Most adults have been hurt in romantic relationships in the past. When we’re young and naïve, we often dive headfirst into a commitment, fueled by the power of romantic love. And then for a variety of reasons, be they some combination of incompatibility, lack of generosity, undeveloped compassion and empathy, long distance, sudden or major life stressors, or other reasons, the relationship doesn’t last, and we experience the heartbreak that is normal for a human being to have after intertwining our heart with another’s, and then having that bond wrenched apart.
Two defenses, one basic fear
I sometimes think of two basic mistakes that we want to avoid when seeking or starting a new relationship: leaving the relationship prematurely, or staying too long.
And it seems that people often lean toward one of these tendencies. Those with an anxious attachment style often stay too long, and those with an avoidant attachment style often break things off prematurely. Of course there are exceptions.
To defend against these two errors, our mind wants to think in a black-and-white way when we start to date someone new.
One part of us feels a strong pull to get swept away and believe that this person is finally the safe one who is going to stay with us and meet our emotional needs. The person we can finally trust and relax with.
And another part may wish to hold back, to run away, to decide that this person is untrustworthy and will turn out to be neglectful or unloving.
It is far more challenging to live in the uncertain reality that we simply don’t know early on, with a new someone, where things will go … whether this new, exciting, and perhaps nerve-racking venture will end in a breakup or endure for the rest of our lives.
We’ve all had, or at least met people who have had, relationships that ended after a few days, a few weeks, a few months, a few years, or a few decades. We all know the dismal divorce statistics with well over 50% of all marriages ending this way. And we know that it’s painful to go through breakups and divorces, whether those are sudden or gradual, to the extent that we allow ourselves to care, to get attached, and to hope.
And we also probably know couples who managed to avoid divorce but are not happy, instead choosing to stay in a mediocre or painfully conflictual or cold and distant relationship that goes on year after heartbreaking year.
So how do we navigate the courageous undertaking of starting a new relationship, with these experiences, vividly raw memories, and realities in mind?
One need, two fears
Virtually all of us want to be in a loving relationship. And I suspect that most of those who say they do not, have simply given up and don’t believe that it’s in the cards.
We don’t want to live our lives with a lack of love, and we also don’t want to lose love once we find it.
This might be summed up in the following two fears that we all carry to some extent, with many people carrying one more than the other.
The first is the fear of not starting a relationship, or not finding love in the first place.
The second is the fear of losing love once we’ve found it.
Both of these fears point to the fact that we want and need love.
The existential insecurity of relationship
It’s anxiety provoking to concentrate on avoiding being single or on avoiding a breakup, because we have limited control over both.
If we are seriously looking for a compatible fit (emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually), we usually cannot just end our singlehood at will and immediately start a relationship. We first have to meet the right person. We then have to date the right person – for a while – to know as much as we reasonably can – that we are a fit. Both of those steps can take a long time, sometimes many months or even years. That person also has to see us as the great fit that we see in them. That part is also outside of our control.
The sometimes insensitive-sounding advice, “it happens when you least expect it” is given often because, for various reasons, it’s not always easy to find someone who we think has a reasonable shot of meeting our needs and being compatible with us.
And it’s not as if landing into a relationship is crossing a threshold into total security and certainty. We don’t have control over whether or not someone else stays with us, or stays in love with us. Relationships end all the time for all sorts of reasons, whether or not someone falls out of love with us and in love with someone else, or simply grows apart from us or vice versa, or even becomes ill or consumed with a hardship that makes them unavailable for us, in the short run or the long run. In the end, since we all die, all relationships end, so we all intuitively know that joining our lives with someone else will entail grief and loss at some point, even in the best scenario.
I’m pointing all this out not to be nihilistic or cynical, but instead to help illuminate one of the many reasons that starting a relationship is hard, and not for the faint of heart.
The courage to try
What we can control is how we go about looking for relationship, and how long we stay in one.
Focusing on what we can control doesn’t save us from the pain of loneliness while single, or the pain of a breakup when coupled, but it does save us from creating some unnecessary and additional suffering, including the suffering from that comes from not pursuing a relationship out of fear, or the suffering that comes from staying with someone for too long due to the fear of a breakup.
If we are single and wanting a relationship, the thing that will hurt us more than being lonely, is avoiding pursuing one. We know it when we’re in this situation. We know that we are shutting ourselves down, that we are running away from life, that we are not pursuing what we want. If we are single and our pursuit takes a very long time, we can live with that as long as we know that we are giving our best effort to go after what we want.
On the other side of being in a relationship that isn’t doing well, what hurts us the most is failing to giving it our best shot, which can result in either prematurely leaving or staying too long. Once we have tried to make it work – thoroughly – we gain clarity… clarity that it can be repaired, or that it can’t. Without our devotion to finding out, we simply don’t know. And some people respond to not knowing by anxiously bailing out, and others respond to it by staying in a dead or perpetually unsatisfying union.
When people eject as their default, they are sometimes haunted by a narrative about “the one that got away,” the one about which they wonder, “could we have been happy together?” This can be difficult, especially if the next relationship they try seems to have the same, or harder challenges.
Perhaps the worst kinds of breakups are the ones that happened too late. I was in a relationship for five years that really should have been one, maybe two at the longest. The real tragedy were those last 3 to 4 years, trying far too long to make it work. It was a lot of wasted time and energy that we both could have been putting into other things in life (including better fitting partners for both of us). For a while after that, I was far more afraid of getting into a new relationship than I needed to be, because I associated a new relationship with those last 3 to 4 years of painful semi-connection, while also being tethered to someone, essentially having the downsides but little of the upside of intimate partnership.
But then I realized that that fear was unnecessary. We can, actually, simply, stay with someone for as long as it’s working. By this, I don’t mean that we simply give up when things get a little difficult. I definitely believe in trying to make things work and going through a lot of effort before consciously uncoupling. It is just that my tendency in relationships has been to stay in them past their expiration date. For others who tend to throw them out too easily, they may not need to hear the particular revelation that it’s okay to leave if it’s not working for long enough.
Is the love still growing?
So, how do we know whether or not to keep going in a relationship or to call it quits?
One guideline I heard years ago for whether or not a relationship should continue was this question:
Is the love still growing?
I find this to be one useful pointer in deciding.
And since then I have picked up a few others:
Are we also both growing as individuals?
Are we challenging each other in healthy ways that help us expand rather than become small?
Are we feeling more and more alive?
Are we feeling more and more present?
To what extent do we feel at peace and safe, as opposed to anxious (about being either abandoned or smothered)?
A more conventional litmus test might be to ask if we are “happy” or “having fun”. However, these words can be misleading, since happiness and fun can refer to pleasure, and sometimes even great relationships are not pleasurable or that fun for significant periods of time. So rather than saying that we should feel happy in relationship, I like to say that we should feel that we are alive and growing and expanding. Sometimes life and expansion comes from pleasurable and euphoric experiences and emotions, and sometimes it comes from painful ones. Sometimes we expand when our partner helps shine a light on our old wounds in ways that draw our attention to them and help us heal, and this can be very uncomfortable, even painful. And, there’s a big difference between eliminating our old wounds and creating new ones. It takes wisdom to make that discernment.
Keep going as long as you’re growing
I imagine a couple who stays together for some amount of years, growing and expanding and helping each other come alive, and then for one reason or another that stops happening. And if they can find out why, they may realize that they can bring that expansion and life back, or they may realize that they can’t. Either way, they both benefited from that relationship, and are now free to move on to other parts of life and another relationship, having shared many beautiful experiences and having helped each other grow. It’s not typically relationships ending that traumatize us, although the ending will entail grief.
Accidentally touching a hot stove for a second and pulling our hand away doesn’t cause the really bad burns. What does is leaving our hand on the stove because we are forcing ourselves to, or numb to our pain.
Similarly, we can think of singlehood as being in a relationship with singlehood. When we’re single, we generally have more freedom and more time to dedicate to friendships, hobbies, travel, career, and other pursuits with the energy and time that would otherwise be going into an intimate relationship. When we start to become seriously involved with someone, we divert some of that energy into this new relationship. So in that way, getting into a new relationship is a “breakup” with our single selves.
We can use an assessment that is similar to the relationship assessment to inquire if our singlehood is leading us onward or not:
Is being single helping me grow?
Is being single helping me expand and come alive?
Just like a partner can shine a light on our old wounds, so too can being single. We can feel forlorn and neglected and abandoned when we’re not partnered, and this can point us back at a feeling of lack or emptiness from childhood, and help us learn to nurture our own inner child. Doing so is fantastic preparation for being in a healthy relationship later, because the more we are able to care for our own emotional stability, the less likely we are to overload a romantic partner by placing too much responsibility on them to comfort and soothe our inner child.
The impetus to leap
Perhaps many of the times that people hesitate to get involved in a romantic relationship, it is simply because we are subconsciously doing the calculus, weighing the pros and cons of our single lives versus the romantic life we imagine with another person, and subconsciously predict that our single life will be better, that this new person we’re seeing is not going to add as much value to our lives as we will lose by getting into a relationship.
Also, we know that dating can be difficult, and getting into a relationship can be scary, and so sometimes it takes really extracting everything we can from the singlehood “well” before we get parched enough to take seriously the pursuit and creation of the relationship.
Investment into a person and relationship goes hand in hand with the potential for being hurt during a breakup. A breakup without investment doesn’t result in much hurt. This explains why we want to think in a black-and-white way about a new potential partner: either they are totally safe or they are totally not safe.
If we assume that they are totally safe and deny the risk of a future breakup, then we can naively relax and blindly invest. In other words, we YOLO into it, love bomb the other, leap without looking, and hope there’s something soft and fluffy below. We jump from the plane hoping that someone packed a chute for us rather than checking it ourselves.
On the other hand, if we assume that they will ultimately be found untrustworthy and we hold back so as to not get emotionally involved, perhaps limiting the exchange to superficiality and sexuality, then we avoid the emotional investment, which means a breakup won’t hurt that much. We stay safe and impoverished in our comfort zone of disconnection.
Both of these tendencies to think in black-and-white terms are attempts to keep ourselves safe from pain. Both of them are boundary problems, the first having too loose and diffuse boundaries, the second having too hard and rigid boundaries.
The problem is that they are both guesses. They are like gambling on a coin toss rather than investing in an asset with good information of its fundamentals.
These simplistic strategies are safe in the short term. In one we have the benefit of connection but take on higher risk of heartbreak later. In the other we put little on the line risk-wise but also set ourselves up for a small likelihood of a return.
Investing wisely in a new relationship
What I tend to suggest is to hedge the risk of falling in love by balancing a healthy sense of caution with an optimistic and gradual investment.
Most financial portfolios are diversified, for example into stocks and bonds, say weighted 40% and 60%. If the stock market crashes, the bond portion often moves differently, reducing the volatility of the whole portfolio. When we get into a relationship during the dating process as we get to know someone, we can gradually move some of our energy from the singlehood investment basket to the relationship basket. But we don’t have to go “all in” from 100% to 0% singlehood. After all, our singlehood has value too (freedom, independence, solitude, autonomy), and we don’t want to give all that up for a bad investment we’re pretty unfamiliar with.
We can hedge risk by putting a few chips on the table and seeing how the other person responds. If they reciprocate, it gives us some trust and a little higher conviction in our choice. As we get to know a prospective partner, and how well we resonate with them, we are assessing the fundamentals of the connection, like an investor might assess the fundamentals of a company as she slowly invests more, proportionate to her understanding of it’s performance and balance sheets.
Warren Buffett said that diversification is for people who don’t know what they’re doing, and recommends that’s what most people do. And when we’re dating someone new, we don’t really know what were doing because we don’t know this new person that we’re dating very well. That’s why we dating in the first place. So it doesn’t make sense to go “all in” on them based purely on stomach butterflies, hopium, a “gut feeling”, or mere sexual attraction. But those factors can justify some investment. As we get to know the person over time through shared experience, and our conviction that they are a good match for us grows, we can be more like Buffet and put lots of our resources in that one basket.
In a relationship, there are never any guarantees. So we should never dedicate 100% of our energy into an intimate/romantic relationship, at least not in my opinion. I think that a balanced, rich, full life involves other pursuits, other friendships, a connection to nature, and contribution to others. Sometimes relationships suffer because both people have put too much of their energy capital into it, which makes both people unbalanced and nervous, recognizing appropriately that they’ve taken on too much risk, putting all their life eggs in one basket. That often doesn’t mean that the relationship should end, it may simply mean that both people need to rebalance their connection portfolios by moving some of their energy away from their intimate relationship into other areas of their lives.
Investing in a relationship is not a problem and should not be avoided any more than wise financial investing should be avoided. If we don’t invest financially, it’s very hard to grow our wealth. If we don’t invest in intimacy, it’s difficult to grow our hearts. The problem is only when we make unwise investments and take on too much risk without understanding what we’re investing in.
It takes discernment, perception, research, wisdom, caution, and good judgment to learn to invest wisely, whether that is with money or with our emotional relationship attachments, all of which can be practiced and learned if we pay attention to our intuition, to our emotions, as well as to our reason. If we are present and pay close attention to what’s happening, we will tend to stay reasonably safe, make good decisions, and reap satisfying rewards from our relationship energy investment decisions.
Holding on too long
Professional investors will often use something called a stop loss. A stop loss is an investment deal breaker. It is an price or outlook below which they decide they will sell their asset and take a small loss to avoid a bigger one. This way they hedge their risk and don’t hold the stock down to zero if Awesome Startup Inc turns out to get crushed by the competition or have a flawed product. In relationships, people often hold on too long to their relationship attachment, even as its value plummets like the stock of MySpace after Facebook was created or Blockbuster Video after Netflix went to digital streaming. Because we are inherently emotionally attached to our relationship, and have invested so much of our time, energy, emotion, and very hearts, it is extremely difficult to know and admit to ourselves when it is time to move on and take a loss.
On the other hand, the opposite mistake is to panic sell. Sometimes a company with great fundamentals simply has a fall in price, which means we should hold on or even invest more into it because it will probably recover. The relationship analogy of panic selling would be things like…
- Breaking up with someone due to misunderstandings rather than real impasses.
- Leaving when the “honeymoon phase” excitement naturally simmers down to a sustainable level.
- Running away because negative past relationship experiences or trauma causes something our partner does (that isn’t really that bad) to trigger us and then attributing those emotions to our partner or relationship when that’s not where it’s really coming from.
Marriage is essentially not having a stop loss or deal breaker. We legally and emotionally agree to go down with the ship, as we vow, “till death do us part.” We’re holding this stock, even if it plummets like Blockbuster video.
Personally, I don’t believe that any relationship is worth living a miserable life, and that we should always have an exit route if things get bad enough. On the other hand, I think that people often give up on their marriages or serious relationships without trying all of the reasonable options, like a sincere attempt at couples counseling, getting their own individual therapy to address childhood attachment wounds that are blocking their connection, or educating themselves on the behaviors and communication styles that tend to make relationships work.
The fact that divorce is generally a difficult but achievable process seems to suggest to me that society generally agrees with this. It is our collective way of incentivizing a sincere, valiant effort to not leave too easily by making it quite cumbersome and expensive, while also allowing a legal mechanism (divorce) by which we can not stay too long by making it possible, if we’re willing to go through the painful steps.
Personally I feel ambivalent about legal marriage in this day and age. I believe very much in commitment and sticking too it when things get tough. I also believe that the only pure reason to stay together should really be if both parties actually want to stay together, not because they’ll lose a ton of money on attorneys and mediators or because of other financial or legalistic reasons.
The wisdom of age and experience
When we’re younger adults, it’s generally easier to make both of the previous mistakes – holding on too long or panic selling.
For example, in my first relationship, I held on too long. My first partner cheated on me after nearly a year, and rather than having a stop loss at cheating, I stayed in, thinking it would turn around. Not too surprisingly, it happened again. I didn’t have the wisdom of experience to recognize that we didn’t have enough compatibility or the same agenda to keep it going. Ever since then, I personally had a stop loss set at sexual infidelity. That became a bright line in the sand for me at which I would cut my losses and leave.
That doesn’t mean that is right for everyone. I do think that in certain circumstances, with enough prior investment and other redeeming factors, physical infidelity can be recovered from if both of the individuals want that. And of course there are open relationships, non-monogamy and polyamory. People will have their own, personal lines in the sand at which point the relationship feels like it is no longer growing in value and actually has decreased to the point that it feels wise to get out and invest elsewhere.
For some it won’t be about sex, but could be about emotional infidelity, or about financial responsibility, or religious/ethical/political beliefs, or perhaps about honesty and lying. It’s okay to have different values from others. My point is that when we’re young and inexperienced, we don’t know what we don’t know about our selves and values. We don’t know what our deal breakers are. So it’s often easier to hold on too long.
Similarly, I’ve worked with many younger clients who left a relationship early and regretted it. Perhaps they didn’t recognize that relationships aren’t always easy and can entail frustration and occasional, human neediness or unavailability by their partners. Or they don’t realize that a personality pattern that stems from early childhood is causing them to act in a way that erodes the connection.
So they leave and find that the same or similar things keep happening in subsequent relationships, either because it’s existentially normal or because they have some personal work to do that wasn’t about the relationship. It takes such experiences to learn what is unacceptable because it is actually not good enough, and what feels unacceptable because it doesn’t meet overly idealistic and unrealistic standards or because it abrades preexisting wounds that aren’t the fault of the partner we’re with who is, in fact, good enough.
There’s gain in all relationships
In a way, staying “too long” or leaving “too early” are not perfect descriptors. I believe that everyone is doing the best they can in life each step of the way. If we had to leave when we did, then that was the best possible outcome at the time, and any comparison to a different outcome or timeline would be hypothetical and imaginary.
No relationship is ended with a total loss. Even in extremely hard relationships, we learn something about ourselves — at the very least what our needs and deal breakers are.
To the extent that we get attached and it hurts when it ended, it means that we opened our hearts to love someone, even if that someone turned out to not be compatible enough. I believe that when we stretch ourselves to open our hearts to love someone, we do not lose the capacity we gained from that love practice. We may need to do some work to heal from the pain of hurt and loss, including the harmful interactions in the relationship, but underneath those scars, we retain our increased capacity for attachment and compassion. We eventually heal more open-hearted and wiser than we were before, even if there’s a period of pain and confusion first. We have a story to tell. We are more experienced and perceptive. We are more able to surrender and allow what is in the future, whether that is letting someone in or parting ways.
Insecurity and dating
Our level of confidence is perhaps the biggest factor in how much anxiety we’ll have during the dating process.
The fear of abandonment is often accompanied by a fear of being inadequate for our partner. We might have a hard time believing that someone will stay with us if we carry a sense of unworthiness. We may fear becoming smothered or engulfed if we worry about winding up with a partner who we don’t feel “measures up” to us, and yet we can’t leave because we worry about not attracting someone better. We might worry about being trapped by someone critical, who only gets close to us to complain about how we’re letting them down.
We may worry about not finding a high quality mate, because we aren’t seeing our own quality. We assume no one worthy would choose us and be good to us, so we’d have to settle for someone who’s not great to be with.
We often have two parts: an outer defense of superiority and pride, and an underlying sense of defectiveness and inadequacy. These two parts may be separated from each other psychologically, so we can feel opposite and contradictory pulls. The two parts are not integrated. Everyone is either too good for us or not good enough, or even both. Prospective partners can appear intimidating or repulsive, or both at the same time.
The essential remedy to these worries is to shift to seeing ourselves as inherently both gifted and limited in various ways, and fully lovable at our core in spite of this. With this experience of ourselves, prospective partners will be more likely to appear as another fellow human being who has gifts and flaws, and who we can find lovable and worthy, someone worth investing in.
In other words, we’ll stop worrying about not finding someone good enough once we see ourselves as good enough. We’ll stop judging prospective partners by their superficial attributes once we stop judging ourselves superficially. We will start instead asking ourselves how good we feel around this new person, once we focus more on how good we feel in our own company.
This is why self-care and self-nourishment — practicing loving ourselves — helps us find a good relationship with an intimate partner.
Danger and opportunity
If we’re more inclined to fear being trapped or smothered in the relationship, we may feel worried about the other person’s mental or emotional baggage. Our baggage tends to come from a few places.
One is our attachments to each of our parents or caregivers while we were growing up. This may be the most influential factor that determines our own “attachment style” that we will have with our partners. Our attachment system is characterized by two basic variables that correspond to the two basic fears (abandonment or engulfment). Depending on how attentive, loving, tolerant, compassionate, and respectful our caregivers were to us, we will have a corresponding set of defenses or lack thereof that will influence how easily we’re able to trust a partner as well as have healthy boundaries.
A second factor is the bond that we observed between our caregivers during our upbringing, and how that partnership affected us and the family system we grew up in. This is sometimes called a relationship “template.” To the extent that our parents got along well with each other for the most part and had an intimate connection, it will be easier for us to replicate this and trust that it is possible.
A third factor is our own adult relationship history. Romantic relationships we have as teenagers or adults can be powerful experiences that can either evolve and expand our trust and connection capacities, or harm and injure us, leading to anxiety when starting a new relationship. Often they can be a complex mix of both, healing us and hurting us in different ways.
Fortunately, our hearts and minds are malleable and can heal. Even in cases of severe attachment violations such as neglect or abuse as children, there is always the potential for some amount of healing through a trusting and secure relationship. This is the great promise and the great risk of the undertaking another relationship. We intuit that we can be healed and be harmed. There is both danger and opportunity, as symbolized in the Chinese character for crisis. The same can also be true when leaving a relationship that has become the status quo.
Baggage risks and secure attachment rewards
The danger that we fear is that someone’s baggage, or pre-existing wounds, is going to derail the relationship. Generally we’re more afraid of the other person’s baggage than our own baggage, since we believe that we have more control over ours, and perhaps because we’re more comfortable with our own stuff. It’s tough for someone who worries more about abandonment to really understand the true fear and pain of someone who worries about getting trapped and controlled, and vice versa. Each of our relationship nightmares and demons can be personal and individual.
However, sometimes our own wounds can worry us. We might fear being unable to curb our less appealing moods and reactions, due to powerful and automatic nervous system pathways laid down during our childhood, to the extent that the new person we’re interested in gets scared away and callously takes off.
Either way, we fear that the joint baggage will take up too much space. That the past-colored goggles we’re both wearing will prevent an adequately clear view of reality of both parties’ consistent lovability and worthiness. That the trance of our past trauma defenses will hijack our higher selves and cause too much destructive reactivity. That someone will get irrationally jealous or possessive, stemming from the pain of some past betrayal or perhaps being aware of infidelity in their parents’ marriage. Or that someone will freak out and flee a genuine and healthy push for intimacy and connection, having associated immense closeness with abuse or boundary violations in the past. Or that one side will give too much too soon and the other side will give too little too late, both out of self-protection, creating resentment and suspicion.
The opportunity in having relationships, however, is also great. Earned secure attachment is a term that refers to healing that can take place in the container of healthy love. We are, consciously or unconsciously, seeking and longing for a healthy bond that can repair and soothe the wounds of the past, making us more connected and whole again, as we were when we were newborn infants.
Hedging risk with mindful self-awareness
To the extent that we, and our prospective partners, have been hurt in past relationships and are desiring healing, we need to bring mindful and conscious awareness to our emotions, bodies, interactions, and thoughts. Conscious self-awareness is what makes the difference between unfairly blaming an innocent or well-intentioned partner for our pain, versus seeing their behaviors as painful triggers that bring us opportunities to learn about ourselves, to grow, and to heal.
It’s also what makes the difference between blaming ourselves unfairly and recognizing an actual problem in our relationship or context. Self-awareness is like the difference between being scared during a scary movie versus being terrified because we forgot that it’s a movie. It doesn’t take away our pain that arises when an imperfect partner abrades our old wounds, but it does give us the wisdom to know that we’re triggered and that there is an opportunity to create a new and better relationship pattern than the script we’ve been living out.
I think that the degree of wounding or baggage a prospective partner has is far less important than the mindfulness and self-awareness they have cultivated about it. Self-awareness tends to go hand in hand with healing. It may precede healing somewhat, since self-awareness leads to changes that lead to corrective experiences and ways of being. If you are reading or listening to this, you are a rather self-aware person, and odds are that anyone you are interested in at a deeper level is also going to be fairly self-aware.
But another person’s self-awareness isn’t always obvious at first. There may be high attraction before we know either way how conscious the other person will be able to be when the past rears it’s head and causes illusions and distortions on both sides. So taking things slowly with gradual investment, as discussed earlier, is wise while we discover to what extent someone has the ability to differentiate a painful situation from a painful old wound for which the situation is merely a trigger.
At the end of the day, we typically want to have a better relationship than the ones that we’ve had or been programmed by in the past. Whether we experienced or witnessed divorce, too much conflict, emotional neglect, or a lack of intimacy, our heart and spirit desire a better outcome. And we want to know that our partner has that same intention, and is willing to be uncomfortable at times by not giving into defensive impulses that deflect pain at the expense of forfeiting love and keeping distance.
Sex, infatuation, analysis, and objectivity
Falling for someone is naturally a highly emotional process. We tend to have a sense of it when it’s happening. That’s why we say we’re “falling”, as if we’ve lost control over the connection that is forming.
Because we can often see this exhilarating and wild process, we also make attempts to try to compensate with analysis and objectivity. We might see potential “red flags” or speculate about possible incompatibilities in the long run. For example, the other person seems a lot more or less price conscious. They seem significantly more or less inclined to travel or take risks. Or they want to talk but don’t show curiosity in others. But the chemistry can be so powerful that it overrides these concerns.
Which of these seemingly disconnected sides of ourselves – the passionate romantic one or the logical and rational one – do we listen to?
I think the short answer is both.
It’s probably true that most people err towards one of these sides more than the other. Youth and inexperience generally correlate with overweighting the side of passion, lust, and romance. But it is possible for some people to overthink it and rule out prospective partners prematurely as a defense against being hurt, sometimes disqualifying a good-enough suitor.
One way to cool our jets and allow our rational minds to keep up with our passion is to postpone sex. That might sound conservative and self-depriving, but hear me out.
Evolution crafted us to procreate to propagate the species, not to have happy relationships. Happiness isn’t sufficient for genes to get passed down. Babies are. So evolution shaped us to generally err on the side of getting infatuated with someone and having sex earlier rather than later, over the side of taking it slow to determine longevity and long term harmony due to common values and goals and genuine affinity for the other person’s personality and temperament.
Sex has been shown to be neurochemically and hormonally bonding between two people, whether or not they are compatible as long term companions. The fact that people generally are eager to have sex once they find someone who passes the test of initial attraction, might go a long way in explaining why so many people settle into relationships that cease to be satisfying after several months once the novelty of the sex and infatuation wears off.
In order for the sex to be continually satisfying, there needs to be a lot more behind it, such as respect, admiration, common interests, shared values and goals, and a general feeling of ease and mutual acceptance when together. If those deeper qualities of relationship are present, then the sex can continue to deepen and become more and more fulfilling and nourishing. If they aren’t present though, the sex often becomes less pleasurable and intimate. It is as if a part of us knows, eventually, that we’re not meant to be with the person and so the sexual bonding is interrupted.
Seen this way, purposefully and consciously delaying sex is an exercise in delaying the immediate gratification of sex in order to maximize the chances of a deeply nourishing relationship, including great sex over the long haul, later. Having sex early doesn’t mean that we’ll get attached to the wrong person, it just increases the chances of it, since the deeper qualities and compatibilities that matter tend to take longer to become evident than lust, passion, and infatuation do.
The older people are, the more likely they will be to try this, for at least two reasons. One is that sex drive is stronger earlier in life, so it takes more willpower to resist for younger adults. The other is that older adults tend to have learned from experience by knowing first hand what it’s like to become bonded with someone through sex more than the fundamental and potential compatibility justifies, which leads to more pain when the incompatible partners realize that they need to part ways.
For those exceptions who err on the side of letting analysis and logic prevent themselves from going with the flow and letting their passion come out in a timely way, they may need practice turning their attention away from thought and towards the sensations in their body, and get in touch with the true emotions of love that are developing. It may be that past hurts have resulted in defenses being built that prevents bonding from happening. The good news is that, if there’s compatibility and kindness, healing will be happening even if it’s going slow. Eventually the ice can thaw and the trauma-induced barriers can erode, if both partners practice enough patience with themselves and with each other.
The lifecycle of love’s fire
If love is like a fire, it has a lifecycle. In the right dry and hot conditions, some fires suddenly burst into raging flames and billowing smoke, and then taper off into a sustained burn once the dry ladder fuel is gone. Others build up slowly and tentatively in wetter and colder conditions, reaching a steady and stable heat source later.
In the case that love ignites fast and furious, couples can sometimes become anxious later when the scorching blaze becomes a normal bonfire. Maybe they aren’t having sex as often, or they sometimes don’t have anything new to say, or they start doing more things alone or with friends than in the first few months.
These aren’t necessarily bad signs, and in fact they can be healthy ways of bringing the two individuals back into a sustainable equilibrium. As long as the time together is still good, and there is a sense that safety, trust, and depth is still evolving together, it just means that things have transitioned into a more mature phase of love. But it is, in a way, also a loss. The fire is in a different state. It’s not exactly the same as the wild, hormonal, exhilarating lust and passion of the very beginning of many relationships. It’s a more realistic, grounding, nourishing, steady supply of connection on various levels – sometimes sexual, sometimes empathic, sometimes intellectual, and more wholistic and human overall.
Part of relationship is connecting, the other half is separating, which is preparation for the next connection. As the honeymoon stage transitions into a mature and long term love, some time apart can be a sign that the individuals know how to separate and attend to their individual lives that involve work, friends, family, health, and other life areas. In fact, wise people who are enjoying an especially long honeymoon stage of a new relationship may benefit from consciously taking breaks from each other to avoid neglecting other important areas in order to smooth out the ups and downs that result from this sometimes very intense phase.
If the fire begins slowly, sometimes people also overthink it. It can be a sign that there’s not enough potential for compatibility and intimacy and eventual passion, but not necessarily. Sometimes it takes some careful and patient nurturing of a small flame before the larger and deeper reservoirs of fuel catch fire. This is a time when some people might be vulnerable to giving up prematurely – perhaps by worrying that the physical intimacy isn’t progressing fast enough, or comparing to past relationships that started faster.
And sometimes the progression can go from a slow burn to a wild inferno and then back down to sustainable hot embers with occasional new fuel added through the care and maintenance of the relationship.
It takes wisdom to know the difference between a fire that will simply take time and a fire that has no fuel behind it. And it takes wisdom to know the difference between dry fuel of early infatuation running out and the absence of harder and denser wood underneath it. And I think that wisdom comes from a combination of rationality and emotional intuition. For example, if the sex frequency decreases, but the times it does happen are heart opening and safe, that indicates a reliable and strong fire that simply doesn’t have flames reaching far up toward the heavens all the time.
Or if the amount of words said decreases, but there is a felt sense of connection and resonance and presence with your partner in times of silence, the love fire is probably maturing. If you’ve been on several dates and not much sexual physical activity has happened yet, but you are feeling your body gradually coming alive around the person and have a sense that they feel the same, then the heat is rising and the conditions are building for eventual ignition. If your partner is genuinely distracted or busy with a real concern or difficult situation, but when they focus on you you can feel the importance of the relationship in their heart, then it’s probably going to be okay.
If your gut is telling you that the love isn’t growing or is actually losing the core heat, then spend time with that feeling and check into it often. Journal about it. Sleep on it. Talk to friends or a therapist or coach about it. I don’t think every anxious feeling is a sign of a problem, but sometimes they are. The best I know how to tell is to spend time with it. Attention is the sunlight that will burn off any illusions and leave behind the core of truth, one way or the other.
Visualizing and manifesting the relationship that you want
I think that we can increase the odds of finding a compatible partner and healthy relationship by using our capacities of visualization and imagination. The law of attraction can definitely be taken too far by claiming that people can create anything in their life that they imagine. That said, most people probably underestimate the importance of using our imaginations to visualize what we want in order to set up our unconscious goal-seeking apparatus to aim for what we need.
Dating apps have at least some of this built into them. They ask us to describe who we are, who we’re looking for, and what kind of relationship we want. The last time I was dating before I found my current partner, one of the prompts I chose was:
“I’ll know I’ve found the one when…”
And my response was:
“We have good conversations and chemistry. We both feel accepted and loved as we are. We care as much about each other’s happiness as our own.”
Another prompt I chose was:
“Together, we could…”
And my response to that was:
“Choose things we both want to do, have delightful conversations, grow as individuals and as a couple, support each other, and enjoy intimacy.”
I know some people choose funny responses, and that’s a different approach. Maybe it’s better for some people. But I wanted to make it clear what I was looking for. Connection through talking, mutual caring, and ability to elevate our needs to equal footing were all front-and-center when I visualized the kind of relationship I wanted.
I was saying that I don’t want to just be a tourist in someone else’s life visiting, in which we have sex and go snowboarding together. I put out a vision of two committed people who wanted to intertwine their lives together, which requires that neither person’s individual well-being is elevated over the others. I was looking for a relationship that was a communal project of taking care of each other with generosity rather than scorekeeping, like a shared garden that we both nurture.
Sometimes people write about things they don’t want. That always seemed like an ineffective approach to me. It can come across as defended and more interested in moving away from discomfort than towards something good. I think we can get the point across by stating what we want in the positive rather than the negative. For example it is better to say…
“I want us to be generous and caring with each other”
“Self-centered people don’t waste my time — swipe left.”
Another way that I visualized the relationship that I wanted was by writing down a description of the partner I was looking for. I wasn’t sure if this would help, but I read the suggestion in a book on manifesting, and decided I had nothing to lose. In retrospect, I think it helped. At least, I realized a few months into dating my partner than I had essentially found what I had written down.
I wrote down that I wanted someone with whom there was a strong physical attraction and sexual chemistry. In some younger stages of my life, I might have written down a specific look or body type, but this time around I realized that, at the end of the day, I simply wanted physical intimacy and chemistry, and the way that that happened was probably not relevant.
I wrote that she is wise and has good judgment, and generally makes good decisions with regards to her health, finances, time, and energy. That she knows, or tries to know, why she does what she does and we can discuss any disagreements on how to proceed with joint decisions.
I wrote that she is peaceful inside generally, and sees stressful situations as opportunities to work on practicing equanimity in the midst of life’s storms. That she sees the merit in facing discomfort rather than indulging in addictive behaviors to temporarily stave off anxiety.
I wrote that she is empathic and kind; that she values doing her inner work so that any old relational wounds would not prevent her from seeing me accurately as the person I am through unconscious projections. That she has developed compassion for others who are hurting through her own, ongoing healing journey. That she has healthy boundaries with what she lets in and what she keeps out.
I wrote that she has humility and agnosticism about what she does not know, and is open to changing her mind with new information and experience. That she is open to new experiences but doesn’t use novelty seeking as a way to avoid her inner life.
And I wrote that she thinks and feels deeply, that she can reveal herself to me and wants me to reveal myself to her, and that we have a strong heart connection.
In general I tried to not list superficial traits and to instead list traits that really matter for me in order to invest long-term with someone.
It took me a long time, like a couple of decades, to find this level of specificity and to know what I needed in a relationship. It took being in a few long term relationships in which there was a lot of good, but some crucial things were missing. It took a leap of faith to ask for this much and trust that it wasn’t asking too much.
One insight from writing about the partner I was looking for was realizing that I still had plenty of work to do myself on the qualities that I was asking for. I still work on learning to be more compassionate, more wise in my decision making, and more peaceful inside. So it was motivating to know what areas I wanted to focus on in myself, believing that like attracts like, that I was not going to wind up with someone who had that much more compassion or wisdom or equanimity than I had myself. It gave me a motivating reason to work on myself in these specific areas, and that might be the most important benefit of consciously writing down what we want in a partner.
When I was dating, I didn’t actually think about this description I wrote very much. But after a few months with my partner, I happened to go back and look at the list and I was amazed to see that she fit all the criteria I wrote down very well. So, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to try this exercise.
The book I read also made it clear that it’s important to, as much as possible, feel the “frequency” of love in general, and avoid being in the frequencies that are counter to love, such as anger, fear, and envy. I believe in the idea that when we are in stressful and negative states, we attract stressful and negative experiences, and when we are peaceful and joyful, we attract more experiences of peace and joy.
It’s often difficult to feel happy and positive when we’re lonely and feel like we’re missing our yet-to-be-found other half. Rather than forcing happiness or positivity, what works for me and what I recommend as a therapist and coach, is to surrender to any sadness, loneliness, anger, fear, or otherwise difficult emotion without clinging to it or pushing it away. To think of these states like thick clouds in the sky that need time to pass, and that will reveal the sun and warmth when they do. I think it’s counterproductive to think, “I need to be happy now to manifest my partner!” if we are not happy. That is just denying reality and resisting what is. Instead I think it’s better to allow what is there for us, without judgment, and wait for the innate and natural contentment to be unveiled on the other side of the harder feelings.
Good endings are possible
As I said, often the fear of heartbreak from a breakup is what prevents us from getting a relationship off the ground. If we know a plane is going to crash rather than land safely, why would we ever get on?
I think it’s generally hard for couples to exit a relationship gracefully and compassionately, but I do think it’s possible, especially if the relationship was originally based on mutual respect between two people who genuinely care about each other. Of course, such a relationship does have a pretty good chance of succeeding. So, the first thing is to only attempt relationships in which mutual respect and caring is present.
With the financial investing analogy, I explained how giving up too soon or holding on too long can lead to unnecessary suffering. In any case, the severing of a bond will be painful and disappointing to some degree, but not as much as if both people walk away feeling that they were better off having had the relationship than not having had it. I think the route to minimize the pain is a balance of trying to make it work with realistically cutting our losses if a mutually satisfying relationship isn’t realistic or obtainable. And compassionately uncoupling in this way is a very imperfect art that even the most mindful people struggle with and that I’d wager to say no one ever gets 100% right. Still, I find it can help to keep this scenario of a soft landing in mind when embarking on the voyage of seeking and starting a new relationship.
The meaning of relationships
I do not believe that I have relationships all figured out. There is a problem with the story ending that goes, “and they lived happily ever after.” None of us live ever after, let alone with another person. All relationships end, one way or another, even if that way is the death of one of the partners. And as discussed, they often end before that.
I recall a video of Rupert Spira telling a student that the feeling of insecurity in her relationship was an intuition that all relationships are inherently insecure, given that they all end. The “cure” for this is a recognition that the one thing that does not end (as far as anyone can prove) is consciousness itself.
A healthy relationship can, however, get us in touch with our shared consciousness. It can be a spiritual practice to intertwine our life with that of another, which can help us to give up much of our ego’s individuality and our focus on our individual self-preservation.
If we can learn to elevate one other person’s needs to the same level of importance as our own, through the powerful and mysterious bonding of romantic, sexual, and intimate love, it becomes proof of concept that we can let another person in, that we can transcend our own separateness. Perhaps it can be a stepping stone to yet greater transcendence of our painful sense of separateness through other types of relationship, such as friendship.
Everything ends, except perhaps consciousness, time, space, basic matter, energy, and other cosmic physical phenomena that our human minds probably don’t understand very well. Certainly every human life ends, and thus our human bonds will end. This may be the existential burden of embarking on a relationship. If we think that the purpose of relationship is indefinite and guaranteed security, a deep and wise part of us may call bullshit, in the same way that we all subconsciously know that we are mortal and finite.
But if the purpose of intimate relationships is something else – maybe our soul’s evolution, maybe the healing of our temporary bodymind, perhaps recognition of our true nature – then the merits of undertaking a relationship become clear and the reward looks greater than the risks.
Queen Elizabeth is sometimes quoted as saying that grief is the price that we pay for love. What I’ve tried to convey here is that, depending on the way we create, maintain, and end romantic relationships, we can maximize love and reduce unnecessary grief. That said, some grief is inevitable. Can the love be worth it? I think that it can. Life is sweeter in relationship, if the relationship is loving.
I think there is a difference between love and relationships. Love is, as Sadhguru says, a “certain sweetness of emotion,” whereas a relationship is an arrangement between two people based on the mutual fulfillment of needs. Those needs can be emotional, sexual, physical, mental, or financial. Love is our heart opening. Love is presence, openness, expansion, and surrender to what is, whether it be pleasant or painful.
Love transcends the type of relationship, whether that be romantic, sexual, familial, friendship, mentorship, or business. But there is a tendency for love to emerge, I think, to the extent that human hearts intertwine and individual barriers dissolve, at least for a time.
And probably most people seek and at least try to stay in romantic and intimate partnerships because they want their hearts to open, because they want to be a part of a whole larger than themselves, because they want to be more present, and because they want to be awash in love.
That is the meaning of intimate relationships for me – not that we live happily ever after, but that we experience love for a time – for the time that our individual selves are alive, be that temporary as it may.