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Relational Intelligence 101: The Basics

In my own life and working with clients and talking with friends. I am quite aware that none of us know what the hell we are doing when it comes to romantic relationships. I am so heartened, though, by the courage with which we continually TRY to be in love and make it last. Most of us fall in love more than once and what I notice is that although sometimes we do the same things and expect different results, most of the time, we do shift according to our past experience and belief in love. The problem, though, is we have very little guidance and education around what is healthy in a love relationship. Personally, I have settled for so much toxic relationship behaviors under the guise of "Well, I guess this is what love is supposed to feel like... I got it wrong in the past maybe I should give this a try?" Or, "I guess this is what I should do to make a relationship last. None of my past relationships have lasted, I'll give this a try." It's the "not that" approach, where if one makes a mistake or sees something that's not working, anything that is "NOT That" becomes fair game. It's shooting in the dark. It's a non sensical logic we use to try something different when we are at a total loss.

Why are we at such a loss when it comes to love? The poet in me wants to believe it's because love is a mystery and its fun to try to understand it. The philosopher in me wants to believe it's because love is such a universal thing that no bothered to think it was important. The anthropologist in me wants to believe that our culture is so damn transactional that there is no value around anything as relational as love. Or maybe another anthropological perspective is that we have lived in close community and extended families for so long that the 2 person love unit, the couple, faces very different challenges nowadays and we just don't have enough experience yet. No matter what the reason, it's an area most of us struggle.

So where do we start to learn about Love and relationships? I'm beginning to write a curriculum to share that is too long for a blog post, but I will share here my top 3 things to study.

  1. Figure out what you want in a romantic relationship and be loyal to it. It has only been a generation or two since we have been given choices in relationships! It's no wonder many of us were not encouraged to consider what we actually want. What are your thoughts on monogamy? Is marriage important or would you rather just live together long term? Do you like a lot of freedom and alone time or do you like companionship in most of your free time? Think of a time in a relationship in the past when you felt really fulfilled? What was present? This could be a real big clue to what you value in a relationship. For some it's quiet companionship. For others, it's adventure. For others, it's a combination. What's true is you probably have a list of things you value about a relationship and if they are truly your values, you cannot change them. I think we get into trouble when we don't know ourselves well enough to know what we value. And we get into even more trouble when we compromise our values. I have a client for whom monogamy is extremely important, however, he is in love with a woman who is bisexual and cannot commit to monogamy because she wants experiences with both sexes. They have been together for 2 years, both trying to compromise out of love and wanting to make it work. Their chemistry together is amazing. They enjoy a lot of the same things. They love and care about each other, yet they are extremely unhappy. Their values do not align and my advice was that neither of them would be fulfilled. The male in the relationship is coming to terms with that by identifying what it is that is so hard to let go of when he's really clear about what he wants. Often, it's fear of being alone. Often, it's not feeling like one deserves happiness. The work he is doing is rich and helping him in defining what else he has to have in order to make a different relationship work.

  2. Communicate. Couples need to understand that 2 realities can be true at the same time. There is MY perspective and there is the OTHER"S perspective. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle. We are so enculturated to believe that someone has to be right and someone has to be wrong that we have zero practice with listening to another's perspective and not using it to make our own perspective wrong. Or we grip so tightly to being right that we can't even hear the other person. The most important thing to remember with opposing points of view is to be curious about how the other has formed their perspective. Let's use the example of Partner A wanting alone time after an argument when Partner B wants closeness. Partner B can easily assume that Partner A is still mad, but if Partner B gets curious and asks, "what is it about being alone right now that is so important to you?" or "why do you want to be alone?" Partner A has an opportunity to share that their nervous system feels out of whack after the argument and s/he can calm down quicker when s/he is alone. Now. that may not be Partner B's preference, but it certainly explains what's happening and disproves that Partner A is still mad. In fact, it shows Partner B that Partner A wants to come back together quickly and taking a little time alone will aid that. We need to practice communicating for the purpose of understanding rather than the purpose of being right.

  3. A relationship is not a "finish line". We are very primed to believe that a relationship is a prize or an end to having to work on ourselves. Most romantic comedies end when the boy and girl decide to be together. Most people get into a relationship and ditch their self care routines... their coaching, their therapy, their time with friends. From a certain context, this all makes sense. A relationship should be a place of comfort and ease and support. However, it can't be the only way we support ourselves. The things you were doing when you met your partner are part of who you are and in order to be great inside your relationship, you need to continue feeding who you are as an individual. Your partner will challenge your perspectives just by simply having their own, often differing perspectives and it takes a strong connection with self to assimilate your ever broadening understanding of life. The relationship is not a destination where you arrive, get a drink with an umbrella, and stop traveling. It's the continuous exploring of new landscapes and cultures. It's learning a new language. It's getting lost in a new city. It's discovering a secret cave with shiny treasure. It's the brilliant sun at a different angle to your Earth, shining a light on new horizons.

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