Creating an Ecology of Love
Our planet’s atmosphere, our invisible ozone layer, is intrinsic to the health of everything that lives on our planet. It is so thin that it is transparent. It is only now, when confronted with its fragility, that we realize how critical it is to our survival. This fragility of our atmospheric conditions provides a sound metaphor for how the language of environmental sustainability translates to the concept of Making Love Sustainable. Real love, the kind that endures after the “falling in love” goes away, is the atmosphere that contains our relationships and allows families to flourish. Just like the earth’s atmosphere, it is as fragile as it is powerful and only recognizably so when it is compromised. Learning to care for it is a task we must embrace for our survival.
The atmosphere in which love can thrive can be defined. The elements that build a healthy and sustainable container of love are not complex. They are all skill-based, which means that with attention and education anyone can get better at them. These elements work together and depend on each other to create emotionally intelligent intimate relationships.
The Four Elements
The ground of our relationships rests in our thoughts. This is the foundation of your relationship.
Our thoughts are incredibly powerful: They can keep us connected or they can drive us apart. When was the last time you monitored the emotional quality of your thinking about your partner? Giving people the benefit of the doubt, giving up the need to be right, and looking for what is lovable in your partner will help you to choose thoughts that sustain a loving atmosphere.
The water of our relationships happens in the ebb and tide of togetherness. This is how we show up for each other and keep our promises.
Showing up for someone isn’t about creating quality time and special date nights, although every now and again it is nice to take that time and really be together. Adding safety to your relationship has more to do with making different choices about the little things. For example, instead of reading the paper after work, offer to help with dinner. Sharing the annoying details of a life together speaks volumes about your priorities. “Your needs matter to me” is one of the most important messages you can send.
The air of relationships flows with our ability to communicate. What we say and whether we feel heard is the basic currency that enriches or bankrupts our relationships.
Communication happens with both words and actions. Not being able to self-disclose or share important life events literally takes the air out of relationships. The art of conversation between the sexes is one yet to be fully discovered. The goal of communicating should be connection; sometimes that might mean engaging in conversation that isn’t particularly interesting to you, or learning to listen more attentively. Or it might not be about the words; it might be how you pay attention sitting side by side. Begin your work in this area with sensitivity and don’t take missteps personally. Men and women have very different ways of expressing and listening to each other, but that doesn’t mean they can’t learn to communicate well.
The fire of relationships is ignited through physical touch. Cultivating a passionate, tender and safe place to explore sexuality with the one we love is the height of intimacy.
Many people believe that if the physical intimacy in their relationship were stronger, the rest would simply improve. Usually the reverse is true. Great sexual relationships and ongoing passion is the result of how you think, communicate and show up for the people you love. Not the reverse. Intimate lives that are fueled in all of these areas tend to be the ones where people can truly open up, discover their own passion, and be generous with their sexuality.
Tending the Hearth means the fire will be strong. While most relationships may be weak in one or two of these elements, our misunderstanding of how all the elements work together as a system is often at the basis of our inability to recover from difficulty in our relationship.
So consider each of these aspects of your relationship—thinking, talking, showing up and physical intimacy—and ask yourself where you could improve. Where would you like to see more from your partner? By paying attention to each of the four elements, you can work to make the relationship more open, more secure and more accepting.
Practicing The Art of Love
The supreme happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved–loved for ourselves or rather, loved in spite of ourselves. —Victor Hugo
Serious scientific inquiry has proven this quote to be true. By all measures of health and well-being, the single most significant predictor of lifetime happiness and longevity is involvement in an intimate and loving relationship. It is true across seventeen cultures and in longitudinal studies of historic events that the people who fared the best even through traumas like war and the Great Depression were the people in stable partnerships and families.
Yet even with all this evidence of the power of loving bonds, we are caught in a culture that throws away relationships as though they were empty soda cans.
Why is that? Are some people just lucky in love? Some of it may be luck. If you grew up as a wanted and beloved child of happy parents, chances are good that a positive and secure romantic style is on your side. If you didn’t have these advantages, then chances are you fall into the avoidant or anxious romantic styles. All of these profiles or personality traits are linked to a child’s ability to attach early in life. New research suggests that these early childhood patterns go a long way in explaining people’s lifelong struggles with relationships.
As the names suggest, avoidant and anxious romantic profiles can make it difficult for people to learn the very different skills of being able to both receive and give love. If your childhood experiences didn’t give you many positive memories and experiences of trust, it may be very difficult for you to approach your current relationships with any level of confidence that you will be loved. Because our expectations and our beliefs about our relationships form the basis for how we communicate and behave in them, it becomes easier to see how many people continuously make bad decisions about the relationships they choose.
And yet the story does not end there. Many neglected and not-well-loved children of the world have gone on to heal their belief systems and live out loving stories. I am among them. It doesn’t happen easily, but learning the skills of loving is possible. For many of us, the key is learning to believe that we are worthy of love. Having compensated for so many years, we may be experts at the skills of loving others, but until we do the hard work of realizing that “in spite of ourselves” we are lovable, we may never have a moment when our relationships feel secure.
If there is any key to this work it is that love is a verb. Seeing ourselves as lovable is an act of intention that must be a part of every day.
Our capacity to love is the source of our genius, the inspiration for our creativity, and the essence of what roots us to the earth. Yet love takes practice; love is an action verb, an act that is skill-based. Seeing our relationships in terms of a practice of love drills is a helpful approach that can keep your heart open and willing to try again, even after the inevitable hurts that define human relating. Rilke said that “the ultimate, the last test and proof of our humanity, the work for which all other work is but preparation, is for one human being to love another.” To begin, commit to the truth that you were born to love, and know that you have the capacity to love more skillfully, more courageously and with more tenacity than you ever imagined.
Drill 1 “To be loved, be lovable.” —Ovid
The first skill in loving is to believe in your lovability and then act in accordance. Kindness, generosity, and all that is good in us come from this place of feeling lovable. Sometimes just by adopting lovable behaviors, we increase our own perception of our own love-ability. Getting to our own love-ability can be a challenge for those of us who grew up being taught that that we are not worthy of love. Many of us have known a time when these kinds of messages hung over our heart like an axe poised to fall. Turning away from these old messages is a contagious practice that benefits wider and wider circles of people. Like any practice, the more you look for what is good, the better you get at seeing it. Identifying the positive repetitively normalizes it.
Drill 2 “The greatest science in the world, in heaven and on earth, is love.”
Approach the loving relationships in your life as a cherished science experiment. Think of the universal requirements for success in any loving relationship and objectively evaluate how these are reflected in your own relationships. Do you share enough communication to feel heard and to hear your partner’s feelings? Are you having mostly positive thoughts about the intimacy and process in your relationship? Do you show up for the important, sad, and celebratory moments of each other’s lives? These questions are most effective as guideposts. If you know where you want your relationship to go, then answering these questions with intention and action at all times is the active science of loving. It is a work in progress.
Drill 3 “Can there be a love which does not make demands on its object?” —Confucius
People die over broken hearts every day. Recently, a beautiful young girl in my town killed herself over it. Suicide is not the only way to die from a broken heart. There are many more slow, silent deaths around us, as we refuse to love anyone again in a committed way for fear that we will be hurt.
Many of us live with a variety of body aches that transform over time but never really go away. Living in our body demands that we work with our injured muscles and rebuild our strength. Someday there will be a scientific test that can measure the scar tissue in the heart. Just like those of every other muscle in our body, tears in our hearts repair, but not always in an orderly way.
Dealing with the pain of brokenheartedness, which is pretty much guaranteed in loving humans, is no different. Really feeling the sadness and loneliness when love doesn’t work can also live in us as deep appreciation for the people we practice loving.
Drill 4 ”The day will come when, after harnessing the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of Love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.” —Teilhard de Chardin
Here is a prophecy that feels optimistic. With our mandates from the government on renewable energy sources, we may soon be charging our lives with the power of wind, sun and water. So maybe the time has come when we will harness the energy of love for what it is—our access to a fire that can warm us from the inside. Commit to building an ecology of love in your relationship that nurtures the fire of sustainable love. Choose the thoughts that ground you to your love. Communicate and self-disclose what is most difficult to say and feed the fire with the truth of who you are. Show up in the small details as well as for the important celebrations of living with someone, so that there is always a flow of time and energy between you. Bask in the rare, mysterious alchemy of making love to someone who loves all of you. This is a fire that can and does change the world.