By Diane E. Lykes, LCSW
A group of friends are sitting around a table at the local coffee house talking about the elusive and often misunderstood thing called LOVE.
Julia has just shared with her friends that she and her husband have decided to get a divorce. She feels a great deal of hurt and bitterness and wonders whether she will ever marry again. She has decided that most men cannot be trusted.
Brendan indicates that women are a puzzle to him. He wonders why each time he meets a woman and thinks he has fallen madly in love, all of her baggage emerges.
Caitlin listens to her friends with a compassionate ear but cannot relate to them in the slightest. She just knows that she has found “the one”. After two intense months with her new boyfriend, she is certain that they will live happily ever after.
Holly is the veteran of the group. She has been married for 10 years. There have been many good times, but there have also been some frustrations and sacrifices. However, she and her husband are best friends and they are committed to their life together. Holly knows more about love than her three friends…she knows that love is a verb.
We live in a culture that reinforces the idea that true love is a blissful state of union between two people who were meant to be together. Many people strive to find “the one” or their “soul mate” and often times move through many relationships in a quest to find their perfect match.
Popular culture’s myths can be dangerous for relationships today. The lyrics of songs we hear, as well as television and talk shows, provide a confusing picture of what we should expect from relationships.
Just look at all the celebrities who tell the world that they have found their soul mate only to read a few years later (or a few months, for that matter) that they are involved in a bitter divorce and battling over custody of their children, assets, etc.
How can two people who are so in love wind up in divorce court a short time down the road? How is it possible that by the end of the seventh year of marriage every other marriage will end in divorce? And when these divorced individuals remarry, there is a 70 percent chance that this second marriage will also end in divorce.
Below are some of the myths that surround love, and tips on what produces long-term happy relationships.
Myth # 1: Relationships should not be a lot of work.
Relationships require a good deal of attention, nurturing and even hard work. Couples will often report in marriage counseling sessions, “If it has to be this hard then it’s not worth it.” In fact, the reverse is true. If partners are working hard on themselves and the relationship, the fruits of their labor will be a better union.
It is also important to understand that each person brings to the table their own beliefs from their family of origin. Prior to getting married couples should discuss the expectations they have for the marriage. For example, who will control the money, which religion will take precedence, how will duel careers be managed, where will vacations be spent and even which families they will see for the holidays.
In discussing these topics, couples begin the real work of a long-term commitment, rather than living the romantic (and false) assumption that “love will conquer all”.
Myth # 2: A great relationship is a peaceful one
The healthiest couples argue, and it is not a sign of weakness in the relationship. Most experts agree that instead of focusing on how often you argue, worry about how you argue.
John Gottman is renowned for his extensive research on predicting behaviors that will lead to divorce. He studied more than 650 couples and found that the key to a marriage’s success is being caring and respectful friends in the face of disagreements.
Unhealthy marriages are characterized by one partner attacking the other’s personality and character, rather than the issue. In addition, partners who become defensive or walk away during a conflict are more likely to have problems in the future
Conflicts will occur and they are a useful way for couples to gain a better understanding of one another. As Gottman states, “couples who are deep friends choose not to experience their spouse’s emotions as personal attacks. Deep friends can quarrel with the understanding that the other’s emotions are to be accepted: the issues are what must be negotiated.”
In other words, stay focused on the issues and not on your partner’s shortcomings, and conflict will have a meaningful and happy ending. Or you may just agree to disagree peacefully.
Myth # 3: Changing a relationship requires two people.
One of the most important things we can learn in our lives is that the only person you can change is yourself. Many people share the belief that both partners have to work equally hard for the marriage to improve. Couple’s counselors know that great changes can occur in a relationship even when only one person is doing the work.
Trying to change your spouse or not working on the relationship unless your spouse is also willing to do his/her share of the work is falling into the myth that a relationship can only change if two people work at it.
Instead, focus on changing your own potentially negative patterns in the relationship. In their book The Couple’s Survival Workbook authors David Olsen and Douglas Stephens offer a checklist for improving your self-focus. Ask yourself these questions: “Do I maintain eye contact when talking or listening?” “Do I speak to my partner in a normal tone and volume?” “Do I show respect for my partner even when I am angry?”
All it takes is for ONE person to change in a positive direction and most often the entire relationship will follow suit.
Myth #4: Love is a feeling
This is the most important and most destructive myth of all and it brings us back to the title of this article, “Love is a Verb”.
Many people believe that once you fall truly in love, you will have all that is needed to sustain a long-term happy relationship. In fact, those early feelings cannot be trusted completely. In the first months of a relationship, many people have fallen in love with love. As Olsen and Stephens point out: “they may be more ‘in love’ with this feeling than in love with the person they are about to marry.”
It is quite normal for partners to idealize each other early in the relationship and it is also quite normal for these perceptions to fade somewhat over time. Of course love is a feeling, but it is also a series of actions. Couples who want a successful and happy relationship need to work hard to achieve this. A good relationship takes time, commitment and work. This is what makes it so special and rewarding.
Now that we are armed with this new information about relationships, what advice can we give to Julia, Brendan, Caitlin and Holly?
For Julia, it will mean taking the focus off of her soon-to-be ex-husband and placing it back where it belongs…on herself. A wise colleague of mine once said, “It is not about finding the right person, but becoming the right person.” This is where Julia needs to keep her focus.
Brendan falls prey to the first myth. He believes that a relationship should be simple and without problems. When it comes time to dealing with issues and better understanding his partner’s feelings, he makes a quick exit. Brendan needs to understand that like anything worth having, relationships take a lot of effort.
Caitlin has a long road ahead of her. She is still caught up in the feeling of falling in love and will either grow with her partner into a deeper and more meaningful relationship, or like many people, she will believe she has fallen out of love when this powerful infatuation phase ends.
As for Holly, she has learned from experience…she knows that love is indeed a verb!
Diane Lykes is a Principal of Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany where she specializes in individual and couples counseling, educational training and clinical consultation. Synergy is a unique counseling practice providing compassionate, solution-oriented treatment for adults, children, adolescents and families. She can be reached at 466-3100 or at firstname.lastname@example.org