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Building Healthy Relationships

Some of us choose to be single or to have casual lovers. Some of us aim to foster long-term connections with a partner, whether we stay together for a few months, a few years, or a lifetime. Being in a relationship generally involves planning our lives with our partner, helping each other through personal changes and difficulties, working through conflicts, and sometimes having children.

I like being with someone who follows all the threads of my life, even the most mundane. I like being poly because it seems to me that being able to express the romantic/sexual aspects of relationships binds people more closely together, so my social structure feels more like an “extended family” or “network” than a group of friends.

When I hear another lesbian talking about being involved as lovers and friends with lots of women, it excites me. I know that by choosing to be with one woman, I am missing out on a certain kind of emotional adventure. But for my lover and me, there is a kind of adventure I prefer at this point.

After we meet someone with whom there’s a mutual attraction, we begin the process of getting to know each other. We learn about the other person’s likes, dislikes, work life, family, and hopes and dreams. We tell her about our own interests and passions. At some point during this process, we may begin a sexual relationship. Many of us begin to consider whether the relationship has the potential to become long-term. Dating isn’t a precise science: Some relationships begin with sex or with a friendship that has grown over time. Some move fast, some almost achingly slow, and others have fits and starts. However it looks, this is the groundwork of building a relationship.

Sharing information about ourselves causes us to be more vulnerable. This risk can be both exciting and terrifying. Many of us feel exposed on a number of levels as we seek to achieve intimacy in our relationship. These challenges, faced in all kinds of romantic partnerships, can be complicated further if we encounter or sense a homophobic reaction to our choice of partners. 
I didn’t realize I was “passing” as an “ungay” woman until I felt an attraction to and pursued a relationship with a butch woman. When we are together, there is no question what our relationship is. The smiles that I would encounter alone are absent when I am with her. I have decided to be brave and meet the challenge of a generally uncelebrated relationship. Celebrating being gay in the closet is no longer enough.

Internally, we may also find that particular issues around intimate relationships can be challenging. Sometimes we have well-meaning but unrealistic expectations about how easy a relationship with another woman is going to be. While our connections with each other can certainly be thrilling, they aren’t free of the work required of any relationship. 
The only thing that we have in our heads is: You meet a woman, you feel for her, you enter into a relationship, you relate only to her. It’s been the downfall of many intimacies.

Although there are endless differences between any two women, a particular closeness often results from our connections. We have similar bodies, similar socialization, and many of the same challenges as women in an often homophobic and sexist world. This intimacy can be incredibly fulfilling, though it also has the potential to feel suffocating. We can help prevent our relationships from becoming enmeshed by achieving a healthy balance between closeness and distance, defining our individual selves assertively, and encouraging each other to grow as individuals. While the importance of such boundaries is not unique to women’s relationships with each other, it may be that our similarities sometimes make appropriate boundaries more difficult to ascertain. If possible, it can help to establish and communicate boundaries from the beginning of the relationship, changing them over time as we each feel comfortable. 
It’s critical that my lover and I really understand our boundaries, where we want to say no and where we want to say yes. If I don’t build my own privacy right away into a relationship, then the next thing I know I’m either spacing out or leaving.

When we have poor boundaries, our relationships may be emotionally painful. We may avoid intimacy out of fear of being “swallowed up.” Or we may become so close to our partner that we don’t know where her needs, desires, and personhood end and where we begin. As trust deepens in a relationship over time, we must let down our guard and take the risk of communicating openly and honestly with our partner.

If a relationship is strong and healthy, it can better withstand conflict and change. It will encourage personal and interpersonal growth. The ability to communicate with our partner allows us to establish a strong foundation for intimacy, which can last a lifetime if that’s the commitment we choose to make. 

For those of us who keep our sexual orientation a secret, open communication can be a particular challenge. We may edit out important information about our lives with those we care about, including family, friends, or coworkers--using words like “friend” or “roommate” to disguise whom we love instead of using “girlfriend,” “partner,” or a clear equivalent. Although we may feel that being in the closet is necessary for our safety or well-being, it invariably diminishes our access to expressing our full truths--sometimes with our partners or ourselves.

Excerpted from the 2005 edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, © 2005, Boston Women's Health Book Collective.


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