My social media feeds are filled with celebrations of Black love. From engagement announcements to wedding photos to pronouncements of long-time love, it seems that we’re bringing in 2014 showing that, despite what we often read regarding the lack of success in our love relationships, we’re still holding on. I am wholeheartedly about that life. It makes my job of speaking about love easier—especially after a personally challenging year.
It’s easy to write about love when it’s sweet as pralines and first kisses. When I discuss relationships with couples married over 10 years (because let’s be honest: that long a marriage is more like twenty-five years in 2014), they offer amazing advice in hindsight. But what about when you’re knee deep in it? I figure those moments are the greatest teachers, because in those situations, the strength of a love is truly tested and tough choices must be made.
Aren’t the choices we make, and how those choices affect the rest of our lives and those closest to us, the topic du jour? Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union’s recent engagement/new addition should have us thinking long and hard about how we move through the tumultuous moments of our relationships. And they come like clockwork, because trials and difficulties, even in love, build our character and make us better human beings. Last year taught me some exceptional things about coming through those not so amazing moments in love. Here are a few lessons in tough love.
1. Lean in. Yup, just as author Sheryl Sandberg suggests in her book. When I speak of leaning in, I mean especially during the moments when it’s easier to withdraw. Admittedly, as a divorcee who has been through the ugly parts before, I often find it easier (and smarter) to pull back. After all, before marriage and children become a part of a relationship, it’s much easier to walk away. I have hilarious conversation with my single-and-dating girlfriends who go through these dramatic breakups. My intention is never to judge anyone’s level of hurt, but if you can walk away from someone without paying a lawyer, I’m inclined to say high-step on out of there.
But sometimes, such advice can cause harm to the person withdrawing, and definitely the relationship as a whole. We can’t allow our past experiences (and hurts) to keep us from loving boldly. And we can’t build relationships that survive the hardships we allude to in our vows if we don’t bare down and do the work. Speaking of which…
2. Do the work. When people tell you that relationships based in true love should be easy and don’t require work, they are lying, honey, and the truth ain’t in them. We consume too much media that creates the illusion of perfect relationships, and when we use social media, we constantly see people’s stage view (instead of the work that happens behind the scenes).
According to clinical psychologist Lisa Blum, “our culture, education system and parenting styles don’t prepare us for the fact that even good relationships take effort.” What long-time couples often tell me is, the question isn’t whether there will be work to make the relationship a happy one, but whether or not your partner is willing to do the work. That work may be reading a book about understanding your partner’s love language, or seeing a therapist (which shouldn’t be reserved for married couples only), but the work can only happen if both people understand the importance of it and agree to do it.
3. Curb your expectations. There is nothing wrong with having expectations. Often the issues that come about from having expectations of others lie in the inadequate communication of those expectations, and the understanding that having them doesn’t mean that they have to be fulfilled. Writer, teacher and counselor Lynn Newman profoundly expressed the trouble with expectations here:
If you unconsciously expect to receive love in certain ways to avoid giving that love to yourself, you will put your sense of security in someone else. Draw upon your own inner-resources to offer love, attention and nurturance to yourself when you need it. Then you can let love come to you instead of putting expectations on what it needs to look like.
Whether managing your expectations comes in waiting for a marriage proposal, or expecting your partner to read your thoughts and feelings with no guidance and communication from you, we have to be mindful of the expectations we place on others. We’re in love with human beings, not iPhones.
4. Settle. Another myth we hear—and (sometimes) bad advice we are given—says that we should never settle. We live in a time where we want the very best of everything, while investing the least amount of ourselves to get them. Listen: Every person settles—because we date other human beings, and human beings are imperfect by design.
Now don’t misunderstand me: we shouldn’t settle with people who are unkind, who we aren’t compatible with, or who don’t make our hearts race (OK, that last requirement is personal). But at some point, we have to make a choice to be with someone and see it through. If you’re constantly scouting for better options, you’re not fully investing in the relationship you’re in. Choose someone. Choose him or her when it’s not easy to do so, and make that choice daily. This is the only way can get where we’re trying to go—long, passionate and compassionate relationships.
What say you brown, beautiful ladies and handsome fellows? What good habits are you hoping to bring into the New Year as far as loving goes?
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and scribe. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.