This article was originally posted in my column for Psychology Today.
Self-awareness is the key to lasting love.
The desire for an intimate partnership is woven into our DNA. As human beings, we are driven to love and be loved. Love lives in our bones. It is our birthright. When you look at our culture, it’s easy to see how obsessed we are with the idea of love. Exhibit A: match-making shows like “The Bachelor” and networks that devote entire days to wedding-related programming like “Friday Bride-day” on TLC. However we are far less obsessed with learning and practicing what it actually takes to create a healthy and happy intimate relationship. In fact, I often hear from my students and therapy clients that learning about love feels somehow antithetical to love itself—“If love takes work, something must be wrong.” We are, it seems, chock-full of romanticized notions that love should be easy-breezy. Reconcile our fantasies of love with the lived realities of love is my life’s passion!
The space between the “shoulds” of love and the “actualities” of love is a powerful space that grows us up, making us braver and more vulnerable and connected than we knew we could be. What does it take to love in the real world? How do we thrive in an intimate relationship that is both romantic and annoying, passionate and dull, cozy and confusing? If my almost 20 years as a therapist, professor, and intimate partner, have taught me anything, it is this: The cornerstone of a happy and healthy intimate relationship is self-awareness.
Real love starts with you. Understanding who you are and what you “bring to the table” lays the foundation for loving someone else. Why? Because building an intimate relationship is like shaking a snow globe. Stuff gets stirred up in you—stuff you didn’t know existed, stuff that has been lying dormant for years, stuff you really would rather ignore than look at. But your willing to turn your attention inward and acknowledge the snowflakes that are swirling inside is what creates an amazing intimate relationship. A relationship that is safe enough and strong enough to weather the (snow) storms.
Loving bravely means loving with self-awareness. Loving bravely means:
- Committing to the ongoing practice of relational self-awareness
- Understanding the stories you carry about love
- Accepting that there are no quick fixes or easy answers
- Striving for authenticity
- Being willing to look at your role in relationship challenges
- Seeing your partner as deeply connected to you and completely separate from you
- Viewing your differences as opportunities for growth rather than threats
- Seeking shades of gray, not black and white answers
- Feeling energized, rather than defeated, by the work of loving your partner
- Loving yourself because of, and not in spite of, your imperfections and tender spots
- Loving your partner because of, and not in spite of, his or her imperfections and tender spots
Loving bravely is the work of a lifetime and nobody does it perfectly. Loving bravely means trying and failing and trying again. It’s not easy. But it’s worth it!