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I want to become a better lover, both physically and emotionally. I’m currently in my first serious relationship and the role of girlfriend is not one that I¹m familiar with. How do I use this relationship to explore more of myself as well as help my partner grow?

First off, congrats on being in your first serious relationship! There’s so much to say about relationships, I’m not sure where to begin. As I don’t have any specifics to work with regarding your relationship in particular, I’ll provide some general principles of relationships I’ve come to understand, both personally and professionally in my clinical work.

#1. Surviving the honeymoon — Romantic relationships often begin with an initial phase of intense lust and longing, like being under a spell. This phase of a relationship usually feels highly pleasurable, if not a little out of control — hence “falling” in love/lust. This stage can be an instrumental period of time where the pair can safely bond with each other and allow for their chemistry to develop; however, it sadly doesn’t stay like this. Life happens, and slowly you come to discover conflict —  perhaps you have different expectations about how much you communicate during the day, or you can’t stand your partner’s friends, or some other pet peeve reveals itself. The resilience of the relationship often has more to do with how the couple attends to conflict than the conflict itself.

#2. Love languages are a real thing — Have you seen the book on The Five Love Languages? This book is worth checking out, even better if you read through it with your partner and talk together about the ways you give and receive love. Acts of service, gifts, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation are the languages represented in the book. Maybe you’d feel lit up inside if your partner cooked dinner for you, or surprised you with a visit at work, or told you you looked absolutely stunning. Yet maybe in your partner’s mind, an abundance of physical affection is his or her way of expressing love. While you might adore the affection, perhaps it misses the mark of what would really ring your bell. Growth becomes possible for all involved here, as it takes risk and trust to communicate your preferences, and perhaps even more so to speak a language that’s less comfortable for you (i.e. giving affection when it doesn’t come easily, or verbally affirming your partner when you’re shy).

#3. We seek to repair childhood wounds — Romantic partnerships are perhaps the most complex of all relationships we have. We look to our partners to lick our wounds, yet we might feel as though they’re also the source of the pain. How to make sense of this? I’ve learned a lot from Imago Relationship Therapy, a popular method of couples counseling that suggests we each carry an unconscious image, or an imago, for love relationships based on the traits and patterns of our early caregivers. We are driven to heal the frustrations of childhood, thus we seek out partners that may mirror the traits of our parents or who seem to offer the solution to our parents’ shortcomings. However because we seek this resolution, it means we can expect the old wounds to be reactivated in new relationships again and again, thereby triggering the old emotions. This pattern can leave us cycling through partners, seeking the one who doesn’t cause us this pain, but the catch is that sometimes we fail to see how it was our own pain all along! Couples therapy can be a way for couples to untangle the projection matrix and return the pain to its rightful owner, and hopefully worked through.

#4 There are tigers and turtles —The tiger and turtle metaphors, also from Imago therapy, offer a broad way to speak about basic tendencies people have in the face of conflict. Tigers aim to preserve connection in the face of danger. They may want to keep talking until the conflict has abated, or even keep fighting, as long as contact remains intact. In a relationship, tigers tend to keep up an energized level of engagement for the couple. On the other hand, a turtle’s first line of defense is to retreat. That retreat can look like walling oneself in work, disappearing into tv, drinking, becoming quiet, or literally leaving by going for a walk. Turtles are rarely burdensome to others, may feel easily overwhelmed, yet they preserve the very important quality of independence within the couple, often at the expense of the tiger’s comfort. Two tigers together can be a volatile pair, two turtles can be dull, and a tiger-turtle will always be a demanding, entertaining, and challenging balancing act! The most important thing in all of this is not who’s the tiger and who’s the turtle, but how rigid are the roles? It can be good relationship hygiene to have some fluidity between tiger and turtle depending on the situation. Role rigidity, when one party is always the turtle and the other always the tiger, can leave a relationship vulnerable. Rigidity can be the birthplace of stagnation and resentment, and on a deeper level, it deprives each member of the couple the opportunity to cultivate the traits of the opposite. Inside a tiger might be a frightened child afraid of loss, and inside the turtle, a frightened child afraid to come out of his or her shell. Relationships by their nature expose these very old fears and needs, providing opportunities aplenty for one’s own inner work and greater compassion and intimacy.

Overall, relationships can provide an endless source of fun, companionship, warmth, challenge, and discovery…and when the vitality feels depleted, boredom and complacency can become equally interesting to learn from. As for you, M, I hope these basic principles give you some food for thought, with a few books sprinkled in for follow-up reading. You have an impressive attitude so far, as you seem aware of how a relationship can be a vessel for growth, so you’re set up well to cultivate conscious love.

*DISCLAIMER: Dreamwork is a collaborative process that relies entirely on the associations of the dreamer to create a dream meaning. Without the dreamer’s input, I can only describe my personal associations and amplify the dream images as they exist symbolically on a cultural level.

See original post on the Free People blog here

Illustration by Erica Prince

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