I’m 16 and came out as a lesbian four years ago. For the time being since then I sort of hopped around the world of dating a lot but nothing ever lasted more than a few months for me, and the other person was always the one to break it off (usually because of something about not wanting commitment, which was valid especially since we were so young). Also, for background I have experienced some unrelated traumas in my late childhood/early adolescence that have caused me to have a more-than-normal fear of abandonment. Anyhow, back in May of this year I began dating one of my best friends and right away I could tell this time was different. Both of us are genuinely looking for a long-term relationship and we’re committed to weathering the difficulties that inevitably come along with it.
Within the past month or two I noticed that her initial infatuation with me died down a bit, and I assumed that I was doing something wrong so I asked her about it and she assured me that it’s only the natural progression of the relationship and that she still does very much love me.
When this feeling kept nagging me after a few weeks, this brought me to the realization that my perception of love is all warped. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap my head around the idea of love not being synonymous with that initial rush of endorphins all the time. I really want to make this work out because she means a lot to me and I really do love her, but I fear that my insecurity will eventually get on her nerves — even though she’s given me no reason to feel like this.
I suppose my question is, then, how do I get myself to understand what love can really be after the initial sparks fade?
Hi friend! Let’s talk about love.
So I know you didn’t ask for this, but congratulations on knowing yourself well enough to come out and start dating in your teens. And now you’re dating one of your best friends! I’m so happy that you’re in a relationship with someone you know well, someone you enjoy a lot, someone you trust. What a gift!
I think you’re asking two questions. The first, “what do I want my relationship to look like after that initial honeymoon phase?” is a worthwhile, complex, and evolving question that many people keep working to answer all their lives. In order to get to that question, though, I think we have to help you move out of the defensive position you’re in. Right now, you’re stuck on a different question: “Now that the honeymoon phase is over, how can I be sure my girlfriend still loves me?” It’s a sort of reactive feeling, instead of an active one, if you get what I mean. You’re trying to monitor your girlfriend’s actions in order to get data about her feelings — a thing that we all do, to some degree! — because you’re having trouble trusting her when she tells you what her feelings are. This is really normal! But it’s not going to be sustainable for you long-term.
The trouble with being in that space is that it can get in the way of your being able to feel your own feelings about the relationship — feelings that aren’t connected to “will she keep loving me?” but are more centered in your own brain and body. “Are my emotional needs being met now that we’re in a new stage of this relationship?” will be an important question for you to ask yourself, but you won’t be able to really think about that until you’re able to stop worrying about how your girlfriend might be secretly feeling. It can be hard to move out of that space, but I don’t think it’s impossible! Here are some things that help me when I’m feeling the same way.
1. Work together to create a space where thoughts and feelings are talked about and celebrated
This is a process that you’ve undoubtedly already begun. Relationships are a bit like a group project, where everyone has to pull their weight — and contrary to what pop culture might have us believe, they do take real, active work! Part of this work is setting up your shared emotional expectations. You can do this by talking frankly about what’s important to each of you. These talks don’t have to be formal, but they do have to be entered into with good faith by both people. This means that you’ll both do your best to identify what your needs and feelings are, and you’ll both do your best to be honest and real about them when speaking to each other.
2. Trust what your partner tells you about their needs and feelings
As a person with a lot of anxiety, I really do understand just how hard this step can be. I like to employ a “fake it til you make it” approach for this one. This looks like: if I ask my partner how they feel, and they tell me, I will trust that they are telling me the truth to the best of their understanding and ability. If my brain wants to worry at it, pulling at any stray threads in case the whole thing unravels, I reign my brain in by firmly reminding it that part of love and trust is taking my partner at their word when they talk about their feelings, in the same way I want to be trusted when I talk honestly about my feelings. “They told me how they feel, and that is how they feel” is a mantra I sometimes need to tell my brain several times in a row, but in my friendships and relationships built on real trust, it’s one that’s never let me down. (I also like to remind my brain how much more easily I trust my friends when they communicate their needs and feelings, and try to bring some of that energy to my romantic partnerships.)
A quick note before we continue: It sounds like you’re in a relationship where you can trust your partner not to cause you harm. It also sounds like you have a really good understanding of what it looks like when your anxiety kicks into gear, versus what it might look like if your relationship was unhealthy, unsafe, or emotionally abusive. I want to be really clear here that while I’m giving you permission to firmly set your anxiety aside, I would never want you to ignore your instincts or your gut feelings in a relationship that felt unsafe in any way. I hope that makes sense, and is clear!
3. Work to identify, honor, and communicate your own needs and feelings
Finally, we have the one I struggle with the most. Because of the environment I grew up in, where my needs and feelings were valued in theory but not in practice, it can be hard for me to identify exactly what my feelings and needs ARE when they’re not in reaction to the other person’s. We may have that in common!
Once I gave myself space to have my own needs and feelings in and about my relationship by trusting my partner to communicate theirs, I had to get in touch with my needs and feelings, which hasn’t always been easy! Things that have helped have included: journaling, spending a balanced amount of time away from my partner, both with my friends and alone; putting myself into situations where I think a lot, like coffee shops and long walks and drives; talking at length with trusted friends about relationships both generally and specifically; and reading about other relationships (I’m a fiction person, myself).
Once I identify my needs and feelings, ones that are not in reaction to my partner’s, communicating them is really just about the comfort and trust that comes with practice. It may feel scary the first few times, or even the first few months, but over time, it should continue to get easier, and it’s a step towards a sustainable future for your relationships both present and future.
And now here we are, nearly at the end of this column, and I haven’t answered your primary question! That’s because, if you’re able to create that space for honesty and feelings with your girlfriend, you’ll start to be able to answer it yourself. It will look one way for you and your girlfriend, and it will probably change over time; the next time you have a relationship, it will probably look different yet again. What your needs and feelings are as your relationship evolves, and whether the person you are with can help you meet those needs, and wants to — well, that’s the work we do, with our partners, throughout the whole life of each relationship. What does love look like once we’re past that seductive initial rush? It looks like a million different snowflakes, each unique, each gorgeous and complete. I can’t wait for you to start mapping yours. 💙
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.