Here's a weird fact about adulting. There are as many things you need to unlearn about being in a relationship as there are to learn. You know you have to learn communication skills, and trust, and how to argue like a mature person. But what about the things you think and feel deep down about what's normal behavior? How do relationships look long-term? What is romantic and what's a felony? (Hint: Stalking is not romantic.)
Romantic comedies, our peers, and the relationships we grew up around all inform our ideas about what love is supposed to be like. The people we learned those lessons from learned them the hard way, as well, and were maybe even still learning them while they were busy being our role models. So the things we learned, well, they might not be the healthiest. That's the great thing about adulting, though. You can do the work to become the person you want to be, and to have the relationships you want to have.
The first step toward learning what's healthy involves also learning what is unhealthy. And, well, unlearning it. Here are a few classic examples of things my clients often needed to unlearn about relationships from my tenure as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator.
1. What Jealousy Means
Jealousy is complicated. We're taught that it's cute, and that it means your partner really loves you. A little bit of jealousy once in a while, as a passing emotion, can be normal. But as a whole, jealousy is really a toxic thing. When it motivates one partner to change what they do, who they spend time with, and what they feel they're allowed to do, then it's actually one of the more dangerous red flags of an unhealthy, and potentially abusive, relationship. If jealousy is a big issue in your relationship, then you and your partner definitely need to unlearn those patterns and find new, healthier ways to deal with your insecurities.
2. What Romance Looks Like
Unlearning what romance looks like in the media, and relearning what it looks like in a healthy relationship comes with some definite trial and error. I would have never, in my wildest dreams, thought that I would find shampoo romantic, but once, when I was really busy and didn't have time to go get some, my girlfriend at the time showed up at my house with it, and it was the most romantic thing ever. It was more about how she listened and then went out of her way to make my life easier and less about the fanfare. We all need to learn realistic expectations (which is not the same as settling), and be grateful when unlikely romance happens.
3. What Compromise Entails
I've learned while working with couples that there's this pervasive notion that compromise is bad. That compromise is settling or somehow lowering your standards, and that we should never compromise. Um, this is maybe often true when it comes to your ideals or to your goals (and even then, sometimes you have to compromise), but it's the completely wrong idea for a relationship. Relationships involve two people, and two people don't always agree on what to have for dinner, let alone how to chart the course of their lives together. Compromise is very important to healthy relationships, so you have to master it.
4. What Trying Means
Effort is at the heart of love, I am convinced. Many couples need to work to both put in more effort, and to realize when effort is put forth. That makes love sound like a ton of work, I know. But that's because love is a ton of work. You can't just do whatever you want and expect the right person to gel with you. It works out like that sometimes, but sometimes you have to appreciate that your partner took out the trash when they were really tired as a gesture of love. And sometimes you have to be the one to take out the trash. If you wait for that person who you don't ever have to try with, you'll be waiting forever.
5. What Conflict Does
Conflict is actually a tool that helps you solve problems. It's not something you have to avoid, or be afraid of. Fighting, arguing, disagreeing, and getting angry with each other are parts of that process. And even though it can be uncomfortable and scary, you should never shy away from it. Instead, re-learn how to do conflict in a healthy way, by avoiding blame, hearing each other out, compromising, and putting yourself in each other's shoes. Once you re-learn that conflict can be a good thing, and master how to do it, you'll have a much less rocky road, even when things are bad.
6. How Sex Happens
Sex is awesome. It's also awkward, messy, sweaty. Sometimes it's fun. Sometimes it's terrible. A lot of the women I spoke to were insecure about their sex lives because they didn't play out like porn. If you want more porn-like sex, then that's fine, but if you're happy with your sex life how it is, there's no need to worry about it. I promise you that you're not the only person in the world having regular sex and not living like a character on Sex & The City. As long as you're both happy and communicating, there's no reason to feel inadequate.
7. How Your Parents Failed
Our parents or primary caregivers are our first role models for what relationships look like. I've actually heard several people tell me during couples counseling that "it was good enough for my parents, and they're still together." This usually came after one partner asked the other partner for more romance, more help, or more of an emotional connection. What worked for your parents, and their happiness with it, may be more of habit than healthy. Plus, you and your partner are two different people. Bottom line, if your parents had some unhealthy dynamics going on, you'll need to do the work of decoding how that affects your current relationships. You might be surprised to find out how much it does.
The learning never stops. But the rewards, when it comes to love, make it all worth it.
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