We are told that people stay in love because of chemistry, or because they remain intrigued with each other, because of many kindnesses, because of luck. But part of it has got to be forgiveness and gratefulness.” -Ellen Goodman
In spite of the headlines revealing the breakdowns and sordid secrets inside the marriages of the rich and famous, most Americans who tie the knot seem to have bought the prevailing myth of romantic love. None of us like to think of ourselves as one of them (those lying, cheating, no-good married types). No, as the song goes, our love is here to stay.
What is the harm, you might ask, in basking in the honeymoon love-will-conquer-all phase? The problem is that the expectations of marriage, when blown up to mythical proportions, leave couples believing they have failed when the proverbial stuff hits the fan. In truth, conflict and suffering come with the package, and can strengthen the trust and bond if the couple has the right tools to work with.
Far too often in my role as a psychotherapist, I have sat with couples in distress because one of them reports that he or she is no longer “in love”, and therefore must leave the relationship to find a more perfect love with someone else. Or the rejected partner tells the other to go ahead and leave, convinced that love, once lost, cannot be rekindled. How tragic that we have been so filled with images of romantic love that we think of it as something outside of our control. We wait for love, like a giant bird, to descend from some distant landscape and settle in our branches once again.
This destructive myth makes many believe that love, once set into motion, will carry us along through the complexities of life, if only we are lucky enough, or if we choose the right person. Not so, since conflict, disagreement, hardship and misunderstandings are inevitable in every close relationship. To build a strong, lasting relationship, love is better thought of as a verb not a noun.
Love is hard work and includes ten different dimensions that you can use to grade your relationship as described in How’s Your Family Really Doing? This means learning things like how to listen deeply to one another, how to understand each other’s point of view, how to respect differences, argue constructively, and to forgive each other’s mistakes.
When you are feeling less than loving, several tools may be helpful. Besides trying couples counseling before making any big decision such as divorce, write each other a love letter, sharing in a kind way any resentments that have built up. Love can be buried under months or years of unexpressed hurts and resentments.
Begin the letter with a statement of your intention…”I am writing this because I love you very much and I want to feel close and loving again.” Next share your resentments with the use of “I messages” rather than with the language of criticism or blame. Examples would be: “I am frustrated when you come home late and don’t call me.” “I get resentful when you don’t help me do the dishes or get the kids to bed.” “I feel lonely when you don’t hug me or tell me when you want to have sex.” End your letter with a request for one or two specific things that you would like from your partner.
The beauty of this exercise is that you can work on the letter for as long as it takes to get it right. Your first draft might be more judgmental and angry which will help you recognize what you are feeling. For some couples, if they try to talk while the feelings are too strong, they can’t help but get into a cycle of blame and defense, attack and counter-attack. The letter slows the whole process down and reminds the person of the positive intention behind sharing the upset or resentment.
Another helpful exercise is for each of you to keep a gratitude journal, writing down three things, however small, that you are grateful for each day. As you get better at noticing the positive rather than dwelling only on the shortcomings of your mate, you can expand this exercise to include reading them out loud to each other or making this exercise a weekly ritual when you each share what you appreciate about each other.
For marriages to remain satisfying and supportive, the ratio of positive to negative behaviors, words, and deeds must be over five to one, positive to negative. This same ratio applies to parenting, school environments and to businesses. Since we are social animals that depend on our tribe, all humans do best when kind, loving, playful and positive interactions far outweigh the negative.
Make it a goal to treat your partner the way you would like to be treated, and notice just how difficult the work of loving can be sometimes. Take responsibility for your part in keeping love alive. Don’t just sit there. Be the love you are waiting for.