflective before you restart the dating process.
"This is a constant practice for me, but the New Year offers the ideal opportunity to look back at our past relationships: what worked, what didn't work, what patterns are present, who we were when it started, who we were when it ended, and so on and so forth. We're much more inclined to gloss over the bad and focus on the good, but in any relationship, regardless of who did what or how it crumbled, there are always two forces at play. In other words, two individuals who played a role, including you. Knowing what role you played and how that relationship came into your life is paramount."
—Clara Artschwager, dating coach
Pay attention to inconsistencies between words and actions.
"At first, we may want to be hopeful about where our relationship may go, so we focus only on what we want to hear. But if there are some incongruencies, then something will not feel right. If we notice this uneasiness, then we should start paying attention to our partner's actions. Does he tell us he likes us for who we are but then suggests ways to change? Does she claim to have overcome her alcohol addiction but then passes out each week after 'letting loose' at the bar? It's tempting to allow our desire for a happy ending to overtake our observations, but it is crucial for our own well-being to confront the reality in front of us."
—Nancy L. Johnston, M.S., LPC, LSATP, mental health counselor
Replace painful old memories with joyful new ones.
"Perhaps you've had tons of memories in a place you used to frequent with your ex. And you really enjoy that place. You don't need to taint that solely with the past. Make new memories in activities and places with yourself or people you trust.
"This may seem overwhelming at first. In psychology, we call this a behavioral experiment—we practice experiencing that our nervous system can regulate itself, and then we know we can prevail. And then these things you once held dear to you start becoming a part of your life again."
—Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, clinical psychologist
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