Increasing Love for All the Right Reasons

January 20th, 2010

“In a time when nothing is more certain than change, the commitment of two people to one another has become difficult and rare. Yet, by its scarcity, the beauty and value of this exchange have only been enhanced.” ~Robert Sexton

One of the first questions people ask me when they find out what I do is “How did you get into love work?” My usual answer is “to learn to stay in my own marriage.”While this is true, what I realized the other day while listening to a NPR documentary called What the Divorce Revolution has Meant for Kids was that I also do this work because of my childhood experience of divorce.

Listening to the voices of other contemporaries interviewed about the pain and shame of their broken families and hearing the remarkable statistics of how growing up in divorce makes you twice as likely to divorce as an adult, I realized again why teaching people to love matters so much. Statistically, the chance one grows up in divorce is over 50 percent.

While things have improved dramatically for children of divorce (there are more than 2000 books available about helping children through divorce), the reality is that most children still end up with the adult responsibility of trying to hold the two worlds together that their parents couldn’t manage. Many kids have said that their childhood unequivocally ended when their parents divorced. Growing up without any model for how to stay together in a committed relationship makes it hard to know how to create and sustain such relationships.

Our romantic relationships fail in large part because we enter into them with a poor relationship skill set and highly unrealistic expectations .Culturally we love the “falling in love” part of relationships, yet the initial biological attraction that initiates many relationships often does not a provide a solid foundation to build a long-term committed partnership. Relationships charged with biological attraction early on can blind us to our partner’s lifestyle and values, which really determine compatibility in the long run.

Interestingly, the idea of romantic courtship and our attachment to fairytale happy endings is unique to western culture. Many other cultures think differently about relationships, which explains why more than half the marriages on this planet are arranged by parents or matchmakers whose primary goals are family harmony and long-term stability. Statistically, arranged partnerships fare far better than the romance inspired relationships here.

The differences that contribute to the success of arranged marriages read like any good book on how to make a relationship work; yet putting them to work is not always apparent.The ideas below come from new relationship sciences, which demonstrate that just a little bit of skill building can go a long way to creating and sustaining the relationship that you promised and longed for. Practice at least one this week and see how just looking into someone’s eyes can and does change everything.

Commitment: Most arranged marriages begin with a strong commitment to a shared concept of the relationship they are agreeing to. Current western norms and the ease with which people can dissolve marriages start most marriages here at a disadvantage. Our one-foot-out-the-door tendency in relationships creates a dynamic where people interpret each other’s behavior with more negativity, thus crippling exchanges between partners, often without the other’s awareness. One way to combat the commitment issue is to practice trust exercises together. Try falling backwards into each other’s arms and notice how it feels both to catch someone and be caught. Talk about the experience and use it as a metaphor to catch each other in daily life.

Communication: Developing the skills to listen and be heard are some of the most essential relationship skills we can master in our lifetime. It is truly remarkable how many topics we consider important that we refuse to discuss. Some of this lack of communication comes from a lacking emotional intelligence. This is an easy and effective way to start. Learn what fear, sadness, joy and anger feels like in your body and use a simple I feel _______when you say or do____________. Go back and forth and familiarize yourself with your own feelings as a foundation for learning more about your partner. Another fun game to try is for each partner to write down a feeling or thought they want to convey and then use any form of wordless communication to convey that feeling to your partner. Take turns learning to read each other’s mind.

Accommodation: Relationships require that both people be willing to acknowledge and accommodate the other person’s needs. People feel closer and have stronger bonds with partners who demonstrate kindness and thoughtfulness to them, even if only in small details. Learning the art of compromise, that does not create resentment but cultivates a real feeling of give and take, is one of the foundations of a strong partnership. A fun game to grow the awareness of your similarities and quirks is called monkey love, where one partner imitates the other partner for 5-10 minutes at a time. Watching and mirroring their body movements links you across space and can surprise you about what you learn about how it feels to live in the other person’s body.

Vulnerability: Developing a vulnerable and open heart between partners is the fertilizer for intimate relationships. Feeling safe enough to disclose your fears and secrets to the person you are most deeply connected to, conveys trust and should inspire them to do the same. Frequently, a couple’s sexual problems are linked to one partner not being able to feel safe and vulnerable. A good warm-up for both physical and emotional intimacy is an exercise called soul gazing where you look into each other’s eyes for 1-2 minutes. Another exercise to experiment with is stretching the physical and emotional boundaries by standing four feet apart and slowly moving into each other. At about 18″, personal space starts to melt together. Feel how much an inch can change how you feel about someone.

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