I find it hard to believe on a regular basis that I am ten to fifteen years older than many of my clients. That when they look at me and talk to me, they see someone older and hopefully wiser than they are. It’s not so much that at a few months shy of forty, I don’t like who I am or where I am in my life. It’s just that forty seems a lot older than how I feel. But as I talk more with clients in their twenties, I am reminded that there is indeed a fairly significant difference in how we experience the world and particularly, how we relate to others. And that I do, in fact, have some wisdom to offer. I think part of the reason that it is so hard to understand others in your twenties is that it is hard enough just to figure out yourself. No other decade in adulthood, in my opinion, is fraught with so much change and growth. Keep in mind that my job is not to offer advice or provide answers, but to help people find their own. Of course everyone develops at their own pace, and a lot of challenges such as trauma or addiction can slow things down, locking you in a place of survival rather than growth. And each and every one of us needs to figure these things out for ourselves.
With my experience, I recognize that hearing them, understanding them, and intellectually believing in them is different than feeling them.
However, all that said, there are some fairly universal themes and realizations that I have assimilated in dealing with the internal evolutions that take place with clients, with the processes that time provides, and by observing countless people discover them. Ideas that, when I share them, seem to almost always result in a lightbulb moment or sigh of relief. So this is my manifesto for twenty-somethings, offered to those who feel a little lost when it comes to relationships; who need an older sibling that they respect, or more forthcoming and psychologically inclined parents, or who have never been to therapy and had the space and support to figure some of this shit out.
1. Love is always a risk.
Relationships are probably the biggest cause of anxiety I see for most of my clients. Intimacy has a funny way of unearthing our vulnerabilities and insecurities, turning us into crazy people who have difficulty trusting our partners or ourselves. It’s hard to just relax and enjoy the exchange, especially in the early months of a relationship, because we want to know where it’s going and based on that, how much to put into it. Because of this, we can sometimes become hypervigilant in a desperate attempt to remain in control of our feelings or our partner. The problem is that it is only when we are willing to let go of the idea that we can control the future that we can begin to let go and truly be ourselves. There are no guarantees in relationships and, even jumping ahead 5 years, even locking down the deal with marriage cannot secure a happy future with another person because people change, circumstances change, and life is inherently impossible to predict. The best thing we can do is to always be our best self, to love fully, to know that we might get hurt in doing so, but to learn something from every relationship, and remind ourselves that life is about process and not outcome. Humans are survivors, and the loss of love, though devastating, cannot kill us. But trying to live in a way that reduces risk and is ruled by fear is both futile and shallow.
2. Sometimes, love is not enough.
Love matters. Of course it does. But so does respect, reciprocity, appreciation, safety, compromise, a willingness to grow, and a host of other factors that determine how well a relationship functions and how compatible two people are. A lot of people stay in unhealthy relationships because they love their partner and believe this should be enough to sustain the relationship. This is a hard lesson to learn. When I was in my 20’s I was terribly in love with a boyfriend who in every possible way was awful. We had different ideologies, different communication styles, wanted different things out of life and love. It took me a long time, and a note on my phone that popped up every time he called saying “love is not enough,” to break away from him. I have never regretted it.
3. There is no mandatory waiting period in which you must “work on yourself” before love can find you again.
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people express a commitment to take a set number of months, usually six, to “work on themselves” before they are willing to look for love or be in a relationship again. And certainly there is nothing wrong with making sure that you have processed the ending of a partnership before seeking a new one. Finding the distraction of a new romantic interest can ease the pain of the grief and loss of one that has ended. And it can be confusing to simultaneously feel love for someone you were once with, while developing feelings for someone new. But here’s the thing. No one actually sticks with their predetermined period of solitude. For some it is because they actually did a lot of the end-of-relationship processing while they were in it. For others it’s because they just happen to get lucky and meet someone amazing before that time period has come to a conclusion. And sure, some just rebound because they want to feel good about themselves again. And that’s okay. Because it’s all learning. You can still work on yourself while you are working on a new relationship. In truth, many of the things you may want to work on can only be worked on while in a relationship. So be responsible and aware of what you are doing, but if you jump into something else, there is no reason why it can’t work other than for reasons that would have doomed it anyway. But plenty of people find their next true love on the heels of their last one and find that this time, it works.
4. Codependence isn’t what you think.
Being in a codependent relationship doesn’t mean spending all your time with your partner. It isn’t loving and hating all the same things. It isn’t finishing each other’s sentences and being some sort of fused entity. Having a codependent partnership means that it’s difficult to have boundaries and remain emotionally autonomous from your partner. It means that your partner’s feelings don’t just influence you, but they quite possibly help to determine yours. It means that you are always vulnerable to having your sense of self and security upended because they are not truly in your control. It means that you are in a dance most of the time with another human being, as you try to navigate the waters of their feelings in order to determine the flow of your own. You continually try to make them feel a certain way so that you feel a certain way. It’s a hard way to live, and an ultimately powerless way to live, because you cannot in fact control another person’s feelings. The good news is that breaking away from patterns of enmeshed relationships starts with simply learning to recognize them and doing your best to maintain a sense of personal integrity and separation if you’ve continued to find yourself in them. This doesn’t mean that you have to only talk a certain number of times a day or take a set number of nights per week off, though these exercises can help. It’s more about noticing when you find yourself thinking more about what your partner is feeling, doing, wanting, or needing than your own interests.
1. Sex isn’t like what we see in the movies.
Most of us don’t actually see other people having sex. We see actors having sex in movies and television shows that exaggerate it for the purpose of entertainment. Or we see professional sex workers having sex in pornography, acting out fantasies. Real sex looks nothing like this for most people. Real sex is not usually a result of overwhelming tear-your-clothes-off passion. Real sex often involves feeling insecure or disconnected. It can involve performance anxiety, an inability to maintain an erection, premature ejaculation, and, horror of all horrors, the lack of an orgasm. Because the truth is that for many, sex is awkward, even difficult. But since we don’t really talk about it honestly or see real life examples of it, we think we are the only ones who aren’t doing it right. Sex should feel good. It can be fun and it can make us feel more connected to our partners. But it takes work. It also takes being present in your body. Which is hard to do if you are stuck in your head comparing yourself to unrealistic ideas of how sex should look and feel.
2. Sex will probably stop being an enjoyable part of your long term relationship unless you are frequently working on it.
When we are young, say in our teens and early twenties, sex can be fairly easy. Our hormones fuel fast responses in our bodies when the prospect of sex is present. We probably don’t have a lot of responsibilities on our minds, and there is probably not a ton of obligation, expectation, and commitment underlying the dynamics with our partner. As we age and our relationships become longer, these things are no longer the case. The lightness, ease, and freedom with which we used to experience sex shifts. Add to that that the longer we are with a partner, the more they begin to feel like part of us. And it’s hard to feel passionate desire for someone so close to us that they feel like an extra limb. But a reduction in sex is most likely concerning to at least one member of a partnership, and the ending of sex almost always signals a crisis for most couples, which will start to impact other aspects of the relationship. But it’s not hopeless. As long as there is open communication and a willingness to work together, rather than blaming your partner or holding on to feelings of rejection or resentment, couples can redefine and create a sexual relationship that still feels enjoyable and satisfying. This can be done with the guidance of a counselor and the use of books that facilitate conversation, allowing partners to find and share previously unexplored aspects of their sexuality.
3. Some people use sex to connect; others need to feel connected before they can have sex.
I see this happen all the time. And though I hate to generalize on the basis of gender, I do see more men using sex as a way to connect and more women needing other aspects of connection to create a greater sense of closeness, before they are able to engage or reengage in sex. This is obviously a bit tricky when partners are not on the same page. So here’s what I know: Trying to force yourself to have sex when you do not feel like you want it is only going to make sex less and less appealing and create a further divide in connection. Yes, sometimes if you are willing to try it, sex can, as you warm up to it, allow some walls to come down. But if you attempt that path and it is not working, do not force it. Step back. Figure out what you need in order to feel vulnerable and, in finding this, intimate. Communicate that need. If your partner is not willing and able to put the time and energy into you and focuses just on your body, they are not the best partner for you.
Family and Friends.
1. Most people do not have the parents they’d hope for.
I think most of us have a fantasy of what kind of parents we wish we’d had. Some want parents who are warm and affectionate, others want unconditional acceptance and support, others wish they had parents who were more honest and transparent about their thoughts and feelings, who talked to them more openly about uncomfortable topics. Most of us probably got parents who were some of these things, but not all. Some of us got parents who were awful. Granted, as a therapist, I hear a disproportionate number of terrible stories about parents who were cruel, abusive, unpredictable, or so distracted by their own addictions or struggles that they were simply not present. These are hard things to come to terms with. And it’s easy to fault our parents for the ways in which our lives have not gone the ways we’ve hoped. Some of this is reasonable. We are all dealt different hands, and some of them really suck and unquestionably do impact our sense of self and perceptions of safety in the world, which influence our individual capacities to navigate life. At some point we need to reach a place of acceptance about this. I don’t mean forgiveness or the elimination of disappointment or even understanding, I just mean acceptance that we cannot change the past. Many of us are able to do this at some point, often when our dependence on our parents is not so great. But as often as I hear clients tell me that they don’t care anymore what their parents think, they do. It is written all over them and seared in their hearts. Because we all want our parents to love, accept, and be proud of us. It is wired into us from birth, and in our most formative years we look to our parents for this approval. When it is not met, we keep looking, keep hoping. It’s okay to acknowledge this, and it’s also okay to grieve over that fact that we may never get it. But denying it’s there does no one any good. What could help, however, is telling them that we want these things and that we care about them. It’s worth a try.
2. You’re right — your mom/dad/parent does not understand you.
We gather information for years on our parents and they do the same for us. At some point we form an opinion and stop really noticing the new information, especially if it doesn’t confirm what we already believe. If you want a better relationship with your parent as an adult, you need to recreate your story and definition of one another. The first part of this is awareness of the need to do so. The second is getting to know each other again by asking questions not only about opinions but about perspectives, feelings, experiences, and life history. It can also be helpful to ask one another what they want out of the relationship now and how they see it being the best it can be. Different people have different needs as far as relationships go. As children, our parents set the tone and frequency of closeness and contact. As teens the tables turn. When both parents and children are adults, both should do so.
3. Making friends as an adult sucks.
Finding good friends is as hard as finding partners. You are looking for someone whom you resonate with, trust, laugh with, most likely share some values with, and who is looking for the same thing out of the friendship. You are looking for someone who puts into it as much as you do. This is simply not easy to find; there is no dating site for friendship. And after the consistency and intimacy of high school, during which we see the same people day after day and get to know them through introductions and conversations that are initiated or enhanced by teachers, as an adult it’s all a little intimidating. Most adults find friends through higher education or work. If you move away for college and your classes are huge, or the number of employees in your workplace is small, then what?
The concept of loneliness as it pertains to a sense of isolation, a lack of strong friendships, and a solid community is a repeated theme for many people I work with.
I often wish I could introduce my clients to one another because so many of them are looking for friendship. What I usually recommend is that, similar to looking for romantic partnership, clients seek out doing more of what they enjoy: reading or climbing groups, classes at the local community college, art studio, or activities within the parks and recreation department. Then once there, you must stay open to and aware of those around you. There are no gender expectations when it comes to who says ‘hello’ first or who suggests getting together. So you have to be brave. And remember that strong friendships take time to develop and, unlike in childhood, when we don’t really know what we need out of a friend, as an adult it is okay to let go of friendships that don’t work for you and be selective in who you let in.
Relationships, whether they are with a partner, a friend, or a family member, take a lot of practice and a lot of trial and error. As people grow and change with time, so must the dynamic between them. Some will stand the test of time and some will not. But each influences who we are and we learn something from each of them about what works and what doesn’t work for us. As we pass through our twenties and into our thirties and the tendency toward comparison and competition fades, we generally feel a little more secure in who we are and have had enough life experience to have a sense of what we need and how to get it. Happiness also tends to be something that can be located internally rather than externally, which helps inform better choices. In my opinion, the twenties are some of our most incredible years and also some of the hardest to enjoy. I would never go back to them, but I am tremendously grateful for what I learned during that time. By all accounts, as long as you choose to keep your life interesting, there is no reason you cannot enjoy the benefits of more confidence and awareness in the decades yet to come. And take heart — they do get easier.