Lesbian relationships are so often full of love, affection, talking about feelings (sometimes ad nauseam), and great sex (research proves we have better sex than straight people). But that doesn’t mean our relationships are flawless or without problems. Think about the most common issues we face as lesbians: U-Hauling it after the second date, only to realize that the person we shacked up with isn’t who we thought she was; lesbian bed death; sleeping with an ex-turned-best-friend-turned-girlfriend-turned-ex again.
I recently asked lesbian relationship expert Dr. Ruth L. Schwartz for her advice for lesbians in both new and long-term relationships. Dr. Schwartz co-founded Conscious Girlfriend in 2013. A writer, healer, and teacher for over three decades, Schwartz has a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology and studied relationship coaching with world-renowned experts. She knows her stuff and was kind enough to share her wisdom for creating happy, healthy love in our lives.
GO: What are some of the most common mistakes you see lesbian couples making? Both at the start of a relationship or in a more established one?
Dr. Schwartz: At the start, committing too quickly. During the first few months, and often for up to a year, most people in new relationships go into limerence, a fancy name for “the honeymoon phase.” If you feel stoned on love, it’s because you are! During this period, our brains pump out huge quantities of endogenous opiates, our bodies’ own version of cocaine or heroin. And the effects of limerence (which is the state of being infatuated or obsessed with another person) seem to be particularly strong in female-female couples. There’s a reason why no one jokes about straight couples or gay male couples bringing a U-Haul on the second date!
Either we don’t see our new girlfriend’s flaws, or we dismiss what we see, because limerence makes us think things like “I just know in my heart that she’s the one,” “It’s meant to be,” “No one has ever made me feel this way,” and “Our love will conquer all.”
Also, like all people, lesbians get horny and give in to chemistry—often on the first date or within the first few dates. That’s great, but what’s not so great is that many lesbians instantly feel committed once we have sex. Sex fuels limerence, and limerence fuels sex. Women who actually barely know each other dive into the depths of passion together, and become convinced that it will last forever—and get heartbroken, often over and over again, when it doesn’t. Know someone—maybe you?—who has had one or more intense relationships 1-12 months in duration? Most likely it’s because your relationship couldn’t survive the rocky transition from limerence back to reality.
I’ve done this myself. In fact, at one point I had three one-year relationships in a row. The pain of those sequential heartbreaks is part of what led me to dive more deeply into understanding healthy relationships, and, eventually, to turn my personal and professional research into founding Conscious Girlfriend.
In more established relationships, lesbians tend to make the same mistakes couples of all genders and orientations make. A couple of the most common are:
Getting into painful cycles caused by differing attachment styles. This can mean one person is constantly pushing for more closeness, while the other is constantly trying to get more space. This leads to so much pain, and sometimes to breakups which wouldn’t have to happen if people gained more understanding of their own and their partner’s attachment style.
Voicing dissatisfactions as criticism rather than as requests. Criticism is like battery acid for a relationship; it kills intimacy. And since the brain registers negative interactions with five times more intensity than positive interactions, even if your relationship is good in many ways, criticism will endanger it. Of course, the solution isn’t to “put up or shut up,” but to learn more effective communication skills, so that complaints can actually become opportunities to draw closer, rather than pushing you apart.
GO: Do you think all couples would benefit from couples counseling/therapy or only those with relationship struggles/issues?
Dr. Schwartz: If there are couples who have no relationship struggles or issues, I haven’t met them yet! Seriously, relationships take skills, and very few of us have had the opportunity to learn those skills. Some of us were lucky enough to witness healthy relationships between our parents or other adults, but many of us didn’t. So I’m a fan of consciously, deliberately nipping early relationship challenges in the bud with coaching or other support, rather than (as most people do) waiting until the relationship needs life support.
It’s really important to find a truly effective couples counselor, therapist or coach, though. Many unwittingly cause more harm, rather than helping. I’d suggest finding someone trained in EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), or other attachment work—or working with a coach who focuses on helping you build specific, implementable skills for working with your own emotions and communicating in constructive ways. (The latter is the kind of work I do.)
Also, because for many of us, having a great sex life is a powerful form of glue, I also suggest that couples get help from sex coaches if their bedroom life isn’t optimal. In the last couple of years, I’ve received a lot of specialized training in sex and intimacy coaching, and am thrilled to share this with the lesbian and queer women’s’ community.
GO: What advice do you have for a couple who may be struggling with their relationship?
Dr. Schwartz: Get help. Fast! See the above suggestions for choosing a couples counselor or coach. Sometimes breaking up is inevitable, when limerence has truly led women into relationships that are wrong for them. But in many cases, having a skilled, compassionate third party’s help can make all the difference.
GO: In your experience, is the U-Haul joke/rumor true and what do you advise couples who move quickly in a relationship do? Should they follow their hearts or put the brakes on things?
Dr. Schwartz: Yes, unfortunately, I’ve found the U-Haul joke often is true in our community. Every once in a while, those women who move in (literally or emotionally) on the second date or even in the second month, end up happy for the long-term—but it’s much more common that they don’t. I strongly encourage people to ease their feet off the emotional and sexual gas pedal and go more slowly. If the potential for real lasting love is there, it won’t be damaged by moving more slowly—but it might get thrown off course by going too fast. And if the relationship has serious fault lines, you can avoid a great deal of emotional pain and life disruption by having disciplined yourselves to move more slowly.
I strongly suggest that people not make major relationship decisions—like moving in together, getting engaged, getting married, or having a child together—until they’ve been together for at least a year, so you know you’re no longer in limerence, and have successfully transitioned to reality! And if your relationship is long-distance, it’s harder, but there’s no substitute for spending substantial amounts of in-person time together before changing your lives to be together.
GO: Do you have any advice for a young couple who have hopes/dreams of a healthy, long-term relationship together?
Dr. Schwartz: Actually, my advice is for couples of any age who dream of a healthy long-term relationship! (I’ve seen women over 80 get together with all the passion of a younger couple—and I’ve also seen their hopes get dashed.)
It’s this: go slowly. Truly get to know each other, beyond all the hopes, dreams, fantasies, limerence, lust, and projection. Know yourself, too. Know your must-haves and deal-breakers, and have or develop the skills to flex on most everything else. Take a course like Conscious Girlfriend’s Roadmap class, a 12-week comprehensive online course in dating and love designed specifically for lesbians, or get those same skills elsewhere. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “love conquers all.” Love, in itself, is not enough for a healthy, happy relationship. And real love takes time to build. Yet, use your hopes and dreams as fuel for the longer journey.
A long-term happy relationship is one of the best predictors of health and well-being for most of us. It’s worth the effort!
Whether you’re in a brand-new relationship or have been with the same woman for years, it’s important to remember: good relationships don’t just happen, they take dedication and work. When I was having relationship troubles a few years ago, a wise older lesbian friend give me some solid relationship advice. She told me to always remember the “three Cs” in relationships: communication, commitment, and compromise. While all three of these may not be equally important, or go as smoothly as you’d like at times, they all need to be present and important to you and your partner in order to make your relationship happy and healthy.