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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.