Lesson 1 Understand Your Past
Did your parents demonstrate compassion, tenderness, respect, and honesty in their intimate relationship(s)? If so, you probably aspire to bring those elements into your love life, as well. Did your parents demonstrate hostility, abuse, addiction, neglect, or deceit? If so, you probably aspire to break the chain and love differently than what you were shown. Unfortunately, just saying, “I’ll never end up like my parents” is not enough because many, if not most, of the messages about love that we internalize in childhood, though impactful, are quiet and out of our direct awareness. There’s a big difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Family patterns, loyalties, and legacies are strong, and unless you are willing to explore your past, you are at risk of having old patterns in the driver’s seat of your love life, rather than you.
Lesson 2 Craft Your Story
Research shows that how we tell the story of our lives is more meaningful than what actually happens to us. The tone and quality of the stories we tell about ourselves and our relationships say a lot about who we are. How we fit the events in our lives together reflects and shapes our outlook on life. How we tell our story affects how we interact with the world around us. Those of us whose life stories include blessings, goodness, and hope—even within sad and painful chapters—tend to live with more happiness and peace of mind. Those whose life stories are fragmented, incoherent, and thin tend to struggle to connect deeply with self and others (McAdams 2006). Your life story affects how you connect with those around you, so creating a life story that is coherent and cohesive is a key aspect of relational self-awareness.
Lesson 3 Awaken to Your Life Today
Living well, with an open heart that is loving of self and loving of others, requires bringing ourselves, again and again, as fully as possible, into the present moment—and that means knowing how to work with our stories. While we need to acknowledge and honor the impact that the past has on us today, we also need to be careful not to get stuck there. Spiritual teacher and author Carolyn Myss says, “By remaining stuck in the power of our wounds, we block our own transformation. We overlook the greater gifts inherent in our wounds—the strength to overcome them and the lessons we are meant to receive through them. Wounds teach us to become passionate and wise” (1997, 15).
Lesson 4 Forge a New Connection
From the moment we are born until we take our last breath, we are always changing, yet it is easy for us to retain a perspective of our parents or caregivers that we created when we were kids. Clinging to an old story of who they are can negatively affect your love life. Through the lens of an out-of-date story, your parents are stuck in the past, and, more important, you are stuck in the past. It is important to “grow up” your relationship with your parents and to get to know them as the people they are today. And to get to know them as the person you are today. Forging a mature adult relationship with your parents is essential because an outdated story can keep you from making healthy choices in your intimate relationships.
Lesson 5 Establish Healthy Boundaries
Boundaries are the space between “you” and “not-you.” Boundaries mark the space at which interactions occur between you and the people in your world. You can’t see or touch boundaries, but they are always there.
We have a built-in sense of our physical boundaries, and that sense determines all kinds of behaviors, from how close we stand when we are talking to whether, when, and how we hug. We also have emotional boundaries that determine how much we share with others about ourselves and when. Our emotional boundaries dictate the kind of behavior we invite, tolerate, encourage, and reject from others. Being able to effectively navigate the boundary between self and other requires self-awareness and courage.
Lesson 6 Embrace Your Unique Love Truths
We will never transcend our cultural context, but our self-awareness is our trusted guide as we figure out how to live well among a bombardment of noisy and often-conflicting messages about love. “Be your own person!” “Let someone love you!” “Don’t back down!” “Lean in!” Being able to look critically at our culture’s stories (especially about dependence and gender) is a gateway to freedom. The happiest couples are the ones who are able to create and inhabit love stories that are good enough. Not perfect: good enough.
Lesson 7 Surrender the Fairy Tale
All fairy tales seem to end the same way, don’t they? “And they lived happily ever after.” Romantic comedies too…the couple walks hand in hand into the sunset, more or less. We never get the chance to fast-forward and see the couple on an ordinary Tuesday evening, paying bills and watching Netflix. The images of love that we consume through television and movies tend to be highly romanticized and idealized, quite far removed from the realities and complexities of a real intimate relationship. What impact does that have on us?
Real love, in real relationships, changes and evolves—and we must change and evolve as well.
Lesson 8 Keep the Soul in Soulmate
Don’t believe that your soulmate is your perfect match. Research by social psychologists Spike W. S. Lee and Norbert Schwartz (2014) indicates that believing your soulmate is your perfect match can set you up for unhealthy patterns. They found that people who use a perfect-match definition of soulmates tend to experience overreactions to conflict and lower relationship satisfaction. It makes sense, right? If I believe that you are my perfect match, when we bump up against inevitable conflict or our “fall from grace,” I am going to feel disappointed and confused. People who subscribe to this perspective tend to use the language of should when talking about love: “It shouldn’t feel like this.” “We shouldn’t have this problem.”
Lesson 9 Listen to Your Gut
It’s called a “visceral” feeling or reaction for a reason. Your viscera (stomach and intestines) have nerve cells (neurons) that send data, via a lightning-fast neural pathway called lamina I in your spinal cord, up to your brain. Most of us think of the brain as the central processing unit that tells the rest of the body what to do, but this finding affirms what we intuitively know: We obtain valuable information from the bottom up! It’s the sense you get that someone is looking at you. The chill in your spine when someone is being dishonest or malicious. The twisting-up feeling you get when you’re saying yes but you really mean no.
Lesson 10 Source Your Life
A rich and meaningful love story is best crafted by those committed to living with passion—those who know how to source their lives (Oriah 1999). Sourcing your life is about feeding yourself from within. This lesson invites you to ask yourself an essential question: What do I need present in my life in order to feel alive, joyful, and passionate?
Intimate partners do not necessarily share or need to share those passions. My passions are uniquely mine. Your passions are uniquely yours. It is often the case that intimate partners turn away from the relationship and engage their passion, allowing them to return to the relationship more openhearted, alive, and engaged. Loving bravely means working to support passionate living—for yourself and for your partner.
Lesson 11 Inhabit Your Body
Body image concerns pull you out of your present-moment experience, dampening the pleasures of sex. Celebrating the body you live in, exactly as it is today, can help you leave your self-critical voice behind so you can show up for fun! Our minds and bodies are intricately connected, so judgmental thoughts about yourself—“My belly is too fat”; “My hips are too wide”—get in the way of physical pleasure. Stopping negative self-talk is easier said than done, but recognizing that you are having negative thoughts is a vital first step! You are not your thoughts, so start by naming negative thoughts as they creep in during sex. For example, you have the thought, “My belly is so fat.” Train yourself to have this thought next: “I am not the negative thought I just had.”
Lesson 12 Honor the Space Between
Building a life with someone is multifaceted. The same person you have mind-blowing sex with turns out to be the same person you share a bank account and a closet with. And that stuff can get really irritating! The best we can ever do is learn to deal lovingly with the frustrating and painful moments so that we can return as quickly as possible to a place of intimacy and friendship. Being truly brave means also trusting that conflict has within it the potential to deepen intimate connection by granting us the opportunity to know ourselves and our partner in a more vulnerable and authentic way. That’s quite a dialectic: conflict sucks and conflict catalyzes growth.
The story you tell yourself about conflict shapes your experience of it. The stories that people tell about conflict are so vital that every couples therapist addresses those stories in some way, shape, or form with every couple he or she sees, always. Regardless of how couples therapists are trained, one of the goals they will have for every couple they work with is to help the couple tell stories about their conflicts in a way that maximizes intimacy and minimizes blame and shame. The goal is to move from linear conflict stories to systemic conflict stories.
Lesson 13 Respect the Pause
Simple fight or flight is lifesaving in the deep woods, but it can be love-destroying in the family room. Responding in this rough-and-dirty way to our intimate partners, by either attacking (fight) or withdrawing (flight), doesn’t promote closeness or safety. Fortunately, we have been blessed with a cerebral cortex, also known as the new mammalian brain, and it is quite sophisticated. One part of the cerebral cortex, the prefrontal cortex, is located right behind the center of the forehead, the area spiritual teachers call the “third eye.” The prefrontal cortex, which is not fully wired up until we are twenty-five years old, can do a whole lot more than fight or flee. This part of the brain guides higher-order skills like empathy, compassion, wisdom, discernment, choice, and impulse control.
When we are processing the world through the prefrontal cortex, we are on the “high road.” When we are processing the world through the limbic system, we are on the “low road.” When faced with that infuriating stimulus, we are at risk of responding with our emotional brain in the blink of an eye, driving off the prefrontal cortex–guided high road and landing squarely on the limbic-guided low road, never even noticing the precious space between stimulus and response. The shift has happened. An openhearted, compassionate person becomes a warrior, just like that.
Lesson 14 Dig a Little Deeper
Spoiler alert: no matter how hard we try, we will never fix or cure our emotional reactivity. That’s not even a healthy aspiration, as our emotions, even the messy ones, make us who we are. Our emotional life is a critical part of being human. Experiences of sadness, fear, anger, happiness, and surprise color the stories of our lives, and though we may prefer to experience only the so-called “positive” emotions, the so-called “negative” emotions are just as real and valuable. Emotions are the natural response to life, and we are most able to connect with others when we can stay present with our feelings.
Knowing we will never stop having emotional reactions to the world around us, or to our partner specifically, we can set two goals for ourselves:
- To reduce the amount of time it takes to notice that we have exited the high road and are barreling ahead on the low road (to catch ourselves in fight-or-flight mode).
- To be courageous enough to move away from our self-protective fight-or-flight survival strategies and to speak instead from a vulnerable place that is braver and deeper.
Lesson 15 Build the Cushion
Relationship counselor and best-selling author Dr. Gary Chapman (2015) uses the term “love languages” to capture the idea that there is more than one way to give and receive love. Love speaks more than one language, and each of us has a preferred “tongue” for giving and receiving love. Love languages are both unique to the individual and impactful on the couple.
Dr. Chapman presents the five languages as simply different from each other. There is no hierarchy. Here are the five languages of love, according to Dr. Chapman:
- Words of affirmation (“You are so talented.”)
- Acts of service (doing the dishes even though it’s not your turn)
- Giving/receiving gifts (surprising her with tickets to see Jay Z in concert)
- Quality time (dinner and a movie)
- Physical touch (hugging, back scratching, sex)
Lesson 16 Practice a Loving “I’m Sorry”
We hurt those we love. For all kinds of reasons. Looking at how we hurt people we love is really hard work, kicking up incredibly uncomfortable feelings as we confront discrepancies between who we believe ourselves to be and who our actions suggest we are. The quote that opens this lesson, by 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, offers a path that can help us tolerate this painful dialectic—I both love you and sometimes hurt you. Any confrontation of self about our hurtful behavior must take place in Rumi’s field—the field out beyond right-doing and wrong-doing. The language of bad and wrong is simply a dead-end road, as those labels are really limiting. They cut off exploration, leading only to a call to action to “be different,” which is too vague to be of service. Those labels also create shame, and shame is a lousy motivator of change.
Lesson 17 Forgive…Again and Again
Forgiveness is a canceled debt (Markman and Stanley 2010). This definition acknowledges that you could keep the person who hurt you in debt to you. You are entitled to do that. But instead you are choosing to cancel the debt.
this definition reminds us that forgiveness is active. Forgiveness means that you have made a choice. Oprah Winfrey says that “forgiveness means letting go of the wish that the past could be different.” When we have been hurt, our instinct is to wish, deeply and fully, that the violation had not happened. But that wish creates suffering because, indeed, it did happen and it cannot un-happen. We are left only with the present moment and the future. In this way, forgiveness is truly the centerpiece of all healing.
Lesson 18 Value Presence
Despite the fact that we intuitively know this, presence seems to be in short supply these days. We are living in an incredibly fast-paced digital age, which has created a strange irony. Between online dating, texting, and social media, we are arguably more connected than ever before (Turkle 2015). But we also seem to be less present than ever before. Listening while texting. Texting while watching a show. Watching a show while scrolling Facebook. We seem to rarely put our whole self in one place at one time. Technology has become an integral part of every aspect of our lives—even our love lives. It is not uncommon for therapy clients to bring out their phones midsession in order to read me a text exchange they had with their intimate partner. We look for love online, and we conduct the business of love online as well!
This lesson will expand your awareness about how our collective love affair with our handheld devices affects our ability to be present for love. Presence is indeed hard work, but it is work worth doing in order to love and be loved.
Lesson 19 Be on Your Own Team
Self-compassion is a powerful antidote to shame. In fact, it’s really the only antidote to shame. The heart of self-compassion is deep friendship with one’s self—I am on my own team.
Every time we engage in the Name-Connect-Choose process, we are practicing self-compassion, because we are attending to and valuing what lies within us. Every time we enact healthy boundaries by saying yes when we mean yes and no when we mean no, we are practicing self-compassion. Every time we return our attention to the present moment, dropping self-criticism and negative self-talk, we are practicing self-compassion.
So what is self-compassion? Dr. Kristin Neff (2011; 2012), the leading researcher in this area, says there are three elements of self-compassion:
- Self-kindness. “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
- Common humanity. Being compassionate with ourselves involves recognizing that “suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience.” Shame says, “I am the only one who feels like this.” Self-compassion says, “Everyone screws up or feels lousy from time to time.”
- When we are mindful, we bring our attention into the present moment (neither fast-forwarding to an imagined catastrophic future nor rewinding to old stories about the past), and we adopt a nonjudgmental and receptive state of mind in which we observe our thoughts and feelings rather than trying to suppress or deny them. Mindfulness is the difference between thinking, “I am such a loser” and thinking, “Oh, here comes that old, played-out story about how I am such a loser. I had better figure out how to be compassionate with myself in the face of this bull.”
Lesson 20 Ride the Waves
Ride the Waves is about trusting life. It’s about how much more open we are to love when we allow rather than force, wonder instead of control, and exhale deeply into all that we do not know and cannot know.
For so many of us, making that internal shift from resisting to allowing is really difficult, and we can get ourselves quite stuck fighting against reality as it exists right here and right now (bills, flat tires, and all). Dan Siegel describes it as the difference between a “no” space and a “yes” space (2010). When we’re caught up in that “no” space, not only do we create suffering within ourselves, but our intimate relationship also pays a price. To our partner we are likely to feel prickly and hard to approach. Our partner may feel as if he or she is walking on eggshells. There’s no doubt, intimate relationships go more smoothly when we commit ourselves to not letting the rigid and controlling parts of ourselves run the show. But that can feel easier said than done.