How To Create Love For the Long Run
Copyright 2001 by Neil Chethik – www.NeilChethik.com
Wedding season is upon us, and after the annual scramble for best men, pastel dresses and cummerbunds, we can also expect a new harvest of the soon-to-be divorced.
Depending on whose figures you believe, between one quarter and one half of couples who marry this spring will split up, many within the next three years. The damage from these disengagements will be huge, and rippling, for the couples themselves, their friends and families, and especially for any kids involved. The research is clear that the children of divorce are particularly prone to depression, delinquency, drug use, and ultimately, their own divorces.
Can anything be done to keep couples intact?
My wife, Kelly Flood, and I recently completed a year-long, eight-city U.S. tour, during which we led workshops on maintaining relationships for the long run. Though we've been together for 18 years, we offered ourselves not as "experts," but as fellow travelers exploring the intricacies of long-term love. In 15,000 miles of touring, we had a chance to exchange ideas with young and old, newlyweds and veterans, straight and gay.
And much of what we heard surprised us.
First of all, who hasn't listened to the sermonizing at weddings about the importance of couples "joining together," "becoming one," and "merging" into a single unit? Marriage, we're repeatedly advised, thrives in the land of WE, US, and OURS.
The couples we met at our workshops did not reject this advice outright. However, the strongest and most resilient among them also seemed to understand the value of I, ME, and MINE. Even after making a lifetime commitment, these couples continued - as individuals - to explore their own particular interests, to develop their own friendships, to travel occasionally on their own.
Couples told us that as long as there was no sexual infidelity, this celebration of the individual kept partners passionately interested in themselves, and interesting to one another. Conversely, when one partner or the other cast off friends, abandoned hobbies, and submerged personal interests, a certain blandness seemed to seep into the relationship.
As their individual fires waned, it seemed to us, so too did the fire of their togetherness.
A second surprise from our relationships tour had to do with arguing. There's a tendency to believe that the less arguing in a relationship, the better. But we did not find this to be true.
Rather, the couples who argued moderately often - say, once a week or so -seemed to be the ones who reported the most satisfaction in their relationships. These partners trusted each other, and their relationship, enough to be open about any frustrations or resentments.
The arguing had to be fair. Name-calling, blaming, sarcasm, and of course, physical violence, were off-limits. Still, these couples tended to encourage each other to honestly, and at times fervently, state their points of view. They believed that hiding anger and resentments eventually resulted in a distancing between the partners.
Another point on arguing: It was important, couples told us, not simply to air differences, but to seek middle ground that was acceptable to both partners. Relationships in which one partner or the other was bent on "winning" arguments tended not to last. As one person put it: "You can be right, or you can be in relationship!"
There was one other surprising finding on our tour: the importance of planning. It seemed to us that couples who spent time setting goals together - financial, personal and family goals - and then planning the steps to meet those goals, tended to have the most fulfilling relationships. This kind of planning usually involved several initial conversations to set up goals, then just a few minutes each week to plan activities that advanced those goals.
Financial goals could be concrete. But how, for example, would a couple implement the goal of "creating a fulfilling long-term relationship?" One couple accomplished this by planning one "date" each week; they might watch a video together, take a walk in the woods, or go out for dinner. Planning was especially valuable for partners with children at home; it allowed the parents to maintain an eye on personal and couple priorities amid the sweep of child-centered events.
Of course, setting and meeting goals is hard work. As is most of relationship-building. So what compels so many people to pursue long-term relationships? We asked that question to nearly every group with whom we met. What we heard back from the participants was not surprising: In the struggle to create intimacy with another person, they had discovered the best of who they were, and what they had to give.
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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.NeilChethik.com .
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