Is Love All You Need?
Clinging to a flawed definition of romantic love
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.”
― Anaïs Nin
I was sitting in the seat of the car, looking out the window, pouting. The day was not going as I had planned it in my head. He should have known! He must have known how I wanted it to be, after all we were married and he should know . . . he should be able to read my mind . . .
Lennon and McCartney tell us that Love is All You Need. But in the case of romantic love, is that true?
Alain de Botton describes why we created and still live by the inaccurate, and often disastrous image of romantic love in his NYT article: “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”
In the past, people married for practical reasons, but in the 1800s, we replaced practicality with the romantic version of love:
“For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages, there flowed loneliness, infidelity, abuse, hardness of heart and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, in hindsight, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish and exploitative. That is why what has replaced it — the marriage of feeling — has largely been spared the need to account for itself.”
Romantic Love tells us that we all have a soul mate out there and it is our task to find our one true soul mate, and we will know when we find him or her because we will have that very special feeling. Botton describes this search for romantic love in his very entertaining talk “On Love” from ‘The School of Life.’
We are led to believe that when we find our soul mate, we will never be lonely again, that person will understand us completely and practically be able to read our mind. (flashback to me in the car pouting) We will feel completely understood and loved. This love shall be one long romantic holiday . . .
The reality is though that what we are looking for when we fall in love is familiarity. We are not necessarily drawn to people who will make us happy, we are drawn to people who will feel familiar.
“What we really seek is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.”
“The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.”
For a relationship to last, we need more than that out-dated version of romantic love. So what do we need to make a lasting relationship? Well for one thing, we definitely need good communication. The day out with my husband would have turned out a lot differently if I had communicated my vision for the day instead of assuming that my husband should just know.
But aside from good communication, science is showing us that lasting relationships come down to two things: kindness and generosity.
In Atlantic Magazine’s article ‘Masters of Love’, psychologists John and Julie Gottman describe their work. Together they have studied thousands of couples in a quest to figure out what makes relationships work. From the data they gathered, they were able to separate the couples into two major groups: the masters and the disasters. The masters were still happily together after six years. The disasters had either broken up or were chronically unhappy in their marriages.
The masters felt calm and connected together, which translated into warm and affectionate behavior, even when they fought. Whereas the disasters were in a state of ‘fight or flight’ even when they were not fighting. It’s not that the masters had a better physiological make-up than the disasters; it’s that masters had created a climate of trust and intimacy that made both of them more emotionally and thus physically comfortable.
“Throughout the day, partners would make requests for connection, what Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife — a sign of interest or support — hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird. The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his wife recognizes and respects that. People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t — those who turned away — would not respond or respond minimally and continue doing whatever they were doing, like watching TV or reading the paper.”
Gottman explains that masters have a habit of mind in which they scan the social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners’ mistakes. And it’s not just scanning the environment, it’s also scanning the partner for what the partner is doing right or wrong; criticizing versus respecting him and expressing appreciation.
The Gottmans have found that contempt is the number one factor that tears couples apart. People who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them will eventually kill the love in the relationship. On the other hand, kindness glues couples together. Kindness is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated. Kindness makes us feel loved.
So if we are looking to live happily ever after together, we need to ditch the antiquated version of romantic love and move forward in the spirit of kindness and generosity.