My partner and I are pretty different. She grew up with her parents and extended Puerto Rican family in an emotionally expressive household. I grew up with a thick-skinned, West African mother in an emotionally reserved atmosphere. My partner is great with verbal communication, while I prefer to write my feelings out. Before her, I had been in only one relationship where I had cheated once; she in a few where she had been cheated on a few times. Still, trust remained a keystone in our relationships. When we met unexpectedly at a summer internship, we were both adamantly staying clear of relationships. Or that was the plan. Six years later, we're still going strong, and intend on spending the rest of our days in each other’s laughter, bad moods, joys, successes and growing pains. Here are the hard lessons I was lucky to learn. Hopefully you'll be too.
1) There’s no winning or losing.
If one person wins, then you both lose. Being right isn’t the goal. Finding common understanding is. You’re both aiming toward the success of your relationship, the happiness of your partner and yourself.
2) Sometimes it’s about you and sometimes it’s not. Learn to tell the difference.
You are human and will be insecure at times. You will project those insecurities out of guilt, frustration or confusion. Your partner will do the same. When this happens, be compassionate, and kind. We are always in mid-conversation with ourselves and will bring others in without providing context or a heads up. If you’re projecting, check yourself. If you’re being projecting onto, be a mirror or a window for your partner. In these moments, you have two choices: you can turn on each other or you can turn to each other.
3) Trust is built in the details.
Our hearts have a mind of their own, and words are not what our hearts remember most. Actions are—especially when they make us feel safe, secure and protected by those other than ourselves. Small acts of everyday kindness, generosity, love, appreciation add up in relationships to consistently build trust. If you mess this up, then you’ll need to work double time to earn back or rebuild trust. Because the heart will make up its mind, before the brain figures out what day it is.
4) Communication isn’t key. Commitment is.
Two people can talk all of the time, but if there’s no commitment, then you won’t really care about what’s being said, and take action from those conversations. Commitment means communicating even when you really don’t want to or don’t feel like it or don’t see the immediate benefit of it. It means going the extra mile, digging deeper and staying open when it’s easier to do otherwise. Commitment shows. Communications tells.
5) Expectations are your enemies.
By default we think we know people, especially the people we love. And so we hold them to certain standards and expectations, but to truly love someone is to not expect anything of them. It’s to trust them (see #3) and to let them show you who they are—not who you want them to be. Learn your partner—it will take time, but if you really care you’ll be patient. Learn who they really are. What they love. What they need. What they value.
6) Love looks different for different people and for different reasons.
I got most of my “what love is supposed to look and feel like” narrative from books, movies and, art that featured couples that neither looked nor functioned like my own. I tried to force it into a mold so I could understand how to perform. So I could understand love. But I wasn’t giving myself or my relationship a chance to grow authentically. Love and relationships should be liberating. We learn as we go, and there’s no perfect way for us to do so. Respect your relationship, and make your own romantic, revolutionary love story.
7) Intimacy is not innate.
It took me some time to figure this one out. As a woman, I assumed I’d naturally welcome intimacy, but considering some past unexamined and off-putting experiences, I guarded myself and had to learn to be vulnerable. Intimacy isn’t limited to sex, to touch. It’s letting someone close enough to see you in always that most people do not. It’s being comfortable enough to show someone your scars and imperfections. It’s kisses on the forehead and kissing on knuckles; it’s chest and back rubs; it’s wiping tears with fingertips and not tissues; it’s prolonged eye contact; it’s a subtle head nod of reassurance; it’s a close-lip smile of support. If intimacy is greatly unfamiliar to you, it's fine to put up wall at first. Just make sure you put in windows.
8) You can’t complete someone else.
Nor should you try. We have a saying, “You are the whole to my whole.” You are not broken and you are not empty. But if you find yourself feeling these ways, then you’ll have to work through healing on your own. No one else can do the work for you. A true partnership is not about completing the other person, but complementing them and supporting them. It’s not about filling in where they lack, but providing a safe place to help make sure they fill that space themselves. At the end of the day, the love your partner gives will not replace the love you have for yourself.
9) You’re thinking for two (or more, if you’re into that).
Some may call this compromise, but compromise isn’t about making someone else happy. It’s about seeing through to what will make both lovers happy at the end of the day. It’s about generosity and thoughtfulness. Never take yourself or your partner out of the equation; it is the sum of two (or more) souls that makes this love equation work. So if you’re going to get yourself a new toothbrush, buy a pack of two.
10) You’re not going to be the same person.
If you’re smart you’ll grow. If you’re smart and in love, you’ll grow together. Just make sure that the person you’re growing with today is the person you want to grow with tomorrow and ten years from now.
11) Being in a relationship is an everyday decision.
Every day you are presented a choice to show up. These days when it’s easy to flake on someone or be distracted by the plethora of options provided to you, consistency in choice takes strength and courage. If you have what it takes to fall in love, then you have what it takes to stay in love.