Love or Lust? Compatible or Not? Here’s How to Know

canstockphoto7412877So much of the relationship misery and heartbreak we see comes from a few dating and relationship mistakes that are completely AVOIDABLE. Yet most of us make them over and over – I know I did! – simply because we haven’t been educated in how to choose a compatible partner.

In 1982, I got together with my first woman partner. We were housemates with some shared interests, and we were physically attracted to each other. So that was enough – right?

Actually, that girlfriend and I didn’t do too badly; we stayed together for 7 years and provided each other with a raft of (some) stability through our turbulent 20s. But we weren’t truly compatible on the sexual or the spiritual level.

My next partner and I also made it just past seven years. This time around I knew to look for sexual and spiritual compatibility, but there were a host of other things missing.

What gives? How do we line it all up – particularly when we’re lonely, horny or just don’t feel so good when we’re not with…someone? And how can we know at the outset who will really be a good partner for us versus who we should really just have a brief fling with or steer clear of altogether?

At Conscious Girlfriend, we take these questions very seriously – particularly because we’ve observed that lesbian couples often have such a terribly hard time breaking up, even when they’re really not right for each other. Whether it’s due to female bonding hormones or something else, lesbian super-glue is strong, sticky stuff – which makes it even more important for us to choose partners correctly.

Here’s how… 

1. Know the difference between love and limerence.

You know that stage when you two can’t think or talk about anything but each other, and can’t keep your hands off each other? That’s called limerence. When you’re in limerence, you feel “high on love,” because you are high. Your brains are working overtime pumping out powerful natural opiates that make you feel as if you’re deeply connected to each other (even if you just met two days ago!)

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying limerence for what it is. The problem comes when we confuse it with what it isn’t. Limerence is not love. It’s also not real intimacy – because it’s largely based on chemistry, fantasy and hope, rather than on deeply seeing, hearing, accepting and respecting each other.

Limerence feels amazing, but it doesn’t last. Within a few weeks or months, your brain chemistry will return to baseline, and then you may be left looking at each other and wondering, “Who are you?”

So, unless both of you are fine with the possibility of separating a few months down the line, you need to choose wisely before opening up the sexual floodgates. Yes, this means really getting to know her non-sexually before going to bed! It also means knowing yourself – and then paying attention to what you know.

What are your “must-haves” in a partner? What are your dealbreakers? If you force yourself to step back and take a good hard look at what she offers in this regard, what do you see?

Also, what are your triggers – and hers? How willing are each of you – and how much skill do you each have – in working with your buttons when they get pushed? (Generally, the hotter the chemistry is, the harder your buttons will get pushed!)

If you don’t have each other’s “must-have” qualities, or you do have any of each other’s “dealbreakers” – and/or if one or both of you doesn’t know how to work with your triggers – then the limerence that feels so fantastic now is bound to cause you a whole lot of heartbreak just a few months down the line. In that case, you can do yourself a big favor by saying No.

2. Know that a healthy lesbian relationship requires both closeness and separateness – and work with your needs and triggers (and hers!) around either or both.

When we’re in limerence, closeness feels easy and effortless. But as limerence fades, we have to move out of that state of blissful fusion, and back into our separate selves. Real intimacy requires us to come together as two separate, distinct people (and after limerence ends, that’s the only source of passion, as well.) This means we need to be able to navigate states of closeness and states of distance.

The challenge is that most of us have some very primal fears and triggers around closeness, distance, or both. If our partner feels too far away, it’s painful and scary – but if she gets too close, it’s suffocating! Lesbian couples often become polarized around this issue, with one woman constantly wanting more closeness, and the other always trying to get more space. At Conscious Girlfriend, we have names for both of these states: P.A.P. and P.E.P.

P.A.P. (Primal Abandonment Panic) is the intense panic, despair or rage that might come up when your girlfriend is late, too busy, or just doesn’t seem emotionally engaged or affectionate enough.

P.E.P. (Primal Engulfment Panic) is the intense panic, despair or rage that may come up if your girlfriend seems overly needy, or wants more from you than you want to give – which leads to feeling taken-over, suffocated, and engulfed.

Both P.A.P. and P.E.P. have their roots in a much earlier time of life. As infants, we would literally die without our mother’s (or someone else’s) care, so we are programmed to respond with very strong emotion if it feels like she’s not there. Infants move through predictable stages when their mothers are unresponsive or unavailable: first they try everything they can to get attention. Then they start to cry. Then they get angry. Finally, they collapse into despair.

Because limerence is so similar to the initial state of fusion we felt with our mothers, it also makes us very prone to P.A.P. – which is why even mature, capable adults may still respond to our partners physiologically (and then emotionally) with all the force an abandoned infant would feel.

But starting at around age two, all children need to individuate from our mothers and experience ourselves as separate people – so we are also hard-wired to respond very strongly to anything that gets in the way of our autonomy. That’s why we go into P.E.P.

Often couples get locked into these painful dynamics, with one member of the couple experiencing a lot of P.A.P., which trigger’s the other woman’s P.E.P. Sometimes we even switch off, with P.E.P. leading to P.A.P. leading to P.E.P. leading back to P.A.P. – a real mess! This is one of the most common sources of difficulty in lesbian relationships.

Fortunately, there is a solution. At Conscious Girlfriend, we call it the SCORE Process, and we’ve seen it work wonders for couples. When we step back into ourselves, connect to ourselves with compassion, observe our own feelings and take responsibility for them, we can break out of conflict loops and power struggles, and become able to navigate genuine differences with our wiser adult selves, rather than our panicked inner children.

3. Know what really matters to you – both in a relationship, and in your life.

queer couple heart

One couple we know got together when they were in their 50s because they really didn’t want to be alone. They’re both good people, they both wanted to get married, and they were physically attracted to each other, so… wasn’t that enough?

Six years down the line, they’re still married, but struggling mightily. One is such an introvert she rarely wants to go anywhere; the other is a social butterfly who loves parties and events, but hates going without her partner. She also loves to have their home filled with a steady stream of visitors and houseguests, which makes her partner feel totally overwhelmed. One is creative and messy; the other is compulsively neat. To make matters worse, they’ve discovered they’re really not in tune in the bedroom, either. Yes, they love each other, but neither of them is really living the life that would be the best fit for her.

At Conscious Girlfriend, we teach about three levels of compatibility – all of which are equally important to assess when you begin dating.

Level 1 is shared interests and lifestyles. Yes, it really does matter how (and where) each of you wants to live, and how you want to spend your time. Differences are navigable, of course, but the more of them there are, the more navigating you’ll be doing. Even though opposites (sometimes) attract, opposites often don’t make good life partners. While you and your partner don’t need to be alike in ALL ways, it helps a lot to have a healthy basis of shared interests and ways of being.

Level 2 is non-verbal rapport, including physical chemistry AND sexual compatibility. No matter how much Level 1 compatibility you’ve got, if you just aren’t feelin’ it, you won’t be happy together. (Sometimes, though, our fears can block us from feeling rapport. If you’re dating someone who seems like a good partner for you on paper, but to whom your heart (or body) just isn’t opening up, it’s worth a session with a Conscious Girlfriend coach to make sure you’re not just shutting down due to fear.) And even if you’re attracted to each other, that doesn’t mean you’ll want the same things in bed, or with the same frequency. Pair a once-a-monther with a twice-a-weeker, and both women will be in for a lot of pain.

Level 3 is compatible commitments. If one of you is open to growing and the other isn’t, that will cause more heartache than anything else in your relationship. How do you each handle conflict? How willing is each of you to access resources (like relationship books, videos, coaching or therapy) when needed? Do you have similar attitudes toward alcohol, drugs and other behaviors that can impede intimacy? How do you each feel about monogamy, honesty, deep emotional sharing?

The tricky part is that people aren’t always honest about these things when they’re dating. Sometimes they don’t mean to mislead you; they may not even be honest with themselves about what their true commitments are. So it’s important to pay attention to what you observe, not just what you hear. It’s also wise to ask questions about your new love interest’s past relationships. What kinds of conflicts came up? How did they get handled? Did they seek help when necessary?

After all, you wouldn’t expect to get hired for a job without being asked about your prior experience. And choosing someone as your partner is like hiring her for the most important job in your life – the job of being your lover, support person and best friend all in one!

At Conscious Girlfriend, we help single women know themselves better, date more consciously, and choose partners wisely. We also help couples sift through whatever’s making their love harder than it needs to be. We’ve found that becoming more conscious is the key to having the love you really want – and we’re here to help you get there!

About Ruth L. Schwartz, Ph.D. & Michelle Murrain, Ph.D.

Ruth L. Schwartz, Ph.D. and Michelle Murrain, Ph.D., are joyful partners in life, love and work. With backgrounds in psychology, neuroscience and spirituality, they co-founded Conscious Girlfriend to help women learn to love women – better. Ruth is the author of seven books, including the groundbreaking Soul on Earth: A Guide to Living & Loving Your Human Life. She has taught at six universities and helped hundreds of individuals and couples through her private healing practice, HeartMind Integration, as well as her spiritual and creative mentorship. Michelle is a scientist, professor, writer and seminarian with a long-term Buddhist practice. Both Ruth and Michelle are deeply committed to helping other women learn the tools of self-love, self-awareness and self-responsibility that have transformed our love and our lives.