Therapist and author Lucy Fry’s new book Love And Choice, encourages us to question what we really want from our love lives. Here are five ways Fry believes we can improve our intimate relationships.
Are you happy in your relationship? Or do you find it hard to forge strong intimate connections? If the answer to these questions isn’t quite what you want to hear, it may be time to consider what effect your choices are having on your love life.
Fry explores the long-held blueprints that govern our intimate relationships, which many of us grow up with and absorb without asking ourselves if they really fulfil us. The gold standard of romantic relationships has long been held up as hetrosexual, between two people and monogamous – but this idea isn’t always making us happy.
In her book, Fry wants us to examine this blueprint and our own relationships by building a life based on choice rather than acceptance. By asking ourselves what we really want and moving towards making it a reality, Fry believes we can move closer to happiness.
If your romantic life feels lacklustre, here Fry sets out five of her therapist-approved ways to start mastering our power of choice.
1. Blindly following our ‘blueprint’
Each of us grows up with a ‘blueprint’ around relationships; a set of unwritten rules that we have absorbed or inherited. These might come from family, peers, teachers, the media and/or our wider social, cultural or religious background.
It’s inevitable really. Everyone is conditioned to some extent, but problems rise when we aren’t aware of it.
As Anita, a 46-year-old writer and coach, told me about her 30-something self: “I had internalised the supposed set of rules about how to live my life to such a great extent that I could not decipher any other options. The difference now that I’ve tried different relationship structures is that I am aware I have choices. I know exactly when I am choosing something and so I don’t feel weighed down like I used to.”
Start uncovering your own blueprint by considering what rules you have for yourself (or others) in relationships.
Do you assume, for example, that all committed couples live together eventually? Do you think being in love is synonymous with not wishing to have sex with, or desire for, anyone else? If one partner cheats on another, does that automatically mean the relationship is over? You might be surprised by the automatic way you answer.
Step back and ask yourself ‘why’ for every question. Opening your mind will help you see what you could choose rather than following the supposed shoulds.
2. Confusing intimacy with merging
Too many people grow up believing that a happy, committed relationship means you should want or try to spend all your free time with your partner. It’s understandable: we’ve been set up by love songs and romantic movies waffling about soulmates who can ‘complete us’ or ‘make our life worth living’.
Even the phrase ‘my other half’ is problematic, if you ask me. How can you be intimate with another person if you’re just half of yourself or incomplete to begin with?
The truth is, it’s difficult to engage in any fulfilling, meaningful connection with another without a strong sense of where you end and another begins. Without your own interests, opinions and enough space to be with yourself, you’ll have no distinctive me to share with a lover. This isn’t closeness – it’s merging.
3. Avoiding conflict
Why do so many of us avoid conflict? If you’re scared of disagreeing with a partner, it’s likely you have pushed down some important issues that would be better out in the open.
Even the strongest couple must work through misunderstandings and upset; avoiding conflict is a sure-fire way to stack up resentment and dissolve passion.
Instead of swerving conflict, focus on speaking honestly and kindly about your feelings before you get to boiling point. You can also learn how to argue better, agreeing to take breaks when one or both feel flooded or shut down, promising to return to the disagreement at an appointed time.
Focusing on the repair after a conflict is essential too. If you can really work through an issue with commitment and curiosity then you will come out of it stronger and closer too.
4. Destructive or indirect communication
Just as learning how to argue better can enhance your relationship, so too can learning constructive communication methods. It’s not necessarily about communicating more but communicating better, particularly when it comes to emotions.
After all, we may not be expressing ourselves brilliantly when we shout, nit-pick, withhold affection or go silent but we are communicating. This kind of acting out of feelings, or indirect communication, will only harm the health of your relationship. However, communicating constructively means knowing how to express longings or hurt without blame or criticism.
It all begins and ends with your willingness: the willingness to hear and speak the truth. At its most fundamental, constructive communication involves being oneself; being able to express well what you do or don’t want and that means getting vulnerable.
It’s hard and takes practice, but it is definitely worth it, though your reaction to emotional vulnerability will also relate to your unresolved attachment issues (see below).
5. Unresolved attachment issues
The way you’ve been loved (or neglected) in childhood will impact how you ‘do’ relationships as an adult. This is particularly true for those who have not yet looked at their own inherited ‘attachment patterns’: the ways they relate to others, particularly under stress.
Attachment patterns are like a personal schema for how someone deals with separation (or the threat of it), conflict and closeness. But they become issues when we continue to follow old patterns unconsciously. It’s like trying to use a computer without ever doing any updates – possible, but increasingly difficult as time goes on.
Kickstart your exploration with questions like: do you believe loved ones will respond to you and be reliable (within reason, most of the time) or do you worry that they will leave, or that you are too much, not enough or wrong? Your answers will likely relate to then and much as now.
Uncovering (ideally with the help of a qualified therapist) how you tend to protect yourself from hurt or overwhelm can be difficult and take time but once you have a handle on this and can communicate yourself more directly to loved ones (without resorting to acting fears and feelings out), the stronger your relationships will be.
Love and Choice by Lucy Fry is published by Hodder Studio on 10 February 2022.