The Best Way To Have A Long Term Relationship (A Two-Step Program)

Step One: Learn The True Meaning Of Love
I remember hearing an anecdote several years back about a famous Hollywood couple. My recollection is, they were Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, but I won’t swear to it. The story went thusly: Natalie apparently awoke one morning and looked over at her sleeping husband and realized she no longer knew who he was. “I had no feeling for him at all,” she was (as I recall) quoted as saying. The way Natalie saw it, the relationship was clearly over. She filed for divorce and, soon after, ran off with Warren Beatty.

The story, gossip-fueled or not, stuck with me over the years, not because of what I thought of Wagner and Wood (I happened to like them both, the rumors surrounding their tumultuous relationship notwithstanding), but because the basic tenet of this brief story–the experience of “falling out of love”–is a common refrain in relationships lasting more than, say, just a few months.

  • She says: he’s not the exciting (or romantic) man I fell in love with; he spends too much time in front of the TV (or in the garage, or at work, or on the golf course); all we do is fight over finances (or child-rearing techniques or leaving the toilet seat up); he tells me he’ll change (spend more time at home, do the dishes once in awhile, make love to her more often), but he never does; sometimes I think I don’t love him anymore.
  • He says: she’s changed; she nags me all the time, just like my mother; she’s not sexy anymore; she’s gotten fat (or old, or sick); we don’t see eye to eye on anything (raising the kids, frequency of sex, finances); the feeling is gone; I guess I’ve just fallen out of love with her.

The tragedy is that couples who might well have all the ingredients for a successful and satisfying marriage often split up because one or both of the partners has “fallen out of love” with the other one.

Well, here’s a shock, boys and girls: the truth is, you’re supposed to”fall out of love.”

Notice I’m not saying you are supposed to stop loving your spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, whatever. Because there is a world of difference between loving someone and being in love with that person, even if they seem to be closely related. In fact, I would go so far as to say, you can’t really begin the business of truly loving your partner until you’ve moved past being in love with him.

A brief aside here: I’m not referring to relationships which are physically or emotionally abusive or otherwise burdened with alcoholism, drug abuse, and the like. Those are matters which must addressed and eliminated first, for there is virtually no chance of building and maintaining a healthy relationship while any of these issues is a component of either partner’s life.

With that caveat, then, I will reiterate: you cannot begin to love your partner until you have moved past being in love with him. It is only then that you can make the conscious choice to love.

Wait a minute, I hear you say. We choose to love? How is this possible? I can’t just make myself feel something I don’t feel.

And you are exactly right. You can’t, as Bonnie Raitt laments, “make your heart feel something it won’t.” But here’s the good part: you don’t have to feel it. Why? Pay attention here, because understanding this point is perhaps the single most important key, if not the key, to having a healthy long term relationship: love is not a feeling. I’ll say it again: love is not a feeling.

Wait a minute, I can hear you protesting, of course love is a feeling. When I first met my wife, I was nearly exploding with feelings of love. There was excitement in the air, this feeling that I couldn’t live without her. I wanted to make love to her constantly, to spend every moment with her. And being without her was like– dying!

Indeed. But I would counter that what you were feeling wasn’t love at all, but rather a psychological phenomenon known as “ego boundary collapse.”

In his seminal work entitled The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, M.D. offers this insight into the collapse of ego boundaries, and how it relates to what he calls “the myth of romantic love.”

…[People] know that they are individuals, confined to the boundaries of the flesh and the limits of their power…isolated from others by their individual identities, boundaries, and limits….It is lonely behind these boundaries….most of us feel our loneliness to be painful and yearn to escape from behind the walls of our individual identities to a condition in which we can be more unified with the world outside ourselves. The experience of falling in love allows us this escape–temporarily. The essence of the phenomenon of falling in love is a sudden collapse of a section of an indvidual’s ego boundaries, permitting one to merge his or her identity with that of another person. The sudden release of oneself from oneself, the explosive pouring out of oneself into the beloved, and the dramatic surcease of loneliness accompanying this collapse of ego boundaries is experienced by most of us as estatic. We and our beloved are one! Loneliness is no more!

[But sooner] or later, in response to the problems of daily living, individual will reasserts itself. He wants to have sex; she doesn’t. She wants to go to the movies; he doesn’t. He wants to put money in the bank; she wants a dishwasher….She doesn’t like his friends; he doesn’t like hers. So both of them, in the privacy of their hearts, begin to come to the sickening realization that they are not one with the beloved, that the beloved has and will continue to have his or her own desires, tastes, prejudices and timing different from the other’s. One by one, gradually or suddenly, the ego boundaries snap back into place; gradually or suddenly, they fall out of love. Once again they are two separate individuals. At this point they begin either to dissolve the ties of their relationship or to initiate the work of real loving.

Peck adds this sobering thought:

The unreality of these feelings when we have fallen in love is essentially the same as the unreality of the two-year-old who feels itself to be king of the family and the world with power unlimited.

From the above, I might point out that the state of being in love is not unlike being insane. Hence my earlier comment that one must move past the in love state in order to make the conscious (i.e., in possession of one’s mental faculties; not insane) decision to love someone.

I’ll say it again: love is not a feeling. But that isn’t to say you can’t feel a strong affection for the one you love. More on that later.

But for now, the question is begged: if love isn’t a feeling, then what is it?!?

Love is, as I’ve said above, a conscious choice. It is making the decision to love, as well as making a commitment to honor that decision. But Peck sums up the essence of love in two elegant words: work and courage.

Peck elaborates with this:

[The] definition of love implie[s] effort. When we extend ourselves, when we take an extra step or walk an extra mile, we do so in opposition to the inertia of laziness or the resistance of fear. Extension of ourselves or moving out against the inertia of laziness we call work. Moving out in the face of fear we call courage. Love, then, is a form of work or a form of courage. Specifically, it is work or courage directed toward the nurture of our own or another’s spiritual growth. We may work or exert courage in directions other than toward spiritual growth, and for this reason all work and all courage is not love. But since it requires the extension of ourselves, love is always either work or courage. If an act is not one of work or courage, then it is not an act of love. There are no exceptions.

…and, finally, with this:

The principal form that the work of love takes is attention. When we love another we give him or her our attention; we attend to that person’s growth. When we love ourselves we attend to our own growth. When we attend to someone we are caring for that person. The act of attending requires that we make the effort to set aside our existing preoccupations and actively shift our consciousness….By far the most common and important way in which we can exercise our attention is by listening.

I might summarize this first step by observing that the common mistake (as I see it) made by couples is confusing the in love state with the act of love. The former is merely a feature of the latter, in the same way enjoying the taste of a great hamburger is a feature of nourishing our bodies. We will continue to nourish our bodies even though we might eventually grow tired of hamburgers. We might, for instance, eat spaghetti. My point is that it is the eating–the nourishment of our bodies–that is important, not what it is we are eating, or whether we particularly enjoy what we are eating.

Still, one might ask, why should I continue to eat hamburgers–of which now I’m not particularly fond–when there’s a plate of spaghetti over there which smells wonderful!?! In other words, what if I’m not happy in my current relationship? What’s wrong with choosing to love someone else, especially when the one I’m with now is so difficult to love? Do we practice and learn to develop love merely for its own sake? Can’t I be happy, too?

Which, now, leads me to the second step in this series, based on the work of Harville Hendrix, Ph.d. and his book Getting The Love You Want. In this second article I will discuss why you should turn around and re-commit to a love relationship which, at least on the surface, appears doomed, and ways to do it.

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