There are three stages that comprise the path to healthy romantic love. And those same stages mark the path to a life that’s rich with intimacy—in all its forms. Because in the end, the true skills of dating are simply the skills of intimacy. And the skills of intimacy are the most important skills in our lives.
Stage 1: Claiming Your Sense Of Self-Worth—and Cleaning House
These three stages of wiser dating have a steep learning gradient—but they are more than worth it. In my book Deeper Dating, I describe the first stage:
"At a certain point, and usually as a result of tremendous pain, we begin to lose our taste for relationships that chip away at our sense of self-worth. We find we just can’t stomach the thought of being hurt like that again."
The close of a dead-end era
When we become less “sticky” to these kinds of attractions, a dead-end era of our dating life is finally coming to a close. Now we can begin the real work of intimacy: noticing and cultivating relationships that feed and nurture us. In dating, and in all of our relationships, we start to clean house, emptying our lives of unnecessary interactions with relationships of deprivation.
In this stage, we learn one of the greatest lessons of love. It’s the lesson we’ve all heard countless times, but it is not an easy one. It is to be ourselves. But that is no simple thing. Because who we really are is laced with qualities that have gotten us hurt in the past. For example, we may be ashamed of our sensitivity, our intensity of feelings, or our sense of being somehow different from most people. Instead of championing these essential parts of ourselves, we hold them with a kind of protective shame. I call these parts of ourselves "Core Gifts," and they represent our greatest hope for finding meaningful, lasting love.
However, after having people take advantage of these qualities, or misunderstand them, neglect them, and even punish us for them, we learn to cover up our Core Gifts with a protective "false self." And in my many years of practice with single clients, this is the profound formula I’ve found to be true:
The more we get lost in that false self, the more we become attracted to people who step on us or take advantage of us.
Start honoring your Core Gifts
In this first stage, as we learn to dignify the qualities we have alternately treasured and disliked, we learn to stop saying, "I’m too sensitive," and instead, to think, "I’m deeply sensitive."
We wean ourselves away from thinking, "I keep getting taken advantage of, what’s wrong with me?" and learn to say, "I have qualities of generosity that are profound and I need to honor them and protect them."
We stop thinking, "Why do I always end up with people who are unfaithful?" and start thinking, "Loyalty matters deeply to me. It’s an essential quality of mine, and I’m going to finally learn how to honor and dignify it in my relationship choices."
When we do this, our world begins to change in essential ways, and we find ourselves moving into stage 2.
Stage 2: The In-Between Stage
Stage two is a kind of odd and unexpected stage. It’s one that took me a long time to be able to identify in my clients’ lives. In the early parts of this stage, it seems like not a lot is happening. It’s as though we’ve cleaned house and now our home is now strangely empty.
Bewilderingly, this stage tends to last a lot longer than we might imagine. Why does this strange "empty" stage take place at all? Why don’t we move on to the better relationship possibilities that await us?
We need time to heal
The greatest reason is that we often need time to heal. Our brains might be saying, "I want what’s next," but our psyches are saying, “I need to rest. I’m not ready for new romantic risks. I need to recover, to reconfigure."
This is a deep stage. So much of what happens here takes place underground. Our psyches need time to reorganize and integrate. In this phase, the greatest thing that we can do is to nurture ourselves, to learn how to be kinder to ourselves as we grieve, reflect, and prepare ourselves for stage three.
Look for the new shoots
In this stage, the seeds of your newly emerging self have started growing, but you probably won’t yet be able to identify the ways in which they are beginning to influence your dating life. In this stage, we need to start looking for the relationships, situations, and activities that nourish us, that don’t chip away at our sense of self-worth. Often, we are surprised to discover that we are somehow finding new relationships with people who are safe, who consistently value us for who we are. And we find that they don’t bore us or irritate us as they might have in the past! This is an indication of true change.
Often, we don’t even notice these "new shoots" of healthy relationships at first. In my role as a psychotherapist and a coach, I usually need to point these new relationship possibilities to my clients, because they aren’t recognizing the significance of them. In the second stage, we need to look for the new shoots of healthy relationships—because in most cases, they will begin to appear.
Stage 3: Building A Life That’s Rich With Love
The third stage is where we begin to actively build a life that’s rich with healthy love.
In this third stage, life is more full— but less full of drama.
There’s a kind of peace in this stage, because the people we choose to be with have fewer qualities of psychic violence than the people we may have dated in the past. In this stage, now that we are dating people who are safe, available, and kind, we finally have the opportunity to practice the deeper skills of authentic intimacy, such as generosity; learning to swing out in terms of how much we give and how deeply we receive. This is the foundation of rich, exciting and passionate love—but only when we practice it with people who are safe.
When we reach this stage, the "field" will have changed for us. The people we notice will be different. It’s amazing that this actually happens, but it does happen, because our attractions have changed. We find that we are more likely to meet people who are kinder, more available. Our dating life feels like it’s beginning to change for the better. But now, in stage three, there’s more work that must be done. We’ve lost our taste for unhealthy love. Now we need to cultivate our taste for healthy love. And that’s not always easy.
For example, those of us who are used to unhealthy relationships often want to flee when we finally meet and start having deeper feelings for somebody who’s kind, decent, and truly available. Unconsciously, we start getting afraid. On a conscious level, it may just feel like a constant impulse to get away. In this phase, we need to learn a whole new set of deeper, richer communication skills.
The heart and soul of this third stage is cultivating and deepening our connection with those people and situations that truly feed us.
What stage or stages of deeper dating are you occupying? And what are your next steps to move your journey forward? Once we’ve hit stage three, we’ve arrived somewhere very important, but our intimacy journey will continue to be humbling, challenging and complex. We want to get to stage three, but once we get there, we’ve just begun the next leg of our journey. But the good news is this: if you are cultivating these healthy relationships, and if you’re developing the tools to help them flourish, then you are on perhaps the surest path to happiness in the year ahead.
© Ken Page, LCSW 2018. All rights reserved.