This is the first entry in a series about my experience with Relationship Coaching with Christine Dunn-Cunningham, the Lesbian Love Guru. Follow the lesbian love guru tag on the blog to catch all the entries!
In November of 2012 I started dating someone who I thought was just going to be a friend with benefits. That turned into a super deep connection I wasn’t expecting. Neither of us did. I went with it and we fell into a “thing” we were calling “keeping company,” a delightfully old fashioned term she picked up from her uncle’s description of his courtship of her aunt thirty plus years ago. We had a lot of fun together but ran into a lot of static around a few areas, including communication. It took me until months after it ended to realize that how disparate our semantics often were. She would be saying one thing, using the same words I would use, but mean something completely differently than I was understanding. Like we’re both calling something an apple but really I mean a peach.
Last May. Photo by Grace Chu.
Things ended at the end of March when the fact that she didn’t want to be in a relationship, and hadn’t wanted to be in one in the first place, meant we needed to break-up. In our first iteration, things were just always so hard for us together emotionally, and when you don’t want to be in a relationship you don’t want to do the work to be together. She was also preparing for an epic, possibly forever, road trip. Selling all of her possessions, getting some part time consulting she could do remotely, and staying with loved ones a few weeks at a time. A life in an RV I’ve been visioning for a long time, a tiny version of which I took in 2011, but she was going solo.
I had thought we could eventually transition to long distance in some way, and we fell back into an “ambiguous” relationship status within three weeks of breaking up. Eventually that fell apart, too, she left town and I thought I’d never talk to her again. By the end of that ambiguous period I had my own reasons for not wanting to be in a relationship with her. Our mutual frustration lapsed into a long period of radio silence.
I recognized that the grief I was feeling about the break-up was incommensurate with the loss. I started doing some spiritual work through the help of Katie at Empowering Astrology. She helped me cut emotional cords and end what she described as a karmic cycle Dara and I were in.
Cut to October, when we had a pretty organic reconnection. She was back in NYC for a couple of weeks and we met-up and made peace. I thought maybe we could try “benefits without friends,” as a way to just focus on what always worked with us. (Sex.) I could slot her into my life the way a few treasured friends have; when we’re in the same town we sleep together if our relationship statuses allow for it and the rest of the time we’re just casual friends that text every now and again. This was a mildly complicated idea for me because I knew I was still in love with her I just couldn’t be in a relationship with her.
Photo by Grace Chu.
Life threw us a giant curve ball because when Dara was in town she happened to visit her GYN for her annual exam and they found a lump. She was diagnosed with breast cancer after she had gone back to LA (where she was at the time) from her NYC visit. (She’s been video blogging her experience with cancer.)
What does it mean when your ex gets diagnosed with breast cancer? I didn’t know. I knew I was still in love with her, that had never changed. I knew I didn’t want her to be my girlfriend because I’m really dedicated to loving unconditionally and to want her to be my girlfriend would mean I would require her to change… and I didn’t want to do that. So I resolved myself to just be there for her as much as I could be. “Open heart and good boundaries,” became my mantra. A witchy friend even prescribed a tincture of Ocitillo which I serendipitously found in a South Brooklyn apothecary.
We hung out when she got back to NYC to start treatment. It was really great and really easy. We hung out again. And then another time. The quality of conversation, the ease at which we were able to tread topics that would have been hard or hurty before was surprising. I was able to do the things that I liked to do to support her–cooking nourishing meals, being sweet to her, giving massages. As well as encouraging her to relax and do self-care, two things she is now learning how to do post-diagnosis that she’s never prioritized before. The ways in which I thought I needed her to change kind of melted away, and somehow I was different, too.
I was a little confused. I mean, when does your ex become your lover again? She has breast cancer and sex is life affirming. And all the in between moments were so magical. I kept telling my friends I felt like Dara and I were in a different dimension.
There was other stuff, too. I kind of thought I could be there for her but there’s no way she could show up for me, having cancer. And then my December 2013 took hold, three friends passed away in the span of two weeks and the week before Christmas I unexpectedly and quickly had to put my beloved cat ALF to sleep just six months after his brother Bear passed. And through it all Dara was a champion–supporting me, handling logistics, making sure I could bring Macy with me to the vet when I had to rush ALF to the kitty ER for his final moment. After my fiance and I broke up I swore I wouldn’t get serious about someone again until we had gone through a crisis together. Being with Dara in this iteration feels like we’re running a gauntlet–except we’re laughing, holding hands and getting through it in this hopeful and happy way I never knew was possible. Like if we can be this good in a crisis how nice will life be when we can just work and travel together?
After her first lumpectomy surgery (she had to go back in for a reexcision lumpectomy two and a half weeks later) I was in the recovery room with her and we made a game about how silly of a photo we could create with found hospital objects. Together we conceived her Rudolph look.
With the heady mix of old intimacy and new relationship energy, I suggested we might want to get relationship coaching. In fact, neither of us is willing to call each other “girlfriend” yet because we want to eliminate fears of slipping back into old communication patterns and the stuff that was so hard before. It hasn’t happened yet, we’ve done a great job of communicating through rough spots; often we just stop a conversation that feels like it could get sticky and awkwardly back out of it. But it could happen, and a professional might help us set the kind of foundation we never had before.
Enter Christine Dunn-Cunningham, the Lesbian Love Guru, who I met over the summer. I was thinking of working with her as a single person who wanted to open myself up to finding the future Mx. Branlandingham. When Dara and I were starting to become a “thing” again, I read some of the Lesbian Love Guru blog entries (full of incredible tips) and this one about High Quality Quality Time totally helped me. In the entry she suggested having a conversation where you figure out which activities create the deepest sense of connection between both of you. So I had that conversation with Dara one day cuddled up in bed. Thinking about what I needed in a connected moment helped me ask for that the next time we were both having a rough day. (The connected activity for me was praying together, by the way.)
Hanging out in this week’s blizzard.
The success I had with applying the tips from the blog entry definitely told me that Christine would make a great coach for us. And there’s a huge difference from following advice in a blog and working directly with someone to create a program for you. That’s why I love coaching!
We corresponded via email and she offered me one of her free introductory sessions.
I talked to her on the phone during the session and she explained that her coaching can take different forms. Sometimes she works just with one of the people in a relationship, who then takes the work back and applies it to the relationship. Sometimes she works with both partners separately and sometimes she works with them together. I had originally envisioned the two of us on Skype with Christine building capacity for our communication, but she said she would want to start with a session where the two of us spoke to her on our own to get our perspectives.
Christine also has experience coaching folks in polyamory, which was great for us because some of our stickiness is around establishing a foundation where we can create some kind of non-monogamy or polyamory that works for both of us. I’ve never successfully done non-monogamy in a primary relationship and Dara has been practicing polyamory for twenty years.
Even though she’s called the “lesbian” love guru, Christine actually coaches folks of all genders, on the trans spectrum and some straight couples. Because at the end of the day, relationships are relationships.
During the first session where we each spoke separately, Christine asked us for each of our versions of our first iteration, what areas of growth we wanted in our relationship and what we were hoping for out of coaching. Dara remarked afterward that she felt “heard” about our first iteration for the first time ever. Christine is really easy to talk to and is great at asking the right questions to open you up.
I’m excited to work with Christine moving forward. I’ll be blogging about the experience so stay tuned!
Christine is offering a limited number of free introductory sessions to readers of my blog (with folks later in the game on a waiting list). The first session is great–it’s a great way to see if she’s a match for what you want. Again, Christine works with established couples and single folks and people of all genders and sexualities (even though the landing page is geared towards women specifically). She’s really great and in that introductory call you’ll walk away with tangible stuff you can apply to your life to help you open yourself up to a great relationship.
Also, this week Christine and I were both featured in the Happy Healthy Lesbian Telesummit. Hopefully you got to catch our interviews when they were released, but if you missed them you can download them as a package (along with a slew of other great interviews about money, nutrition, love, travel, healing and body love). Click here to view more details