Tom dated Cynthia for six months, during which time the sex was hot and Cynthia gushed praise for Tom at every opportunity. When he came over, she always had dinner ready and she dressed to the hilt for him. After eight months, they moved in together and Cynthia also got promoted at her job. Within a month, Cynthia wanted sex very rarely and said she was tired of cooking. Then she started berating Tom that he wasn’t ambitious enough, and that he should make enough money to support both of them.
There are many stories such as this and we are all familiar with the lackluster experiences of the couples whose passions fade. Research has shown that chemicals in the brain are in large part responsible for the zing of courtship for the first six months to two years of the mating ritual. During that time, biology kicks in with the dance of endorphins and dopamine to create a time-limited high for couples who are indeed pulled together by what seems to be an irresistible paranormal force. But what happens when the chemistry of nature has finished with the lure? Then it falls to humans to pick up where the ecstatic flush of hormones has left off.
Brent and Leslie were together a few years and tried desperately to have kids. Finally, with the help of fertility drugs, they were blessed with twins. Leslie turned all her attention to her miracle children and Brent started to feel neglected. Brent tried to explain his needs to Leslie but she had no room for his complaints. When the twins were one year old, Brent met a woman at work who really “got him.” They became fast friends and then lovers. Leslie is now raising her dream children without the father at home.
Most people just get resentful that their mate has stopped “caring,” “trying,” “wooing,” “feeling,” “understanding,” “appreciating,” etc. Others go into denial and wax sentimental about how it used to be. Some find a place to pour their energy into like work, children, or even substances and affairs. Few people see the opportunity to become master romantics in the face of newly sober body chemistry, after the body has come down from the biological rush of courtship. Even fewer realize that romance is actually a vocation for people who truly want love in their lives.
Most of the media is superb at selling the sizzle of novel courtship yet fails miserably to convey the rewards of keeping romance alive, long-term. In fact, the pursuit of novelty has become such a commercial compulsion that anything, or anyone, kept around for years seems dreary and outdated. How often do we see the virtues of staying together gracing the covers of glossy advertising or popular movies? Almost every entertainment headline story is about who is getting together, or who is dramatically breaking up.
Unless we are willing to pad divorce lawyers’ schedules with even more billable hours or the therapist’s offices with more lamenting lovers, then we need to have our cultural obsession with romance “grow up.” Often people want their mate to make them feel good when they have put no effort into their own happiness. Expecting others to fill in for our self-neglect is not sexy or romantic.
Ron stays up late drinking beer and working on the Internet, and gets to bed at 2 a.m. He has to wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning. He smells of stale beer and hasn’t shaved, and wants Tracy to make love to him to help him face his day. Tracy is tired from being awakened at 2 a.m. (when Ron came to bed) and isn’t in the mood. Ron gets more angry than usual because he is tired and a bit hung over and says, “You are never there for me.”
The art of romance does not get very far if reserved for Valentine’s Day or birthdays or a once-a-year holiday. To stay “in love” means we need to punch in with our amorous timecard each and every day and be willing to put in the extra non-paid hours the job often requires. Not everyone is qualified for the job, and yet everyone feels entitled to the benefits.
From the following list, check the qualifications that apply to you. Underline the ones you have yet to master. This job, like any other that requires a highly specialized skill set, cannot really tolerate many insufficiencies in qualifications.
What it takes to qualify for the job of romance:
•A good memory. What does he/she like, prefer, dislike, crave, abhor, or even secretly desire?
•Do you remember to give your beloved those cherished flowers (or tickets to a sporting event) just to brighten their day?
•A willingness to give your beloved what you have learned they want and need.
•Are you willing to get off the phone when your lover comes home just because they have told you how important it is that you do so?
•An attitude of gratitude for what they do and say.
•How often are you telling him/her about how much you appreciate the little things?
•An active verbal vocabulary for appreciating specific things about their body, their attractiveness, their talents, their deeds, and their spirit. Appreciations need to be in a ratio of six positive remarks to any one complaint or request.
•Do you start off every request with acknowledgements about all their positive contributions and efforts?
•A keen interest in and receptivity toward their daily struggles, successes, and needs for alone time.
•Do you support your partner’s requests for space and alone time with love and kindness?
•A desire to admit mistakes with grace and humor.
•How many times have you been able to laugh at yourself and admit your errors?
•A passion to give words, things, or gestures that brighten each and every day.
•How often do you look for the positive attributes in your beloved and say them out loud?
•Prioritizing romance even within a week of other huge responsibilities, such as work or childrearing. There is always a minute in each day to let your lover know ways they matter to you and how much you appreciate them. (Just think back to the chemical-flooded days when you even found time to make love, or make that passionate call, squeezed between unimaginable deadlines.)
•Do you put a daily dose of relationship maintenance at the top of your priorities?
•An eagerness to show affection publicly. Act as if your partner is your favorite person in this world at parties and gatherings. Hold his/her hand, offer praise in front of others, give considerate courtesies before all others.
•When is the last time you spoke to others about your partner as if they were your dream come true?
•Knowing that when you are not feeling your heart open to your partner that you, not them, need to make the extra effort to recall their divine traits and unique appeal.
•When you are feeling cut off from your beloved do you make a sincere effort to remember the good things and good times?
•Never work on your partner’s faults until you have cleared all your own. That means never. There is only one person you can-with love-fix and change on this Earth, and that is you. Whenever you feel tempted to redesign your mate, go back to square one on retooling yourself. Turn any complaint into a positive request, and you are much more likely to receive cooperation.
•When you find yourself picking on your mate do you stop and realize that you are much better off working on your self improvement?
•Sexual courtship is an attitude of goalless flirtation that begins with how you offer your partner something as simple as a glass of water. Romantic sexuality is not outcome-based; it is the ongoing zestful acknowledgement of your partner’s charisma. Sex is only as exciting as the courtship. If there is no tantalizing backdrop, the physical act will be as stale as Styrofoam. The “juice” for lovemaking can be measured by romantic job proficiency a lover has attained and maintained throughout time.
•When is the last time you spent a whole day devoted to pleasing and seducing your partner?
•Honesty! There is nothing more intoxicating than someone who is authentic, who does what they say, and is who they claim to be.
•How often do you face the complexities of the whole truth instead of dodging it with pat answers?
•Take consistent care of yourself. Exercise, eat right, get enough sleep, manage your money and time wisely, and have a meaningful connection to something larger than yourself. Live as if every day someone would fall in love with you!
•Are you as fit as the first few months you met? What are you doing daily to become the heartthrob your partner first met?
•And finally, work ceaselessly to lessen the habits that annoy your partner. There is no human on this Earth, who with ongoing close proximity to another person, doesn’t find something undeniably irksome about the other. It is not the eradication of these habits that creates a romantic atmosphere (that is unrealistic); it is the lover’s persistent attempts to minimize the irritations that can endear the heart of the other.
Granted, this job list is pretty steep and demanding. What makes it even harder is when the courtship chemicals have worn off and the motivation to do any of these things is not supported by chemistry or pop culture. Instead, we are avalanched by the notion that romance is simple, fast, and automatic; and if it is not those things, then something is wrong.
The only thing wrong, however, is we have been framed and bribed by a consumer culture promising instant gratification for all that ails us. A human soul cannot be seduced or unveiled with speed. No gimmicky device can replace the brilliant simplicity of genuine acts of kindness. No nanosecond technology can substitute for a kiss given with utter attention. Any true lover knows this. Romance by its very nature involves the commitment of time.
The one non-negotiable limit of our evolution is that each person who desires love with all their heart will have to spend a lifetime dedicated to cultivating that which they seek. This job is beyond Superman, Donald Trump, or Brangelina, and hype that glorifies hyperbolic fame and marginalizes the unglossy work of daily romance.
With all the glitz and variety out there, some may be thinking, “Why bother?” Why spend the unending time at the unglamorous job of listening, giving, remembering, prioritizing, celebrating, verbalizing, helping, maintaining a positive and grateful attitude, and all the other tasks of a long-lasting romance?
•What you invest in romance will be energizing to you as well.
•Appreciating another person actually improves your immune system.
•Regular sexual activity promotes positive hormones which calm you down, increase health, and generate joy.
•Break-ups are financially and emotionally costly.
•Having a long-term, healthy relationship is probably the best indicator of your overall happiness in life.
•There is nothing better than being known and being loved. Nothing!
•You actually will be motivated to be better at everything else in your life if you have an actively loving relationship.
•You will spare the world of one more soap opera or reality show.
•Everyone will thank you. There will be more love in this world.
Jennifer Freed, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist for 25 years, is also the codirector of the Academy of Healing Arts for Teens and their families in California. She is the co-author of The Ultimate Personality Guide, published by Tarcher/Putnam.