Love is one thing when you are first taking the plunge. It is quite another when you are midstream, and yet something altogether different when you are reaching the other shore. While Mr. Hallmark continues to make his fortune pandering to those who are gleefully jumping in, I toil on the banks, trying to help those already well down the river; the ones who are floundering a bit with fatigue, treading water, or fantasizing about bailing.
I have learned a lot from these distressed couples who come to me for counseling about what it is like to create love when making love is no longer so biologically driven. Here are two of the most beneficial lessons I have learned.
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
Once the beat of the love dance slows down, communication becomes paramount. And this is where a lot of seasoned couples get sloppy. They either give up in despair (“He never hears anything I say anyway”) or just start assuming things about the other person (“She is always like that, never satisfied”).
When resignation enters the relationship, communication will inevitably start becoming destructive instead of constructive. One common way this happens is the tit-for-tat defensive communication pattern. Here is an example.
A husband is offended when his wife tells him what he has just said is stupid. He reacts: “Don’t use that language with me; I don’t use it with you.” As reasonable as this communication may sound in print, guess where that conversation is going? The wife responds: “What do you mean? You constantly talk to me in a demeaning manner!” A defensive marriage-go-round is now in full throttle.
What would be more functional is: “What I said may be misguided, it may be ill-conceived, but stupid? Is that really what you think?”
This is more constructive, because it acknowledges her assessment while taking exception to the overly stated insult. It also bids her to be more accurate in her communication. The husband could go for the cheap thrill of proving himself right and his wife to be the “stupid” one. But this would be short-sighted. If his goal is to protect and nurture the relationship for the long run, then he will need to keep his eye on the ball. Next time you want to do battle with your partner, consider this: What is your goal? To be right or to make love work?
Just Say Yes
Nancy Reagan is not going to be happy with me when she sees this, but I am sure she will get over it. I have noticed that distressed couples who come to me for counseling hardly ever say “yes” to each other. I have also noticed successful long-term couples who have not lost the natural inclination to affirm their partner’s desires, whenever possible; they have not learned to mistrust their partner’s requests.
Think about when you were first together. Think about how easy it was to say yes to your beloved. No doubt much has intervened since that time, but you need to ask yourself: Why has time hardened me into saying no when I could just as easily say yes?
Is it because you feel saying no is your only recourse to power? Are you withholding from your partner because he or she has denied something to you (another tit-for-tat game)? Question yourself: Why have you congealed your relationship into an angry rebuttal; why have you constricted the flow of generosity?
Perhaps this is the best valentine you can give: The next time your partner asks something of you, take a chance and say yes … and see what happens.
Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit his Web site/blog at www.HealthspanWeb.com for more information on the topics covered in this column.