The long-haul of love

Last blog I took all the mystery and romanticism well out of love and explained just how easy it was for our brains to get all caught up in the neurochemistry of love. But what happens next? What’s the one thing that can help create a long and healthy relationship?

The psychological research jury might still be debating this at some length, but with my inherent wisdom and qualifications (please note, I'm currently a very content, long-term single person), I think that thing might just be acceptance. Acceptance of a number of things.

Firstly, we need to accept that perfect doesn’t exist. Funnily enough, sometimes we seem more able to let go of perfectionism in ourselves than in our partners or in our relationships as a whole. Just as striving for perfectionism in our individual lives is a futile task, there is also no such thing as the perfect partner or the perfect couple.

Secondly, let’s accept that love is a skill. Sure, it can be an emotion and a feeling, but it’s also something we can learn and nurture and develop. And when we’re in a relationship our job is to love. We need to use this skill. Every day. Over and over again.

Some romantics seem to believe that love with the right person is easy. But why when we live intimately for a long period of time with another human being who has (a) different thoughts and feelings, (b) different interests, (c) different expectations about housework, sex, money, religion, parenting, holidays, work-life balance, and quality-time, (d) different styles for communicating, negotiating, and expressing themselves, (e) different reactions to the things that you enjoy or fear or detest, (f) different drives for food, sex, sport, play, and work, (g) different standards of cleanliness and tidiness, (h) friends and relatives that we don’t get on with too well, (i) lifelong, deeply, entrenched habits and quirks that annoy us … do we assume it should be easy?

The fact is that there will always be significant differences between ourselves and our partner in some or all of these areas. And that’s why relationships aren’t easy. That’s why they need us to bring love into them. That's what makes them rich and meaningful.

I am a sucker for a rom-com. In a pretty big way. I have wondered though, what effect this has had on my psyche over the years. It's totes possible this helped to develop some pretty unrealistic romantic expectations I had there for a while. For example some time ago, before Tom Cruise lost it (in real life), he said to Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire “You complete me” and my ovaries nearly burst with glee.

This, however is probably one of the most unhelpful ideas we can buy into. If at any stage in our relationship we fall into the trap and act as if we are incomplete without our partner, then we can set ourselves up for all sorts of problems. Dependence. Fearfulness. Neediness. Things that are all incongruent with healthy relationships. In order for a relationship to be safe, each person needs to be true to themselves, to express themselves honestly, ask for what they need and stand up for themselves without holding back for fear of rejection or abandonment. We have to accept ourselves. On our own terms.

And the last thing we need to accept – our partner.

Before I was a ‘real’ psychologist, my guilty pleasure was watching Dr Phil shout abuse at his clients on international television (thankfully, I can now see this process is somewhat flawed). One of the Dr Phil-isms that I can’t erase is “YOU CANNOT CHANGE THE BEHAVIOUR OF ANYONE AROUND YOU! YOU CAN ONLY CHANGE HOW YOU REACT TO IT!”

Oh, but how we try Dr Phil! We spend ridiculous amounts of time and energy trying to change our partners. Trying to mold them into the perfect other half. If only they could just pick up their wet towels. Or feed the dog without me asking. Or watch less cricket.

According to relationship guru, John Gottman of the University of Washington, the key to a good relationship is precisely that you accept one another as you are. For several decades, he studied how partners interact with one another and he discovered this: well-functioning couples, who still have a loving relationship after twenty years, treat each other like they treat their good friends. They communicate clearly and honestly, they don’t make any unnecessary hurtful comments toward each other and they accept the things they don’t like in the other. At any rate, they don’t make a big deal about it.

This can often be the hardest of the acceptances to master. Often it involves confronting what we are bringing to the relationship. Maybe asking ourselves – why am I reacting to this situation in this way? What is making me agitated? What are the facts? Remembering, very kindly, there are two imperfect humans in this imperfect and loving relationship.

Tips for Acceptance:

  • Be mindful: When you notice that you feel hurt or angry because of something your partner is or isn’t doing get some distance. Check in – how am I doing today? What is my need at the moment?
  • Focus on what’s going well: The more we focus on what’s positive in the relationship the more loving the relationship
  • Say what you want: Remember, no one can read minds. Articulate what you want in a calm, rational and clear way.

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