Grown-Up Love: Evolving Into Relational Maturity

I began teaching psychoeducation (sounds awful, doesn’t it?) in a psychiatric hospital on the north side of Chicago. Yes, it was many moons ago, when insurance companies cared enough about the human heart to finance treatment. Back then, we in the mental health field had the luxury of incubating a patient for an extended period of time and prodding emotional development toward deep and sustaining maturation.

During my stint, there was one comment I heard over and over again – why did I have to come here to learn what you are teaching me? Why did I have to enter a locked ward in downtown Chicago to discover essential truths about life? Sad, really. I listened with both empathy and agreement. I too wish that someone had given me life’s instructions earlier. That someone had made certain I acquired what I needed to launch my life on a more successful projectile.

But better late than never, so they say. Here are a few fundamental principles of grown-up love:

  1. Advance Psychologically. As children, our early relationships revolve around survival. Without you, there is no me. The reliability of my caretaker dictates my learning to trust and depend on another human being. In other words, we are born codependent. I need you to define me and sustain me. This, in turn, becomes the starting point for our intimate relationships. As a psychological babe, I must focus on pleasing you for my continued existence.  The “Other” surpasses the “I.” Regrettably, some of us never pick up our stakes from this campsite. We build a slab foundation right here and hope for the best … that such will be adequate footing for a successful adult relationship. Nope. Not gonna happen. Not grown-up love.   You must keep growing …

The next stop on the relational train is me, myself and I. As non-sensical as this sounds, this is when we actually individuate or separate in a healthy way into our own grounded boundaries. Think contrary adolescent attempting to leave home. I move away from needing to be defined by you and into self-definition.  I become able and willing to demarcate who I am as a stand-alone being. And confusingly enough, what might feel harsh is actually healthy. I learn to enjoy my own company. I learn that I can do this thing solo, that my esteem is based in me rather than in you and that showing up to my truth paves the way for actual intimacy. But there are still more miles to travel …

After boundaries have been hardened, they need to soften. In other words, now that I have found my voice, I need to make space for yours as my partner, my teammate, my equal. And now that I possess the intrapersonal skills to share intimately with another without losing me or distancing from you in order to keep me, boundaries can afford to be loosened. They have become so solid, there is no longer a fear of them not existing. I can hold my own on this side while you hold your own on your side – and, we both can make room for that joint space we tend to together.

  1. Don’t Take it Personally. This is my favorite relational tool because it gives the most bang for the buck. This one act of emotional development, the construction of solid protective boundaries, can provide a fortune of pay-off. I have witnessed mounds of emotional destruction by folks taking something personally that has nothing to do with him or her. In addition, relational dysfunction exists when a partner projects an unwanted part of him/herself with the unconscious wish that his/her partner will own it for him/her. Thus, intact boundaries give a relationship a fighting chance in hell to survive. If we are not busy defending our own ego, we can afford the security and psychic energy needed to get interested in someone else.
  1. Be Willing to Understand. Evolved love knows that connection is not based on sameness, but rather on one’s willingness to understand difference. There is no actual threat in your partner not seeing, believing, thinking and feeling exactly as you. Therefore, it is not my job to either judge him/her for his/her differences or to try and persuade him/her to experience the world as I do. It is only my task to comprehend. Because we are coming from two distinct worlds, seeing two different movies at the theater, I need to be open, curious and compassionate toward my partner. Why? Because I care about him/her and I care about our relationship. Grown-up love requires that I have enough good will to try to view things from his/her perspective, even if, especially if, I disagree.
  1. Stop Being Afraid of Pain. Being in a relationship means signing up to have your heart broken. No, it doesn’t have to be a capital “B” broken but I guarantee it will have many moments of great ache and disappointment. That is just how real love rolls. When you open yourself up and entrust your heart to an imperfect human being, you are contracting to feel some pain. But, that’s okay. It’s just pain. It will not kill you. In fact, it is in this willingness to be hurt that the depth of relational and emotional intimacy becomes possible. I can afford the courage it takes to risk as opposed to putting that effort into protecting myself from dreaded feelings.

5. Wait Your Turn. We can’t all go at once. In other words, if I am talking, I can’t listen. Trying to cram my truth down another while he or she is trying to cram his/truth  down me – no way, no how. At best, it is a waste of time. At worst, it is injurious to the relationship. However, we can each receive something. We can each gain enough (unless you are with an unwilling partner from the start). But to do so, it has to be my turn. And if it is not my turn, then I must wait. Unfortunately, that little pesky child inside does not do postponement. But adults do. They learn. Kicking and screaming, they find out that being on a relational team means not having everything I want, the way I want it, right now.

6. Filter.  There can be great value in spontaneous expression. It can lead to a deeper, fuller connection. It is often better than saying nothing and it can also be freeing for those of us on the more repressed, quiet side. However, it is important to constantly hone that window of – say what you need to in a way that is both authentic to you and is helpful to the relationship. Mature love requires that I think before I talk, particularly if expressing myself causes disconnection. Is what I am about to say respectful and clean of negative tone? Is it coming from my side of the net? Is it worded in a way that can be heard? If not, say it differently. Your relationship will benefit.

  1. Be Generous. Partners who are capable of grown-up love give. In fact, they are frequently willing to give even when giving is not warranted. They know that swallowing a piece of humble pie, taking one for the team, is more valuable to the relationship than protecting his/her ego. Furthermore, mature lovers do not operate from a position of zero-sum. In other words, if I give to you, it does not take from me. I trust that emotional resources are plentiful and that in time, I will get mine too. If the only cost I have in offering more to you right now is my pride, pay it.   Healthy relationships will make sure you are refunded in spades.
  1. Persevere.  Early love is fun, but it ain’t real. It’s more like an endorphin-infused bath with a little champagne and rose petals to go with it. Mature love is for the messy, the raw, the real. The part that is willing to keep running the marathon even when we approach heart-break hill, our legs want to give out and our ugliest self is hanging out all over. Grown-up love takes the long way home. We have something here that outweighs the cost. My investment in what we are building outweighs my desire to feel good at all times. I patiently keep at it consciously and intentionally day after day, moment after moment, stride after stride.

In summation, grown-up love requires that we “grow up.” Such a sizable feat still behooves me. But as my partner said so beautifully, he is willing to step up to bat, strike out a few times, get his pants dirty but regardless, keep swinging the bat. I can only hope that I am game to do the same.

Article: Breaking Up the Party

No matter the modality – individual, group or couple – it is very common for someone to say, “I can’t take that in.  I don’t believe it to be true.”  The verbal expression of love being offered to him or her by me, his/her partner or the group cannot be received.  In fact, it often has to be actively deflected in a sundry of creative ways.  But why? – one might wonder.  I will tell you – because it’s all about the party.


You see, each of us is like a condominium high-rise.  And the penthouse is where it’s at.  I mean that place rocks.  The voices that occupy that prime property in our heads and hearts are having a helluva bash 24/7.  And the kicker is that they are living there rent-free.  Yes, you read that right.  The best real estate deal in town is right here in our own self.  We have given that space to all those internalized voices that we absorbed as a young person growing up.  The verbal and non-verbal ones that said “you will never amount to anything” or “you are not smart like your sister” or “I am worthy of love, not you,” and on and on and on.  Yep, those embedded voices in our heads have taken over the joint.  They have taken over us.  And with the best views and the premier space, they surely are not going to be packing up and moving anytime soon.

So, when a new visitor comes knocking, one that has something new and different to offer, something more positive and kind, more loving and accepting, the penthouse party bouncer refuses him/her entrance. You don’t belong here. No room for you. I can’t receive what you have to offer in that it doesn’t match how I think and feel about myself. To let you in means changing the entire residence pool. And that would require upending the whole deal, a total renovation. No thanks. Too much work. Too much risk. We are good here. Comfortable. Very clear about who we are and what we are doing. So go away.

So, the cycle of self-loathing perpetuates because the penthouse party goers are not leaving, not without a lot of convincing.  Not without a few eviction notices from some VIPs.  This calls for serious action, one that involves bringing in the heavy artillery.  You know what that is? You ready?  It probably is not what you think it is. Repetition. Yep, to seduce those negative voices out of the penthouse, we have to tell them over and over again that they no longer belong there. That their heyday has expired. It is time for them to move it on out of there and hit the basement where they belong. No more champagne, no more caviar, no more romantic views. It’s mousetraps and mildew from here on out. We got new tenants moving in pronto. And they have new voices. Ones of compassion, self-care, value and worthiness. Ones that can feel love and be loved because they too are self-loving.

I will often tell a patient that he or she is ready to stop therapy when he or she has internalized my voice. When he or she can carry around our work as opposed to whatever it is they brought inside of them when they entered my consulting room for the first time. Sometimes, I realize I am not enough for this great feat. Or the patient wants it done faster. So, I get some additional help, the needed strength of an army to break up this penthouse soiree. And I put the patient in one of my groups. With a handful of helpers, we get those partiers packing. .

A fancy clinical term for this process is called Introject Substitution. Or to put it more simply, it is the process whereby we construct an insulation barrier. Much like a protective boundary, the insulation barrier allows one emotional resilience and ego solidity when negative voices knock on the front door or perhaps even try to break down the door to one’s being. The insulation barrier acts as a softening cushion which directs those voices to where they truly belong – outside in the cold, not inside of me. But to do so, we have to have the voices of self-worth and acceptance, love and value, occupying the penthouse. And often those voices have come in the incorporated experience of those that have seen us, understood us and loved us up.

But before you go labeling me a party-pooper, I have to tell you about a certain little girl. This little girl on this particular school day was excited for recess. She knew that today was her day to be picked for one of the kickball teams that the popular kids always put together spontaneously on the playground. After all, it was bound to happen someday, right? But, as the numbers dwindled and she still stood on the line, yet to be chosen, the harsh reality that she was again unwanted became true. As her head hung low, she slowly walked away, towards the swing set where the other losers gathered day after day. As she distanced herself from the cool kid crowd, she reached down and found her voice. And she yelled back, “at least my Mama loves me!”

That’s insulation. That’s a celebration. That’s a penthouse shindig I want to attend. By the way, it’s an open invitation event. You are invited too. Hope I will see you there,


Personal Essay: Falling In Love

I never planned it this way.  I never meant for it to occur.  And then one day it just happened.  I woke up and in the words of Dr. Suess’ Grinch, my “heart grew three sizes that day.”

I always knew that I wanted kids.  I had worked too hard and come too far intrapersonally not to give something away to the generation behind.  In fact, in my early days when infertility seemed to be my path, the idea of not being a parent stung like a grief unrelieved.  But lucky me.  That just led to amazement number one, thanks to Pat.  She created and carried him.  And I get to raise him.  My purple elephant comic ice hockey goalie.  Did I mention he is also a drummer and a gourmet chef?  Yes, he’s the surprise-of-the-day, but by far, the best.

And then at the ripe ole’ age of 37, my oopsie-I-did-not-think-this-was-gonna-work baby came along.  This one needed to be a girl.  And I was thrilled when the early test results showed that the Universe agreed with me, that I was ready to raise a daughter.  With the exception of that curly hair, out popped mini-me.  And we are full-blown on it and in it.  We chat, we argue, we travel, we laugh, we make messes, we clean them up.  And I would not do it any other way with anyone else.  Such a joy she is.

So, I bought the dog and thought I was done.  One boy, one girl and the pug.  All wrapped neatly in a bow.  Living the dream.

And then I saw her.  Riding her bike past our house one day.  “Who is that?” I asked the kids at dinner.  Of course, being up on the latest neighborhood gossip, my kids informed me that that was Zoe.   My maternal nature never one to truly close shop, I had unknowingly just caught site of my third surprise child.

I soon came to know that like my son, Zoe too had been adopted.  Her courageous Mom, after an unexpected bad ending to her marriage. decided she wanted to be a parent.  And off to South America she went in search of a child.

Looking back, I cannot recall the details of how it happened. I imagine that like any new relationship, our families began to get to know one another through consistent contact over time.  Having the unforeseen fortune of buying a house in modern day Mayberry, our home quickly became known as the “it” place, the home where all the neighborhood kids wanted to hang out.  I swear there are many a nights that I have no idea how many kids I am feeding for dinner.  I just cook and we make places at the table as hungry mouths appear.

Zoe soon had her own seat at our kitchen table.  Her own placemat, her own chair and soon, her own chores.  She had worked her way into our home and more importantly, into our hearts. My kids got an extra sister, and I, an unexpected bonus daughter. We travel together, we chat about any and everything and we tell each other we love each other as if the feeling had never not existed. I knew our bond was sealed when she began to come over, even when my kids were away, and root on the losing Redskins with me. I guess I had been vetted.  I have some kind of cool-factor.

One day, Zoe texted me to stop by and say “hello” to some of her friends who were sleeping over. When I entered the downstairs teen-zone, Zoe politely introduced me as her “neighbor.” Ouch, shot through the heart. All of a sudden, I had been demoted to being just the convenient, faceless, distant neighbor. We joke now about that moment. When her need for coolness superseded our friendship. When being labeled just the “neighbor” was a jolting understatement.

I am lucky that way.   Or blessed, depending on how you look at it.   I am surrounded by love – both the opportunity to spread its magic and the inevitable return it brings me ten-fold. What started out as a potentially childless adulthood has become an embarrassment of riches. That kids, other than the two of my own, have incorporated such phrases as “put up your boundaries” and “we need to repair, Ms. Ginger.” That friends of friends pay a spontaneous visit for a hug, because they know that in our home, we hug with two hands. That if you are standing in the kitchen during one of our dishwashing parties, you better catch the towel coming at you ’cause you gotta join the fun and start drying.

Don’t get me wrong. There are moments when I long for quiet. When I wish the pandemonium would halt and I could hear the voice of my own thoughts. When I might actually have the internal space to self-reflect rather than be one step shy of being taken down.

When I do have that infrequent flash of serene self-reflection, I usually feel sad. Because I know that in a wink, life, amidst the swirl of the chaotic environs I currently reside, will be over. That kids leave home. That friends, not parents, become more in vogue. That life outside becomes more alluring than life inside. I get that. That is the way it is supposed to roll. In fact, being abandoned by y children means I did something right as a mom. (I often tease my son – no 35-year-olds are going to be living on my couch!) But until then, I am going to relish this chapter. I got more to teach, more laugh lines to embed, more tears to well, more dinners to make, more heartache to endure.

One thing I have ascertained is that life throws curveballs. And I am grateful to have remained on the field, in the game, awake to its mighty and ultimate benevolence.