Recently a reader asked me for some thoughts on beginning relationships. I said I’d reply in a post, because there have got to be others asking this same question, right? Some of these ideas come from a chapter in a book I’m writing (exciting! exciting!) which is based on ideas from my blog.
I used to have the sense of losing my senses, my power, my sanity–all–when I began a new relationship. That was, in part, due to the flood of love hormones that swished around inside my body, but it was also due to not having been raised with the ability to differentiate myself from another, from being a child expected to mirror the emotions of my parents. How confusing: love chemicals and hormones released into the bloodstream and brain, as well as becoming emotionally disembodied. Essentially: I released complete hold of the steering wheel. Not one little index finger on it steering.
I used to enter relationships as if jumping on for the ride, a one-way ticket or a contract with the church of Scientology, where a billion year contract (not just life) is signed! That was my approach. And, since that was my approach, when things hit the 3-month mark and got weird or something seemed “off,” I would somehow mind-bend the issue into my problem. Not theirs, never theirs.
Train Barreling down Tracks…
We get on for the relationship ride, with one-way tickets on this fast train. We commit, ever-loyal children of dysfunctional, rigid parents–oh, how we can commit. There’s the feeling, of rushing along, at least it was for me. It felt like being swallowed whole. Disoriented. Re-wired into a new brand of myself, the brand of my new boyfriend. I knew that, of course, I should take things slow. Of course I’d read that somewhere! That I should hold off on sex, that I shouldn’t move-in with someone I didn’t intend to marry (and if I intended to marry them, I should do that first anyway) and on and on. But, I was an exception. The books didn’t know me and they didn’t know the guy I had. And then, eventually, I would set boundaries in the relationship because I was being swallowed up and in order to keep from feeling squashed–a kind of retroactive boundary-setting. For me, that was often the sign of desperation in a situation that just wasn’t working.
That’s’ how not to do it.
Or Quiet Canoe Rowing?
My view these days is that beginning a relationship is much more like a canoe ride. One gets in carefully–the boat is stable when balanced–one foot at a time while steadying the boat and one’s self. (Whereas with a train you have to run, jump, and grab on while things are in motion.) It’s quiet, peaceful. With a canoe ride, you can notice your surroundings because you’re not moving fast. And one goes canoeing on quiet rivers and lakes. (I spent a lot of time in canoes as a child in Minnesota.) A canoe is unlike a row boat, a bit more like a kayak. A canoe isn’t flat-bottomed like a row boat, it has a rounded-bottom; so a canoe will tip from side to side unless there’s balance. Canoes are very sensitive, or responsive, to imbalance.
Because people canoe on very still bodies of water, one must row (action, intention) to make the vessel move — take action to propel the it forward. Like a relationship, one must participate, but gently. One must row on one side then the other to move the canoe forward and when you want to turn, it just takes a very gentle motion of rowing on one side to turn and adjust direction. Drama will overturn the boat.
When two people are rowing a canoe, communication is needed to decide how to row with the same strength and depth. If one person is rowing too fast or too furiously, the canoe won’t glide straight. Same thing in a relationship — if you both start slow, glide, and communicate about the speed and depth, you’re much more likely to glide gently along on the path you want. And if the other person wants to treat the canoe like a speed boat, then you have learned something about them, haven’t you? Speed matters.
I hope the canoe analogy makes sense, as I really feel it’s a beautiful analogy/approach to any new relationship.
I write “rules” as kind of a joke. On the one hand, people from dysfunctional families hate being told what to do, but on the other hand, we’re always wanting to know the rules/structure of things!
#1 Slow and steady is paramount; it might be frustrating but it pays off (and makes it easier to transition out of a lacking situation)
#2 Honor yourself; be honest with yourself about your doubts and take your doubts seriously
#3 Love beyond appearances; it might look odd or it might look great on the outside, but only you know how the relationship feels on the inside
#4 Keep your baggage between you and your journal, therapist, best friends – your new love isn’t your childhood trauma therapist
#5 Stop short of Explanations; your feelings and needs are VALID, you should never have to justify and explain yourself – and vice-versa, accept your new love’s feelings as valid
Really pay attention to #3, “Love beyond appearances.” Why? Appearances are given great weight in an alcoholic household — as long as things looked OK, they “were” OK. But this is your life now. If you’re getting to know someone with an impressive, shiny life, car, wardrobe, etc. then pay special attention to how much that matters to you and also ask yourself what about the person you would admire in the absence of all of that — who are they stripped of all the shiny stuff? Does it define them? What defines them? Similarly, present yourself as YOU, not as some sucked in, breath-held, belted version of yourself that’s incomplete and “perfect.” Show them your true self.
I’m sure there are more, but we’re just talking about getting into a relationship this time.
Is New “Love” Actually Psychosis in Disguise?
Sort of, yes. I mean, when we first meet someone and are touched with the love bug, we feel the wonderful sensations of
love infatuation flow over us. It softens our brains and hearts and lulls us into a sweet bliss. During that period, which can last from moments to days to weeks and weeks, we see the other person and life through rose-colored glasses. (Some say just long enough to procreate!) Once that begins to fade, it will fade all at once, completely, or bit by bit to a lesser degree. The speed at which that feeling fades and the degree to which it fades are both indicators of whether this new relationship has potential for longevity, or not.
Is it a Good Relationship?
We tend not to trust our gut, right? So the questions about whether it’s a good relationship or not come quick. Also, for some, big questions of “marriage” or “forever” are on the mind, and that can make it hard to get in touch with your gut.
These are a few questions I ask myself in order to get at the answer to, “Is it Good, Is it Working?” Usually these things are clear within a couple to a few weeks.
Am I feeling energized by being with this person (or drained, overwhelmed, anxious, etc.)?
Does this person seem narcissistic?
Are these healthy butterflies, or the nervousness of unease?
Does this person tell me who I am, or ask who I am?
Does he seem comfortable with my differences of opinion?
Does he or she criticize others? Who? (Strangers, your family, the waiter?)
Do I feel confident around this person? Are they truly interested in you?
Do I feel sorry for this person, better than him, or “helpful” to this person? (Red Flag!)
Other questions, not necessarily tied to having had a dysfunctional childhood family:
Is this person asking me about myself beyond the first question? Is he asking Why, What, and Then What about the events of my day and mind?
When I express interest in starting a new project, does he ask to hear more–or tell me what he knows about the topic?
Do I feel safe, respected, tuned-in, and truly present while sexually intimate with this person?
Do this person’s actions clearly ‘say’ that my sexual pleasure is important to him?
Do I feel rushed? Accepted?
Does the word “flexibility” exist here between us?
Who makes the plans, initiates the date, and “lead,” or is it balanced?
Finally, about what does the person joke? (“Can’t wait till you bring your laundry over and wash mine, too, ha ha ha.” Jokes can be revealing, oh so revealing!)
I’d love to hear your questions, too! Please share them below in Comments. (Don’t be shy! You can post anonymously.)