In the ’80’s the word “awesome” became ubiquitous and thereby lost its significant meaning of “inspiring awe” in favor of “really great.” Through my clients, family and friends, I’ve found that long term love, specifically, embodies a combination of both the older and the newer definitions of awesome, and therefore I use it to describe the positive effects of what makes love last, and how good it can feel to be loved.
One of the most oft-quoted statistics is the divorce rate. Since 1975, the rate has hovered at 50%, meaning that out of every two weddings, one marriage ends with divorce papers. It’s no wonder that, while most people pursue relationships without ambivalence, entering into a committed marriage has become scary. One of the major reasons given for divorce is that the couple “fell out of love.” Is it that we are falling out of love, or are we simply losing the art of staying in love?
So then with all this data, is it really possible to stay in love long term? The answer is yes. Certainly anecdotally we know of many grandparents still showing their love as a couple. As well, there is scientific evidence to back up these anecdotes: Helen Fisher, Rutgers University anthropology professor and author of several books relating to love and marriage, studied the feeling of love on brain scans. These scans proved that young couples’ first love feelings, as well as those from couples married for decades, both exhibit the feeling of love in the same pleasure cortex of the brain. In other words, the feeling itself doesn’t change.
The question is: How can we do this? How can we stay in love long term? A common phrase that we sometimes hear is that love is not a feeling – it’s an action. We want and rely on our feelings of love to remain, almost as if out of thin air. However, feelings of love can be fleeting if we don’t feed them with actions. Here are some top ways to work at keeping feelings of love prevalent in marriage.
- Focus on the positive. It’s trite, but it’s true. We are drawn to people who have qualities we need, yet when we are stressed, we tend to resent the very qualities we also find balancing. For example, the harried wife who wants a calm husband can’t stand the way he’s so relaxed that he’s always 10 minutes late. Or, take the introverted husband who is very attracted by his wife’s sociability – if he’s tired after a long day, he argues with her when she requests he join her at the neighborhood block party. The idea is to get more flexible in our thinking and celebrate the differences that in some cases drew us to our mate in the first place. Resist the urge to be rigid and negative in your thinking. Admit that these qualities are welcomed by us, and focus on them, paying less attention to the flip side of these qualities that can bother us.
In practice, it is very hard to hold two opposing feelings at the same time. Harness the power of your focus in your relationship, and instead of attending to the parts of your partner that are frustrating, focus on the positive ones for which you are grateful. Gratitude has been shown to increase happiness and a sense of connection, and cultivating it can start with simply thinking of three things each day for which you are grateful. Look for successes and celebrate them. Looking for the positive, making room for gratitude, and then involving your spouse is a surefire way to improve your bond. Studies show that expressing kindness and gratitude to our partner, along with celebrating successes, are key ways to strengthen relational bonds.
Making a list of the all the qualities you love in your spouse can also be helpful, especially in times of stress, when gratitude can be hard to cultivate. When frustration hits the fan, have your list ready to whip out. Then, sit down, take a few breaths, and focus on one aspect of that list. This will help you remember the positives about your partner, and from that emotional state, you can work out any issues much more effectively.
- Know that you cannot change your partner. We often interact with our partner, or even people in general, with the expectation that they will change. They may, or may not, change, but the point is it’s not up to us. We need to work hard at accepting our partner as they are. We are committed to be with all of this person, not just the parts of this person we like today. I even go so far as to say it’s dangerous to try to change the other person. Trying to change someone else not only sets our expectations unreasonably high, but it misses the core of the problem, which usually involves misplaced thoughts and actions. It also sends a dangerous message to our partner that they need to be different to win our love. The trouble with making love conditional is that it is a slippery slope, it misses the point, and it doesn’t work. We will always want more, want something else, or be disappointed that it’s not quite enough. When we are honest with ourselves about what we really want from a partner, and what is possible, we leave room to address our own side of the street, and recalibrate our perspective. Focus on ourselves, and delight in our partner’s good qualities. Remove the option of trying to change them from your mindset – the option simply doesn’t exist.
- Nix the projection. Most couples are – consciously or subconsciously – seeking a yin-yang balance in a partner – a counterbalance for some of their character traits, and a similarity for other traits. However, when anxiety levels are heightened, we want our partner to not only act like we would want to, but actually be BETTER than we might. We end up transferring all of who we want to be onto them, and set ourselves up for disappointment.Therefore, we particularly resent them when they are not doing what we ourselves don’t do, but would want to do. In psychology this is called “projection,” with the idea being that we cannot tolerate certain conflicts in ourselves, and so we “project” them onto others instead of facing them in ourselves. While the need for emotional support is real, it’s not fair to demand our partner be what we want to be. Keep the focus on them as different from us, and be more honest about what we bring to the table. In the heat of the moment, this is easier said than done, so one tip is to stop, count to 10, take a breath, and request, kindly, what we need, not what we want them to do. This way, it’s about us asking for what would be helpful for us, not demanding our partner read our minds, be like us, and be able to meet our needs. This slight nuance keeps a powerful boundary.
Couples who enjoy long-lasting love practice the above attitudes and thought processes, resulting in both of them regularly feeling awesome about themselves, their partners, and the love between them. It goes without saying that these steps take work, but having an awesome relationship, one which inspires awe and can be described as “really great” are the result of a working, lasting love.
Want to learn more about ways to keep love strong? Check out this video So, Is There A Cheat Sheet On Making Love Last Forever? where I sat in with YourTango experts Dr. Helen Fisher, Mary Ellen Goggin, SaraKay Smullens, and Melanie Gorman.
To learn more about Dr. Clark and the work that she does, browse her website, follow her on Twitter @DrAliciaClark, or like her on Facebook at AliciaHClarkPsyD. To receive more posts like this, [subscribe-by-email-form]