Love is in the air, love is everywhere.
Turn on your TV or scroll through your social media accounts and you’ll see how much attention romantic relationships receive. You’ll see blog posts, YouTube videos, and podcasts illuminating the virtues and dramas of love.
The popular story of Romeo and Juliet tells us about a love so “powerful” that within three days both partners take their own lives for “love.” Or how about the popular movie The Notebook:
It’s a story of a roller coaster relationship. Not to mention an affair. And despite the toxicity of what we witness on the screen, this movie pulls on our heart strings and gives hope for lasting love.
While sensational drama sells movie tickets, it doesn’t make love last.1
According to observational research on 3,000 plus couples by Dr. Gottman, the keys to a healthy relationship are a lack of emotional drama during conflict, a full commitment to the relationship, and partner’s cherishing one another during the daily grind of life.
With this research in mind, I started pondering,what messages are promoted that convince us to tolerate unhealthy relationships? Below are nine typical messages.
Love is All We Need
There are two arguments here.
The first is that love is enough to last us a lifetime. However, the reality is that love is a choice that has to be made every single day, because in most marriages, especially after a new family member arrives, lovers stop romancing each other and stop making time for connection and fun. They lose touch with each other.
When the stress of a newborn enters a relationship, it’s not uncommon for a couple to neglect one another to focus on completing the never-ending to-do list. Sadly, over time these practical duties become all they talk about. Rather than being lovers, they turn into housemates.
Making love last a lifetime requires much more than a feeling. It requires intentional action to keep the friendship strong and the flames of romance burning bright.
The other issue with this Happily Ever After myth occurs with the most toxic relationship of all. One partner becomes obsessed with the other partner as they lose themselves in the anxiety and insecurity of the relationship. They eagerly wait for text messages and become so preoccupied with making the relationship work, that they neglect their friendships, self-care, and personal interests. And despite all the red flags of an uncommitted romantic partner who is unpredictably available, we try to make things work.
Unfortunately, this myth embodies the relationship belief that everyone has the same capacity for closeness and intimacy, which is a mistaken belief. Research on adult attachment in romantic relationships highlights that people have different ways of recognizing and responding to intimacy in relationships.
- A secure person is comfortable with intimacy and is warm and loving.
- A clingy person craves closeness and deeply fears that their partner will not love them back, leading to them to become obsessed with their romantic partner. Ironically, these individuals tend to be attracted to distancers. Read: 5 Reasons Needy Romantic Partners Remain Insecure.
- A distancer views intimacy as a loss of independence and therefore does their best to minimize closeness.
These attachment differences can lead to toxic battles over time together, conflicts that one partner wants to pursue and another wants to avoid, impersonal sex, not sharing or expressing feelings and needs, and a lack of commitment to one another. Years and even decades later, these couples find themselves unhappily living parallel lives or in the process of separating if these mismatches do not get the attention or support they need in order to be navigated. Hint: Couple’s therapy.
Common Interest Makes Love Last
It doesn’t take a couple’s therapist to highlight that couples who have similar values and hobbies are most likely going to enjoy each other. Unfortunately, this is only half of the picture.
While many of us view compatibility as the glue the binds love for a lifetime, Dr. Gottman’s research discovered that when it comes to lasting love, compatibility doesn’t really matter.
That’s because our hobbies, likes, and dislikes change over the years.
What does matter is how you treat each other over time. This means that the stability and happiness of a relationship is less about how your personalities align or what you spend your time doing together and more about how you treat one another every single day.2
“What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are but how you deal with incompatibility.” – Leo Tolstoy
We Must Resolve Every Conflict
Every person has their own conflict style that they inherited from their family growing up. Research by Dr. Gottman has uncovered that there are three types of stable marriages, not one. One of the stable marriages is a conflict avoidant marriage where both partners avoid conflict and focus on the relationship’s strength.
In the volatile relationship, the partners argue a lot. While this may seem miserable, this relationship can be stable with the right amount of positivity. In a validating relationship, both partners are able to talk about their differences and discover compromises while staying emotionally calm.
Dr. Gottman says, “No one style is necessarily better than another—as long as the style works for both people.” The key to managing conflict is for partners to be matched on their conflict styles. For couples who are matched with conflict avoidant styles, avoiding problems isn’t that big of a problem. When there are mismatches, problems are bound to become nasty.
Affairs Cause Divorce
In most instances it is the problems in the relationship that influences a partner to seek comfort outside of the relationship. Typically, affairs are not so much about sex as they are about finding emotional comfort, support, and understanding.
A research study by the Divorce Mediation Project discovered that 80% of divorces occurred because partners gradually grew apart and no longer felt loved or appreciated. Of those couples only 20% mentioned that an affair influenced the decision to separate.
The Ideal Spouse is Low Maintenance
In Wired for Dating, Stan Tatkin, PsyD. proposes that “there is no such thing as a low-maintenance person when it comes to committed, long-term relationships.” When you bond with someone, they will need your help in some way and will require maintenance whether that is caring for them while they are sick, running an errand for them, or helping them out with something meaningful.
People who seem low maintenance or claim to be low maintenance are often displaying a fear of depending on their romantic partner because in their past, depending on someone has led to feeling neglected. Due to their view of depending on someone, they will also be unwilling to be dependable for their partner, making it very difficult to cultivate an interdependent relationship. For that reason, marriages with these low maintenance partners tends to end in divorce after years of struggle.
Depending on Your Partner for Your Well-Being is a Mistake
There is some truth to this myth when it comes to extreme cases. Couples who limit the fulfillment of their needs to one person and remove themselves from social circles are at risk for an unhealthy life.
But most often people reference this myth as a way to express their independence to avoid closeness. When a partner says, “Stop depending on me,” or “I won’t depend on anyone because they just let me down,” they are highlighting deep wounds and fears about relying on someone.
“Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities. The emphasis on differentiation that is held by most of today’s popular psychology approaches to adult relationships does not hold water from a biological perspective. Dependency is a fact; it is not a choice or a preference.” – Levine and Heller, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find and Keep Love.
For example, if your partner makes you feel insecure and anxious about your relationship with them because it’s unclear if they are 100% committed, then your body is going to activate hormones that will stress you out and make you obsessively focus on trying to regain security in the relationship.
If you have a secure relationship in which you know you can depend on your partner, then you’ll feel calmer more often and, paradoxically, you actually become more independent because you know you have a partner who is there for you. This is called the dependency paradox.
I Know Everything About My Partner and Myself
As the famous psychologist Dan Gilbert says, “The only constant in life is change.” This is true of you and true for your partner. Even being the relationship nerd that I am, I know I still have tons to learn about myself and my partner.
As the famous couples therapist Esther Perel says, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
As soon as you can acknowledge that your partner’s inner world will never fully be explored and there’s so much more to learn, the easier it will be to sustain desire over the long haul. Asking questions and understanding your partner’s inner world is a gateway into long-lasting love.
If I Have to Ask For What I Need, Then My Partner Doesn’t Love Me
In my article, If Love Takes Effort, Was It Meant to Be? I highlight that it is impossible for couples to know what is on each other’s minds without direct communication:
“The quality of your relationship depends on your ability to understand your partner, and vice versa. The secret to understanding each other better does not to come from mind reading, but through the hard work of putting our partners in a position where they can tell us their minds openly and honestly.”
As an adult, in an adult relationship, you have to work on openly expressing your feelings and needs in such a way that your partner can understand and support you in meeting them.
- Help Your Partner Understand Your Side of the Conflict in 3 Steps
- Transforming Criticism into Wishes: A Recipe for Successful Conflict
- Blogger Mark Manson argues that our attention economy promotes a form of media extremism that is designed to capture our attention, and we fully consent to it. According to Manson, “The problem is… how we choose to use technology. Is it serving us or are we serving it?” ↩
- The Gottman Institute highlights that couples who team up and feel they are in their life together despite their differences have an easier time building a strong emotional connection. See Maria Walley’s article: Here’s Why Lack of Compatibility Won’t Be the Reason Your Marriage Fails ↩