It’s February: the month of Valentines’ Day, Cupid, love poems, flowers, and candy. It’s a month of joyful celebration for some, bleak disappointment for others, and outright fury for a few. I tend to run across the disappointed and angry folks more than the joyful celebrators. That’s probably because people in the throes of love and romance aren’t usually the ones in therapy.
If you’ve read Irvin Yalom’s book Love’s Executioner, you’ll know what I mean. He begins that book by saying:
“I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy – I too crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love’s executioner.”
He’s talking of course about the infatuated, obsessive, head-over-heels kind of love — the kind that makes you forget your name (and sometimes your morals), the kind that strips you of rational sense and any conception of balance. That wonderful, knock-your-socks off, glorious kind of “love” that can make you believe you’d be content forever if you could just spend every moment in the presence of your beloved.
Please imagine song lyric playing in the background:
I can’t live if living is without you.
It’s true that there is nothing quite like that “in love” feeling. It is ecstatic and all-consuming. It’s the love that inspires the rapturous sentiments in songs and promises eternal devotion. It is unbelievably wonderful while it lasts. But, alas, as most of us have probably learned by now, it doesn’t last. None of us really wants to hear that, but most of us know it’s true. The bubble has to burst; the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.
The ending of the romantic crazy-in-love phase often feels more like a kick in the stomach than a mere bubble bursting. It often happens quite abruptly and tends to occur right at the time when things seemed to be going the best. All of a sudden there’s a shift and things seems to turn sour and painful overnight. What happened to the person who was so all about you? Where’s the person who couldn’t wait to make you happy just a few short hours ago? Now they’re acting like they don’t care. Angry words are exchanged; tears and recriminations replace smiles and tender words. There may be a period of hit-and-miss repair attempts, brief respites and reconnections, but often within a few weeks, if not days, you’re feeling heartbroken, disillusioned, and wondering how you could have been so blind.
Song lyric: Love is just a lie, made to make you blue.
If couples are willing to stick it out and work on the relationship, this can be a developmental stage in the relationship – a rocky passage that can lead to greater closeness, honesty and clear vision. But it does take hard work. More often the relationship ends once the fun is over, and after a brief period of mourning, the bereaved is looking for another romance that will surely work out better than the last one. One glimpse at the Hollywood tabloids can verify this.
Song lyric: You’re gonna have to face it:
You’re addicted to love.
Why is this the fate of so many relationships? How is love lost so easily, especially when it seemed so perfect, so right? One of the main reasons is identified by that old adage “Love is blind.” Indeed, especially in the initial stages, what you “fall in love with” is not really the other person (usually you barely know them). What you actually fall in love with is the projection of an image of an ideal partner that exists in your own mind. Something in the other person “hooks” our attraction, and naturally enough the other person is putting their best foot forward. But we are not truly seeing the reality of the other person; what we are seeing is the projection of our own hopes and ideals and dreams onto that person. This reminds me of an old joke about two guys walking down the street. They see a beautiful woman approaching and one of them comments about how gorgeous she is. The other guy says “yeah, but just remember: she’s probably somebody’s worst nightmare.” No matter how good the initial impression, we’re not seeing all there is to be seen.
Like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire, my love is blind.
So knowing that we’re seeing the other through rose-colored glasses, what can we do to help make things a little more realistic – to be sure we’re getting an accurate view of the other person? First and foremost it’s important just to be aware that you can’t possibly really know a person in a few days or weeks or even months. SLOW DOWN. Enjoy the feelings you’re having, but don’t make the mistake of thinking these feelings are facts or that they will last forever. Give yourself time to let the new wear off — time to see the person in different situations, with a lot of different people. There’s an old adage about being with someone through all the seasons before you decide if they’re the one for you. There’s a lot of wisdom in that. Give yourself a chance to see how the person behaves under stress, in a crisis, when they’re angry. See how he treats his parents, friends, and service people. Learn how she talks about her past significant other and how she explains their break-up. Become an anthropologist of the other person – learn about their history and values and sense of self. What makes them laugh and what makes them cringe? What are their politics and personal idiosyncrasies?
So how do you know whether the relationship has potential or if it’s a disaster waiting to happen? Is the person you’re infatuated with someone who would make a good life partner? What should you be looking for? What are the indicators that you’re on the right tract, that you have chosen wisely, and that this person may actually be a good match for you? Below I’ll list seven concrete guidelines that can help you answer these questions and negotiate the confusing emotional waters of a relationship. By the way, as you think about how your potential partner fares in these seven areas, please give some thought to how you fare as well.
1. Self-esteem. While infatuation and falling in love are wonderful feelings, no one can really begin to sustain a workable relationship with someone else until that person likes him/herself pretty well. I’m not talking about ‘baggage.’ We all come with personal baggage that we take into a relationship. The important question here is whether, on the whole, one likes and accepts who they are, warts and all. If you’re partner doesn’t feel that way about him/herself, it likely means that they will need you to make them feel loved and lovable. That’s a lot of pressure on both people – on your partner to perform and on you to be constantly happy with him/her. Nathaniel Branden in his book The Psychology of Romantic Love, says,
“The first love affair we must consummate successfully is with ourselves; only then are we ready for a relationship with another. A person who feels unworthy and unlovable is not ready for romantic love.”
2. Integrity. All too often we judge based on personality. Are they fun? Do they make us smile? Are they good conversationalists – know the right things to say? Traits like that might make a person enjoyable, but it is integrity that will determine whether or not a person is trustworthy. In terms of creating a long-term relationship, trust is more important than love. A lack of integrity and trustworthiness will kill the intimacy and passion in a relationship, love or no love.
3. Accountability. We all make mistakes, no exceptions. We forget to call, have insensitive moments, get self-absorbed, even screw up royally sometimes. Perfection is impossible and not the issue here. The issue is can she say she’s sorry and mean it? Can he say my bad – I screwed up – I don’t know what I was thinking? If they can’t, run the other way. As my clients hear me say a lot, accountability is HUGE in a relationship. The absence of accountability often signals arrogance, narcissism and a lack of humility. Even dogs do accountability.
4. Responsibility and maturity. Carefree, exuberant, free-spirit types are great fun as playmates and flings. Partner with one for the long haul, however, and you can end up feeling saddled with a child you have to take care of. Ask yourself if your potential partner can live like an adult, i.e., support themselves, hold down a job, keep commitments, and keep a clean living space. Pretty basic I know, but all too often we’re attracted to the bad boy/bad girl types.
5. Commitment to personal growth. By this I don’t mean that someone has to be constantly in therapy or reading self-help books. It’s more about attitude. Is this a person who is interested in learning what he or she can about themselves, interested in becoming a better person? Are they aware they might have blind spots or habits that interfere with their functioning, and are they able to listen to feedback from others about these things? If they aren’t good at being assertive or sensitive or communicative, are they willing to learn? Someone who’s not willing to look at themselves is likely to become stubborn and boring. Relationships are pretty much guaranteed to stretch us. In fact people tend to partner with people who will force them to stretch. That little truth may be a product of opposites attracting or it might be unconscious forces at work, but more often than not what our partner ends up needing most is the one thing it is hardest for us to give. If your partner’s not willing to stretch and grow, develop the undeveloped in him/herself, you may end up SOL.
6. Empathy. Empathy is another one of those things, like trust, that may be more important than love in the long run. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and understand their situation, feelings, thoughts and motives like they were your own. If your potential partner can’t suspend their self considerations long enough to understand what a situation is like for you, it’s probably a good idea to continue your life’s journey without them. Please notice that I did not say your partner had to agree with you – only that they understand.
7. Shared values. This guideline is a different from the others in that it is not about personal attributes, but about the fit between two people. It is probably a good idea if you and your beloved share at least some similar attitudes, values and perspectives on a few of the key ingredients in a relationship. Consider, for example, the difficulties that can arise if you are a conservative saver of money and your partner is a big spender. What if she wants children and you don’t? What if your ideas of what a relationship should look like are very different — if he thinks couples should be joined at the hip and you like your space. One of you craves excitement and new adventures and the other is a homebody. Such differences do not necessarily spell doom for a relationship, but they do suggest that one might want to take a long hard look before leaping.
These are a few things to consider before deciding if you and your partner are ready to make the move from infatuation to a more mature kind of loving and commitment. Sometimes when I do couples therapy I use the analogy of a doubles tennis team. If you and your partner are trying to develop into a strong doubles team and one of you has a broken leg, then the broken leg needs to be dealt with before we start trying to work on the team. There’s nothing shameful about having a broken leg, but it does need attention and time to heal before that person can play tennis. Although I don’t say this in couples therapy, for purposes of this article — which has to do with things to be considered before the commitment is made — I might add that if your partner has a broken leg, you may want to consider finding yourself another tennis partner.
The Psychology of Romantic Love by Nathaniel Branden
Conscious Loving by Gay & Kathlyn Hendricks
Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix
Are You the One for Me? By Barbara DeAngelis