Dating with Relational Self-Awareness
Photo courtesy of Olivia Bee/Trunk Archive
Dating with Relational Self-Awareness
You matched and now you’re sitting down face-to-face. You were excited, but then your mind goes to: Why is he sitting like that? Or Am I being funny enough?
What do we do, mid-date, with our intrusive thoughts? Licensed clinical psychologist and professor Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, helps people develop and draw from relational self-awareness, which allows us to take a more curious stance on our intimate relationships.
“There’s a way in which modern dating apps and swiping reinforce and amplify the idea that the goal is just to swipe enough to find the right person,” Solomon says. “What we lose sight of is all the internal work, healing, and understanding we can do that helps us become the right person.” And this process, with a few tools and tips from Solomon, can be deeply pleasurable.
A Q&A with Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD
Relational self-awareness is the ability to deeply understand yourself in the context of your intimate relationships. It’s understanding the self in love. Relational self-awareness is a different positionality that helps people find a way to maximize what they need as individuals while protecting what the relationship deserves.
We know that we’re not practicing relational self-awareness when one of two things shows up—blame or shame. Blame is the idea that your relationship would be fine if your partner would stop doing the things that they are doing wrong. Shame is essentially saying the relationship is not going well because you are too broken to be loved and can’t do anything right. Blame and shame both compromise intimacy and closeness.
The reality is that a lot of us end up decades into our lives before we awaken to the need for relational self-awareness. Because so many wonderful relationship education resources are available, it’s better now than it used to be, but it is something you must actively practice as the context of your relationships inevitably grows and changes.
Relationally self-aware dating app use is interfacing with your phone but keeping one part of your awareness on how you are doing and feeling. If and when you feel flooded, exhausted, resentful, or depleted, you close up the app, put your phone down, walk away, and go do something else. It’s tracking your own reaction. I have had a lot of people say to me, “It’s hard for me to put my phone down because I think if I do one more swipe, it’s going to be my soul mate.” Having that thought is my blinking indicator light that it’s time to pause, put my phone down, take a breath, and go do something else for a while.
Relationally self-aware dating app use is interfacing with your phone but keeping one part of your awareness on how you are doing and feeling.
I also like for people to put their dating apps under “stimulus control.” Stimulus control means that I do this thing only in certain situations for a limited amount of time. So I go to my back porch, have a glass of wine, do some swiping, put it away, and then do something else. Versus swiping while I’m in line at the grocery store, on the treadmill, and on the phone with my mom, which is an anywhere-and-everywhere mentality. I’m not saying this is easy, but it’s inviting some awareness to the fact that a dating app is a means to an end.
Treat the app like a tool you can pick up and put down in the service of getting to the goal or the end point, which is sitting down for a first date, having a conversation, and feeling what that space feels like and how you play off each other.
Bringing relational self-awareness to a first date is noticing where your attention is going. On a first date, it can be easy to get hyperfocused on the other person, like how they use their fork and how they sit. Or we get hyperaware of ourselves, like, How am I looking? How am I sitting? Am I being funny enough? A relationally self-aware take would be to hold awareness of the space between you and your date. We’re trying to feel out, How are we playing off each other? What is the story we’re starting to build together?
It’s just a different take on dating and reminds us that we are only one half of the equation. For those of us who are at risk of getting self-critical, it can help to take the pressure off. For those of us who are “too picky,” it can help us be more present and less judgmental.
A lot of relational self-awareness is looking at what I call our original love classroom. We bring in a full set of expectations, beliefs, and patterns from childhood. When we’re little, we are these miniature social scientists. We are watching the big people around us and absorbing how they relate to each other and to us. We learn what’s reasonable to expect about closeness, emotions, touch, power, and gender.
We can develop relational self-awareness by paying attention to relationship dynamics. It’s this idea of looking at everything that happens in a relationship as being a dance, a pattern, a choreography—and understanding how we each play off each other. So often those dynamics and patterns predate the relationship itself.
Relational self-awareness has five pillars, and one of those pillars is sexual self-awareness. We have a mythology that relationships shouldn’t be hard and shouldn’t be work. We tend to take that same mythology into the bedroom and think that sex should be easy and that we should know what we’re doing at all times. The truth is that there’s a need to slow down, turn our attention inward, and really unpack and explore the messages we’ve been absorbing our entire lives about our bodies, touch, pleasure, permission, and power.
Sexual monogamy does not have to be boring.
Sex is a set of erotically charged touch-based behaviors and serves as a gateway into some of the most powerful questions we have as human beings. Do I matter? Am I seen? Am I allowed to want? Are you with me? It’s a space where boundaries play out. Sexual self-awareness is essential in dating in terms of understanding when and how we want to layer in sexual connection. It’s essential in intimate partnerships because most couples, at some point in time, are going to struggle sexually. The chances of two people wanting the same thing at the same time and frequency for the duration of their relationship are extremely low. Desire discrepancies are impossible to avoid.
Couples and individuals need and deserve a set of tools for how to handle that. Sexual monogamy does not have to be boring. It’s possible to have sex with the same person many times and never make love the same way twice—but it requires sexual self-awareness. It requires being able to turn inward and figure out: What do I want? What am I seeking? How can I ask for it in a way that invites my partner to me instead of pushing my partner away?
People of all sexual identities struggle to discern the difference between how they think sex “should be” and how sex really is. Heterosexual people face some specific challenges because the heterosexual sexual script is so narrow and rigid, focusing on the man taking the lead, getting hard, staying hard, and performing and the woman being passive and receptive. And it’s why the research has continually found that there’s a significant orgasm gap that shows up only when we’re talking about heterosexual sex. Queer couples report being reliably orgasmic, and there’s not a gap between partners. When you look at heterosexual sex, the rate of orgasm is quite different between him and her, and it’s because this script gets in the way.
Research is finding that heterosexual women persist through quite a bit of physical pain.
It’s not just an orgasm gap. It’s also a pain gap. Research is finding that heterosexual women persist through quite a bit of physical pain. It’s a reflection of the disempowerment that so many women bring into the bedroom and the lack of clear messaging porn sends to men. It’s inevitable that we’re going to turn to porn if we don’t have the ability to talk to our attachment figures or if we don’t have schools that will talk to us, because porn is easy and available. There are lots of areas of the pornography industry that are trying to do better in this way. But the truth of the matter is that porn could be good for a lot of things, but it’s not good for sex education.
The research points us toward communication. Couples who are able to talk about their sex lives have better sex, especially if there’s a vulva-bodied person. Her pleasure is more likely ensured if and when she’s able to talk to her partner about what she wants and needs. Couples should start viewing sex as a menu or a buffet rather than a script. Especially for heterosexual couples, they should be open to having all kinds of pleasurable sexual behaviors that aren’t just penetration focused, because penetrative sex is one of the least reliable routes to orgasm for a vulva-bodied person.
Where are we supposed to learn any of that? For the Taking Sexy Back book, my team and I researched American sex education. I don’t know if it was more heartbreaking or more enraging, but it was a lot of both sadness and anger at how pathetic it is and how ill prepared we are when we enter sexual relationships. That’s a place where the research helps us understand the problematic messages that exist culturally.
Alexandra H. Solomon, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She’s known for her courses, Building Loving and Lasting Relationships: Marriage 101 and Intimate Relationships 101, as well as her work on relational self-awareness. She is the author of two books, Loving Bravely and Taking Sexy Back, and the host of the podcast Reimagining Love.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.
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