Four Things I've Learned About Having A Healthy Relationship... and How Neil Strauss Helped Me Get There (Yes, That Neil Strauss)

I've written articles about Pick-Up Artists in the past, and have voiced my disgust and disapproval with the psychological tricks, manipulation, and tactics which those like Neil Strauss, author of The Game, have taught men to use to seduce (and play) women. So you can imagine my shock when I opened Strauss's new book The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships and found in it incredible insight into how to stop having toxic relationships and start having a healthy one.

The book chronicles his five year process of sex addiction rehab, intense therapy, exploration of what sexual freedom really means, deep self-reflection, and healing. For Neil Strauss, a man who had made his entire life about having all kinds of sex with as many women as possible, his realization that, "I was never actually pursuing sexual freedom. I was pursuing control, power, and self-worth..." and declaring that it was his wounds and trauma which caused him to seek out that sex, is pretty profound and worth noting.

I've spent a lot of time recently in my own exploration and soul-searching regarding love and relationships, and have had a lot of eye-opening realizations about what a healthy relationship really is. And while I went on Strauss's journey with him in his book from world-famous Pick-Up Artist to monogamous happily married husband (and now father), it made me further think about and look at how I had been operating in relationships. Believe it or not, Neil Strauss, in his book, reinforces certain things I have been working on healing and shifting in order to have that healthy and deeply loving relationship I want... such as:

1. Have Sex for the Right Reasons; build emotional intimacy before sexual intimacy
I have generally had sex with people I date very early on, and, generally, as much as I have never wanted to admit it, it has caused more suffering, frustration, and confusion than good. It has also caused me to become way too attached to a man I barely knew way too early because of all the crazy bonding chemicals and hormones which are released during sex; those chemicals also totally cloud judgment and logic.

Additionally, when I have had sex right out of the gate, more times than not, it became what the whole relationship was then built on. There was no foundation, no emotional connection or trust built, and confusion grows from that because it gives you a false sense of intimacy. And also, when the sex is off, there is really nothing else there.

I've come to acknowledge that this way of operating hasn't been working for me in terms of what I want for a relationship; I want something meaningful and real. And because of that, I've decided to put this concept to practice, and I definitely feel the benefits. I recently started dating someone new, and told him I wanted to see if we could build an emotional foundation before we build a sexual one... to put off having sex right away to see if there was something real there first, and to get actually know each other. As crazy difficult as it was for both of us to do, it did allow us to get to know each other on a deeper level. An emotional bond and foundation was created, not just a sexual one. The sex that then results from it is on a different level than I am used to, and it feels, well, healthy (and awesome).

I have never liked the dating rules which tell a woman she has to wait three (or fill in the blank) months to have sex or until there is a firm commitment, and so forth, because I have found those rules to be manipulative and controlling. But, if done with a positive intention and for healthy reasons, I totally get it now, and believe there is real benefit in waiting until an emotional bond, foundation, or commitment is in place. The sexual connection is better when you not only feel safe in the relationship you're building, but also when you are doing it for healthy reasons - not as a way to avoid intimacy, gain approval/validation/love, as a means of control, and so on. I know there are obviously exceptions to this, but for me and my history and pattern, doing it this way is healthy.

2. Don't Use the Relationship (or Sex) To Fill A Void in Yourself
Throughout my life, I've tended to be a hopeless romantic longing for a man to tell me that I complete him Jerry Maguire-style, and who, in turn, completes me. Because of that, I spent a lot of time in the past seeking someone to fill that half-empty part of me. Guess what? Not healthy! It is no one's job to "complete" me and make me feel whole. When we depend on another person to regulate our emotions and happiness, to "make" us feel happy or loved or important because we feel bad or empty, then what happens when they don't? We get angry and resentful towards them, and relationships turn co-dependent. We blame our partner for not making us feel good or filling that emptiness inside.

Sex can also be used to fill this void. It really resonated with me when Strauss acknowledges in his book that he had been using sex, "like a painkiller to avoid uncomfortable emotions." He writes that "making a permanent break with all of my [sexual] options is terrifying when I'm not in a relationship," because he couldn't use those women or sex as a means for avoiding his feelings or to fill up that void anymore. He actually had to sit with the discomfort and learn how to validate himself.

And that is something I have also been learning to do: breathe through discomfort whenever an emotional wound is triggered instead of running to a man or sex or a relationship to fill that emptiness and get some temporary relief. Because after that quick fix, we're left just as empty as we were before, and we still have the wound left to deal with. It is in the moment of trigger that I have realized I need to be still and do nothing. The discomfort passes, but the results of the actions that we take to run away from the discomfort and fill the empty void usually do not pass, definitely do not lead to its healing, and can create a vicious and snow-balling cycle of needing more and more outside of ourselves to make us feel better or whole.

3. It's Your Shit... don't put it on your partner.
When we expect another person to fill our void, keep us from feeling pain, or validate us, we are operating from a place of wound or trauma which originally stems from somewhere in childhood. There has been so much written about attachment styles and childhood wounds that I'm not going to spend time on it here (although it is fascinating and I encourage you to explore it; it explains why people operate in relationships the way that they do), but I have come to see that problems in relationships usually have to do with each partner bringing in the wounds of his or her past.

There is no better trigger for all of our stuff than romantic relationships, because it touches on our deeply ingrained fears of abandonment, of being trapped or controlled, of not being worthy or lovable, and on and on. So for myself, I have come to see that wherever I get triggered when dating someone or in a relationship is where I have a wound that is waiting to be healed.

I have learned that it is important - and healthy - to acknowledge whatever wound I'm feeling and not put it on the person I'm dating and blame him for that feeling. It's my shit, not his. And he has his own shit, which I am not responsible for. Along those lines, I have come to realize how important it is to remember that we come into a relationship with our own traumas, fears, and experience, and project them onto our partner; therefore, we may not actually be seeing the other person for who they are, but through our own lens.

4. "You can't force a relationship. You have to just make a space in your heart for one, then let go of all expectations, agenda, and control." - Neil Strauss, The Truth
I'll be honest and admit that I have sometimes tried to force relationships way too quickly, mainly because of feeling both societal time pressure and the biological clock thing. It often weighs heavy on me and is very scary. But not only does doing that keep true intimacy from being created, it also cuts off the opportunity for a relationship to actually grow into something organically. Also, when we expect, or want, a relationship to look a certain way - OUR way - and it doesn't, we can get upset, shut down, try to manipulate, act out, and so forth.

I have come to learn that I can't control timelines or anything another person does or feels; the only thing I can control is myself. I can control whether or not I do the work I need to in order to be healthy in a relationship, and I can let go of how I think (or expect) a relationship is supposed to look and just allow it to develop naturally. I've been doing that with this new man I'm dating, and it has been smoother-sailing than I've experienced at the beginning for a long time. I'm really enjoying just being present with him in each moment and experiencing the relationship as it creates and builds itself, without any agenda or anything being forced.

Recently, in an article for The Telegraph, Strauss wrote: "A toxic relationship is two messed-up people getting more messed up together. A healthy relationship is two messed-up people getting unmessed up together." I love that. Learning how to get "unmessed up," heal our hidden wounds, and become whole on our own is a process. Since childhood, or possibly even infancy, many of us have been putting layers in place to protect ourselves from pain. These layers cover our true, whole, pure self, and when we operate from that place - which is where the majority of people operate from in relationships - it can keep us from having the deeply loving relationship we may truly desire.

Removing these layers is a healing process that everyone can go through; it may be tough and uncomfortable, but it is worth it, because on the other side is a healthy and fulfilling love relationship with both ourselves and another person that we may have never thought possible. I am grateful for the process I have gone through to get to this place. And as Strauss notes about his own process, "I'm rebuilding. I've cleansed the childhood wounds and I'm filling the holes inside. All my life, I've been trying to fill the wrong holes." Pun intended, I'm sure.