writing love letters

How Does True Love Unfold? The Early Harbingers of YES

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Okay, let’s say you’re now officially “in love.” What’s next?

How Do You Know What Love Feels Like?

Most of us have ideas about what love feels like. Most of us have experienced love at some time in our lives. And most of us have also seen how the ideas of love, or the hints of love, changed over time into something else, something that no longer served us.

We learn what love looks like from our parents.

Okay, that’s a horrible example, in my biographical history. With an alcoholic dad and a codependent mom, I did not see much healthy affection. I’m sure there were moments when my dad was sober and around that were fun, but the threat of his violent temper and mercurial moods loomed in the background as early as I remember. Yes, he was warm and wrestled with loads of joy and laughter at times, most of my memories of my father involved fear rather than affection.

We learn what love looks like from our past experiences.

Okay, here again, I’ve had a couple of runs at long-term love, none of them ended well. The marriage to the mother of my children made it to the ten-year mark, but after the emotional infidelity, the security I felt began to slip into doubt and depression. 9-11 all but crushed what remained of our attachment. And in the end, my ex-wife has become more of an antagonist than an ally. I don’t really understand this, but I have come to accept her refusal to co-parent and be civil with me. It’s a loss for our kids, but the solution is out of my control.

Another long-term attempt was actually with an alcoholic. And while this relationship showed some initial signs of potential, the draw of her first love continued to outweigh my companionship.

And a third attempt at navigating a lasting partnership was a two-year collaboration with a single mom that ended in an impasse. I was unable to establish a priority bond with her. I was more of a “nice to have” than an essential part of her plan. Her kid was number one, no problem. But lots of other priorities and relationships with varying degrees of dysfunction and codependence prevented her from really giving the WE of our relationship much chance.

I tried three times to redirect this partnership towards something more inclusive, but I failed. I became “the unhappy problem” each time I voiced my need for a more connected future. It was not part of her prior experience of love, to include a partner as a peer, and so we failed rather than evolved.

All Else Has Failed

How are my ideas about love relevant to actually creating a loving, trusting, and long-lasting relationship? How do I know anything about finding love again? I have failed repeatedly. How do I keep from failing again, when I’m trying to explore and evolve my ideas of love with a new partner?

Here’s what I have learned over the last 30 years of trying to establish and maintain a loving relationship.

  • Expression of affection is critical and must flow freely both ways.
  • Sarcasm leads to cynicism which leads to the death of love and hope.
  • Optimism and a positive mindset outweigh therapy, hard work, and striving.
  • Sometimes the other person opts out.
  • Auspicious beginnings can lead down dead-end roads if both partners are not collaborative in love.
  • Beauty, chemistry, and sexual connection are a fraction of what is required to establish a life together.
  • Crisis brings out the best and the worst in people.
  • You can only support your partner, you cannot fix them.
  • Waiting, hoping, wishing, and even asking for your partner to change will not make it happen.
  • Lovers do what they want to do.
  • We have to know when to let go and move on to the next attempt.
  • Releasing a former partner is a process, the dream may die hard, the threads may remain for a long time, but cut and release is the only way forward for either of you.
  • Your ex-lover is no longer part of your story.

Evolving With Each Failure

Since my divorce, I have attempted two long-term relationships. There have been several others, but they did not pass the 6-month mark, and thus failed before they were able to establish a mutual flight plan. In each of these relationships, and in my marriage, I learned parts that worked and tried to repair or reconnect the parts that did not work. I tried each time, even in the shorter relationships, to give every ounce of my love and energy to the partnership. If that effort was not reflected, or if the other person began to waffle at the idea of a long-term partnership, I was out.

What’s important to learn, going forward for me, is to push hard for what you want and desire. Push yourself even harder to listen and understand what your potential partner is telling you, both in actions and in their words. When something is out of balance, speak up. When something your partner is doing is hurting you, do not comply. It is critical that neglectful or abusive behavior, even subtle undermines, are called out, confronted, and resolved.

I have stayed in relationships that were finished because I didn’t want to be alone. Or because I had grown addicted to the sex. I have stayed when I was being given the message that I was “not a priority.”

I will not put up with a fractional partnership. I am willing to give my energy and time to a partner, I am willing and longing to commit to a long-term partnership. I absolutely require the same willingness and energy from my potential partner.

Keep Aligning Through Actions and Words

Words of loving-kindness are so powerful. When I wake my girlfriend with a cup of coffee and a kiss, I am saying to her “I am here to nourish and celebrate you in my life.” I am never too tired to make her coffee. It is never too early or too cold and rainy to go out for milk to make it the perfect coffee. My love of coffee extends to my love of my partner and my simple skill at making and refining the perfect cup just for her, just how she likes it.

Once you’ve established mutual affection and intention towards building a partnership together, pay attention to what your partner is asking for. Pay attention to what is still painful or hard on your side of the relationship. Ask for what you need. Talk about things you are struggling to figure out. Get your ideas, questions, concerns, and desires up and out. Share as much as you can about your dream and what you hope to achieve.

Only through becoming a couple can we discover how our coupling will work. Only by giving all of your heart to someone will you discover if they are capable of matching the fire and intensity of your passion. Only by asking for the stuff you’re longing for, will you have a chance of achieving your dreams.

We’re all wounded. We bring those scars into our quest for a partner. We also bring in the poor examples of our parents’ relationship, and failed relationships of the past. If we can arrive with an open heart and a hopeful outlook we can set off with a new partner in a new direction. Neither of you knows what true and good love really looks like or feels like. We’ve had glimpses. But we’ve failed somewhere along the path, some message was missed, some request was denied.

This Time It Is Going to Be Different

We are going to listen more. We are going to share and demonstrate our affection more freely and more fully. And we are going to ask for the changes required to build the dream lover we’ve been looking for. Only through adventuring together, only through giving it a 100% shot and not holding back, are we capable of discovering a partner who is willing and capable of going there with us. 100% requires 100% back.

Settling at this point is not an option.

Final idea: just about every article I’ve written in the last three years on relationship-building are really love letters to my future partner. I’m still the Single Dad Seeks guy, but I’m getting clearer on what I’m asking of my partner as well as what I demand of myself.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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