Over the nearly two decades that I’ve walked people through the tricky terrain of intimate relationships, I’ve seen the same three stumbling blocks arise repeatedly. If one person in a partnership falls prey to the stumbling block, the relationship usually ends with time. But if the stumbling blocks are met with the awareness that they’re an essential part of the journey of learning how to love, the relationship will not only remain alive but will be well on the way to thrive.
You see, the problem isn’t the stumbling blocks themselves. Blocks arise so that you can push through them and create a stronger relationship both to yourself and your partner. The problem is that if you believe that relationships are supposed to be effortless, you’ll run at the first sign of challenge, which usually arises when the infatuation stage wears off (as it always will). The flaw in this thinking is failing to realize that there’s a purpose to the challenge; it’s how you grow. You can keep running from the challenges, but you’ll be running for the rest of your life.
When these three stumbling blocks arise, see if you can meet them with curiosity and remind yourself that, far from being a reason to run, they’re actually an invitation to grow.
Mistake No. 1: expecting your partner to be your source of joy and aliveness.
Our mainstream culture of romantic love is predicated on the belief that your partner is supposed to “make” you feel alive and happy. If you had an infatuation stage (and not everyone does, which doesn’t make a relationship any less worthy), you would have experienced a “free ride” during which you indeed felt like your partner was the answer to your problems. Riding on the intoxicating cocktail of hormones and the openhearted excitement that often defines the first, young stage of love, you felt like you were floating a cloud. It seemed like nothing could burst your high… until something did.
One day you woke up and realized that the colors of life, so brilliant in Technicolor when you felt “in love,” now look a bit drab. And the first thought to pop into your mind was, “I guess I’m not in love. Maybe I’m in the wrong relationship.”
The mistake isn’t that you “fell out of love.” That’s what happens in love. The mistake is interpreting the lack of aliveness as a message that it’s time to leave. When infatuation dies, it’s not time to leave. It’s time to learn about the real work of love, which is about understanding that love is a commitment, a choice, and an act of will. Real love asks what you can give more than what you get.
It’s not your partner’s job to be the source of your joy; that’s your job and yours alone. It’s your partner’s job to be supportive, loving, honest, kind, and of strong moral character, and if your partner has those qualities, you are blessed. There’s no reason to walk away just because the feelings you typically associate with loving have faded away.
Mistake No. 2: not realizing that love and fear go hand in hand.
Love is the biggest risk we take. When we love, we open our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our souls to another, and as such, nothing renders us more vulnerable to being hurt and to experiencing loss. And when we feel vulnerable, fear juts up like a fortress around the heart to protect it from these risky possibilities. The heart knows that love hurts, for it’s not possible to grow up on this planet and not experience hurt in some form from parents, siblings, friends, or other adults. If you don’t understand that love and fear are roommates in the chamber of the heart, then when fear arises, you are likely to bolt.
And here’s another tricky element of fear that we’re not taught in the culture: Fear doesn’t often show up as pure fear but instead as its sisterhood of emissaries, which are irritation, doubt, numbness, and indifference. When these feelings show up, it doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong relationship. On the contrary, it means you’re quite likely in the right relationship, and the fear-based self—knowing the inherent risk of sharing love with an available partner—is trying to protect you from getting hurt. If you believe fear’s lines—which often appear as statements like “My partner irritates me, so she must not be the one for me”—you will likely walk away from someone with whom you have a high potential of growing a lifelong, loving relationship.
Mistake No. 3: believing the pervasive cultural message that sex should be effortless.
“Every couple I know seems to have a fantastic sex life, but I don’t feel that way about our sex life. I never feel like having sex. I feel bad about that, but it just doesn’t seem to be in my nature.”
I hear these kinds of statements every day from my clients. The irony is that, largely because of social media, everyone thinks everyone else is having great sex constantly, but from where I sit, I hear a very different story. I hear couples who struggle with sex. I hear women who have lost desire. I hear from men who think there’s something wrong with themselves for having a low sex drive. I hear from couples who are actually quite happy having sex once a month—or less—but feel a sense of shame because that number doesn’t meet the culturally expected twice-a-week quota.
The bottom line is that we’re surrounded by illusions and expectations about sex, but almost none of them apply in a long-term relationship. Past the honeymoon stage (again, if there was one), every latent fear and message we’ve absorbed about sex comes rushing to the surface, which means that sex with a loving partner can be challenging—but it also becomes an opportunity to heal old wounds and grow our capacity for true, openhearted intimacy. Just as real love asks us to become the source of our own aliveness and soften the fear walls that protect us from taking the risk of being vulnerable, similarly real sex isn’t about fireworks and nascent desire. It’s about connection, honesty, and being willing to name what is real and true as you take the expectations of a certain type of sex off the table and instead gently explore what works for the two of you.
When you can meet these three stumbling blocks with consciousness—which means with self-compassion and curiosity—you will avoid the mistake of walking away from a loving, solid relationship. Instead you will grow your capacity to love and be loved, which, at the core, is all we really want.