Relationships and growth: back to the basics

On Monday, the 23rd of November, we held a Relationship Cookbook about growth in relationships, and even about the reasons we actually do relationships.
What is a relationship cookbook?
It is the current incarnation of something I started 8 years ago, to collect practical advice and experiences about how to make relationships (and life in general) work. Or sharing how hard it is, and how often we fail, then try again.
It is semi-structured, but open in content. Consider it a bit like an unconference in a 90 minutes box. The whole point is to share “how do we do this thing called life” the way we would share recipes: “I tried this, here is what worked, what didn’t”, and other people can decide if it would fit them.
Not big philosophical questions, no preaching, no telling other people they are wrong or what they do is wrong (no matter how hard you want to say it). At most “I tried that, and it didn’t work, and I have never seen it working: could you help me understand how you do it?”.

As usual, the topic came from conversations with friends: we have all been struggling one way or another in 2020, some of us emerging happier, some of us still broken and in pain; there has been a lot of learning and growing, inside relationships, through relationships, with the relationships, from being in relationships, and out of relationships.
It has also been inspired by an amazing project of a friend of mine, and her metamour:
Please buy all of the sets, it is an amazing idea! [I]in case you are thinking “this is terrible, it is gamifying relationships, and will create competition”: maybe this is just not for you.The way I see it, it is about the hard work of … Continue reading

This was the introduction on the event page [II]yes, I use facebook for this. I am sorry. I will start also using something less soul crushing soon:

I have been hosting relationship cookbooks for 8 years by now, since I realized we had no idea how to make (open) relationships work, only what we didn’t want.
“Do not drown” is good advice, but doesn’t teach you to swim.
In these years, I ended up being considered a bit of “the relationship guy”. It could be worse, I have been “Mr. Consent” (when consent wasn’t sexy), and also some versions of “that grumpy guy”, and even, in a far past, the “he just wants to f#$k around and not commit” guy.
And then things happened, and for a while I had no idea what this relationship thing was. How they work. If they work.
I am still not clear, but I know they are important.
And I know we mean different things, but somehow we also want the same thing. [citation needed]
Let’s start from the basics:
we live in relationships. We define each other through others. Relationships are hard work, relationships just happen, and they sometime just stop happening (no, I do not like this, and if you ask me, this is a bug, not a feature).
How do we enter relationships?
How do we deal with change? Growing, growing together, growing apart?
What do we call a relationship? If everything is a relationship, how do we differentiate between our interactions with the cashier at the supermarket from the people you want to do your very best to grow old with?
How do we deal with the past? Can we let it enrich us and strengthen us, without having it being a burden? Is there is any power in the person you have struggled and learned with, and for, or does it mostly makes things harder?
When is it good enough, when do we need to keep on looking for something better? And what is better.
We will of course answer all of this, and more, and solve all problems of humanity.

(I may be overselling this)

I think I oversold it a bit, but at least we touched some of the reasons and patterns of some of the problems of humanity. It’s a start.

In the past, I tried dumping the notes I take during the event, with no context. While they CAN be somewhat useful for the people that attended, it didn’t work very well, and I gave up after a while. From now, I will try having a write up of the event after each cookbook. It is personal, biased, covering what I understood and what clicked for me. But at least it should be readable.
Let me know if this is helpful, and if I should continue. I will give it a try for a few weeks in any case.

The topics ended up being:

As a warm up, we started with
(Recent) growing lessons from relationships
What is growth in relationship?
The most voted [III]a dot is a vote, every participant gets 3 proposed topics where:
Connecting in anger, with 8 dots
un-learning patterns in relationships, with 6 dots
Trust in relationships – The anatomy of trust. Trusting yourself, trusting the other, with 6 dots

Lessons and growth

My own lesson from last months, maybe from the whole year, maybe from all of my relationships, is to pay attention to the dynamic balance between “not taking responsibility for the other person’s feelings” and “caring”. Care too much, and say hello to my old friend codependency. Just not take responsibility, and you are in a game theory hell of perfect individualism.
Find the right balance, and you’re done. Easy, right? Now spend the rest of your life re-finding the balance, and failing, again, and again, because it is dynamic.

One big subject that emerged several times was allowing other people to process things at their own pace. Some of us tend to be very fast in reacting, in my case, often too fast.
Our partners and friends sometime need more time. Much more time. Sometime we need more time and we do not even realize it.
How to allow for that space and time, without pressure?
How to avoid thinking, or communicating: “are you done processing your childhood experiences yet? I have been waiting all of two minutes“.
The consensus was that the best solution is… distracting ourselves. With other relationships, our own things, activities, Netflix, a pet, anything.
Yes, not very enlightened. But it works for small children trying not to eat marshmallows, it works for grown ups.

Another strand of conversation went in the direction of learning your partner’s vocabulary, and then maybe discover a shared one. What do they mean when they say “they are fine“? How to find out? How to create enough safety to explore and express and be vulnerable and even not know?
Many of us are in intercultural relationships, and that adds a whole different level of complexity: trying to learn our partner’s personal emotional and relationship language, and the one of their culture, and how it interact with us and our cultural background. It makes for years of fun activities and misunderstandings.
One good tool that has been shared is: go from the abstract to the concrete. Good questions are “how does it feel in your belly?“, “how is your body right now?“, and anything that goes directly to the experiential level.
The Five Love Languages have been mentioned, of course. It happens in every Cookbook.

Boundaries are a huge topic right now, and we talked about them. Shared our experience. Nodded in understanding that, yes, it is hard, but it is necessary.
A good point to remember is that, if you are not aware of your own boundaries, it is very hard, maybe impossible, to really see and respect someone else’s boundaries. Of course. I just needed to hear it spelled clearly to see it was in front of my face all the time.
And of course, noticing our own boundaries is the hardest: I don’t know about others, but I do not have a small red flag inside me going up saying “careful, boundary crossing“. I generally realize it afterwards: a few minutes later, a few hours later, when I wake up the next day, or sometime a few months and years later. I am apparently not a fast learner.
And once we notice them, we need to learn to communicate them properly. And decide what to do if, once communicated and understood, they are not respected.
More fun for years to come.
We will probably have a whole cookbook about this.

Caring too much, and how to avoid it. “Stop trying to optimize your partner’s emotions” is a good tip. Allow them to feel sad, angry, bad. Do not try to make them happy, to not invest your happiness in them being happy.
Accept that we sometime aren’t, and connect from there.
A good pointer to think about is “are you addicted to harmony?”.
Embracing conflict and difference, and connecting from there.
In theory, simple, it makes sense. In practice, another life long practice, that we covered in a few minutes.
Come to the cookbook, we find out how to solve all your problems, it will just take years for you to do it.


Anger was the most popular topic, winning on more general ones about “emotional growth through relationship” and “communication of emotions – expectations and hopes”. We clearly felt that anger was the most important one to tackle.
For some people, the problem was not to manage to feel anger, being unable to connect to it: “I just feel sad”. For others, going from anger to sadness was a step forward, because it is easier to work with sadness: anger is very aggressive, one sided, “I am right and you are wrong”, and as such we can consider it a blocking emotion, blocking connection and solutions. Sadness is softer, and it is easier to relate to it.
This brought us to the fact that, generally, anger can be a manifestation of other emotions, not only sadness. It happens with children, it happens with grown ups. Connecting with what is behind the anger is a first step to deal with it properly, and communicate our needs to our partners.
Some of use had no problems feeling the anger and connecting to it, and we were scared instead of doing something we would regret, damaging everything, “leaving fatalities”. Remember, children: not killing a parter is an important element of a long and healthy relationship.
Sometime, maybe often, anger is a signal of “my boundaries are being crossed”. Noticing it when it is still just slight annoyance, and reacting appropriately, is another life long learning.
As is “not reacting to anger, just notice it”. Apparently, for some people it is easy. It really confused me, and I envy them.
We also briefly noted the struggle of not going overboard with the anger caused by someone we love being treated badly. It is easy to become a knight in shining armor, brandishing a flaming sword: this is not that helpful, and robs our partners of agency. Again: caring, and not taking responsibility for them. Notice a pattern?
All in all: anger is not the problem, it is a symptom of something. The problem can be how we (re)act from it, how we communicate it, to ourself and to others.
We will probably have a whole cookbook about this.

Un-learning patterns in relationships

Another huge topic, and one that was hard to discuss and explore. For some of us, it felt clear what it meant, and how hard it it.
Others thought it meant forgetting, “I do not want to forget the lessons”.
It is not the same as forgetting: it is about not reacting in the same way again and again to a problem from the past, that is not happening right now.
It is about unlearning patterns that are not appropriate, not with this person, maybe not anymore. It is about noticing what is really there, about allowing ourself to change, to discover daily who we are and with who are we relating.
Asking “who is really there?”, “who is me now?”, “what is happening in this relationship now”, again and again, without being lost in stories.
It sounds easy, it would just mean to be fully enlightened. Problem solved. I told you this was easy
(I may be underselling the difficulty)
A potential technique is asking ourself again and again: “what would I notice if I was just teleported here?”. What if everything was new? What would it feel like?
We will probably have a whole cookbook about this. Can you notice a pattern?

Trust in relationships – The anatomy of trust. Trusting yourself, trusting the other

Trust is another huge topic. We had a whole cookbook about it, and it mostly helped everyone involved realize how many different things we mean when we use the word “trust”.
Trusting in ourself, trusting what the other say, trust the other to mean well, trusting the process, trusting the relationship, trusting everything is for the best somehow, trusting in trust, and more.
A good resource shared is about the Anatomy of Trust, from B. Brown. Being forgiving, trusting the other person mean well, being generous in our perceptions.
Trust is built and rebuilt, step by step. Sometime trust is broken, and we can either leave it at that, or rebuild it together.
Some of experienced very, very toxic relationships, with people that really did not have our best interest at heart. We all emerged unable to trust, doubting everyone and everything. Some of us learned to trust again, a moment of vulnerability after another. Communicating “I cannot trust this right now, help me trust you”.
Ester Perel noted (in a podcast interview, she didn’t join the cookbook) that trust begins from a decision to risk being hurt. We cannot make someone trust us, if they do not allow themselves to be vulnerable. We cannot really trust if we do not take at least a little step in the scary unknown.
As noted above, admitting “I do not trust this” is a step to connect and building trust: it can become a shared endeavor, growing together.
Connected to unlearning patterns, for the people coming from traumatic experiences, telling ourselves “my partner is not my enemy” is useful (if we are sure they are not our enemy, of course. That is a different problem for a different relationship cookbook). When our lack of trust is triggered, we can communicate it: “this is a trigger from my past, help me unlearn it together”. And we can do the same for our partners.
When it works, it is magick. As with all magick, it is hard work to make it work, and a good amount of luck.
I feel it’s worth it.

All in all, it was amazing.
I am grateful for everyone that joined.
If this sparks your interest, join one of our events, or the community. It is free, and I think it is fun. At least if you are a relationship geek like me.



  1. This is great Alex! It really helps to bring together the points made at the cookbook into a more coherent whole. I am also enjoying your signature ironic humour in written form πŸ˜€

    I noticed a few typos and passages that could use some editorial eyes, so if you want help from that side, I put up my hand to give it a go.

    I’d say this is good, hope you keep at it.

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