Most of us have grown up on the “once upon a time… and they lived happily ever after” relationship fable. It is written into the script of nearly every Disney film and we have bought it, lock, stock and barrel. We lose ourselves in dreaming of Prince or Princess Charming who will fulfill all our romantic desires, will never disagree with us and will appear eternally youthful and beautiful.
Recovery pioneer John Bradshaw coined the phrase Post Romantic Stress Disorder to describe an all too common dynamic in relationships. You meet the person of your dreams, as your emotions are on overdrive and your heart races. You are enamored of this oh-so-perfect person. You can’t wait to be in his or her presence and you are loath to leave it. His book, which was released not long before he died this past year, is entitled Post-Romantic Stress Disorder: What to Do When the Honeymoon Is Over. It highlights the hormonal high-jacking that takes place and has you pondering your discernment when it comes to attracting a partner.
Bradshaw elaborates that the ‘in love’ experience is “dominated by the physical, when testosterone is off the charts for both people. That’s what happens when you fall in love. The dopamine and norepinephrine kick in and suddenly you’re higher than you’ve ever been. You may think you died and went to heaven — or hell.” Cue the Robert Palmer song, “Addicted to Love”
He adds that the duration is fairly fleeting; 18 months or so and then the reality of who each person is, begins to trickle in. It isn’t always pretty. That’s when the mettle of the two gets tested. What initially attracted you to them may begin to drive you bonkers (that description is not found in the DSM-V by the way) and you may wonder what you ever saw in them. Time to determine whether you want this connection to sustain over the years. When a couple face the potential life challenges, such as illness, injury, financial issues, job changes, children being born, children leaving home, their true nature surfaces.
The ability to handle these expected events stems, in part to what was modeled by the adults who raised you. Were your parents loving, demonstrative and supportive of each other as a couple? Did their behaviors feed or starve their relationship? When (metaphorically speaking) ‘push came to shove,’ did they actually verbally or physically push and shove or did they work together in harmony?
For some, the expectations of what love looks like also comes from a desire to feed what might be perceived as gaps in their own lives. Beloved author Shel Silverstein’s book called The Missing Meets the Big O highlights this idea beautifully. A sense of incompleteness pervades the lives of many and, rather than beginning within to initiate the healing process, they engage in a journey of seeking externally for what they believe is absent within themselves.
Phyllis Klaper, a clinician, whose professional skills have had her working with clients who face relationship and addiction issues, shares her perspective, “I didn’t know. I honestly did not know that being IN LOVE was temporary and that LOVING another person encompassed so much more… than just sex and date night. I mean, I knew it, but I didn’t really “get it.” I carried my idea of what love felt like at 16, into adulthood. I did. So, when the TEMPORARY MADNESS subsided, as it always will, I was left with this emptiness, this “what’s wrong with me?” feeling. I chased that madness like a junkie chasing a fix. I did. I chased it, I was desperate for it, I needed it, and when I couldn’t have it… I was lovesick (dope-sick) If that’s not the description of addiction, I don’t know what is. And when I managed to re-create that in love “feeling,” the sickness went away… temporarily. Always. Every time. It is becoming clearer and clearer that my core addiction is the need to attach myself to another human being so I will not have to face the pain of being dope-sick. Now, after spending 3 years alone, unattached, experiencing the emotional and physical pain of withdrawal, from, dare I say it, another human being… I understand why I needed it, that I don’t need or want that drug, and that authentic grounded love is what I am waiting for. I’ll know when it arrives. There will not be a trace of desperation or fear. That’s how I’ll know… until then, I’m good. Better than good.”
She isn’t alone in her longing for love and lusting after the high that comes with it, while hoping against hope that the inevitable crash doesn’t come.
Relationships often feel like an intricate tango during which we do our level best not to step on each other’s toes while wearing hobnail boots. Sometimes it involves improvising and at other moments, we want the dance to be choreographed, with every step mapped out. In a healthy, well-balanced relationship, the partners take turns leading and following, even if on the literal dance floor, one is more skilled at the twists and turns and more graceful in their execution. When a relationship is co-dependent, one dynamic is not knowing where you begin and someone else ends. Boundaries are either nebulous or rigid, rather than appropriate and in the best interest of the joint entity.
Saying What Isn’t Being Said
How do you have those daunting, but necessary conversations that may help keep your love-ship from running aground while you remain afloat for the long sea cruise? Relationship coach and sex educator, Reid Mihalko, created a Difficult Conversation Formula entitled “Say What’s Not Being Said.” In it, he encourages each party to express all of those withholds that we hesitate to share out of fear of being misunderstood or rejected.
A couple who has been married close to 15 years sometimes prefaces communiques’ that may cause distress, with “My ego wants to tell you….” Since they have been using that for so long, it loses its threatening implications and they generally laugh about it.
What are the qualities of a healthy and loving relationship that has sustainability?
- A sense of having each other’s backs
- Open communication
- Safety (physically and emotionally and knowing that your partner won’t intentionally harm you)
- A willingness for each person to do the inner work to help the relationship thrive, rather than expecting the other person to take on the responsibility for you
- Cleaning up your own messes; or as Reid Mihalko also shares, “Leave the campground better than you found it.”
- Co-creating the rules for relationship; maintaining them or re-negotiating them
- Focusing on strengths, as well as awareness of areas that call for improvement
- Knowing where there is room for adjustment vs. non-negotiables
Compassion vs. Passion: How Can You Tell the Difference?
Elaine Hatfield, PhD and Richard L. Rapson, PhD determined that here are two basic types of love:
- Compassionate love
- Passionate love.
They contend that “Compassionate love is characterized by mutual respect, attachment, affection, and trust. Compassionate love usually develops out of feelings of mutual understanding and shared respect for one another.
Passionate love is characterized by intense emotions, sexual attraction, anxiety, and affection. When these intense emotions are reciprocated, people feel elated and fulfilled. Unreciprocated love leads to feelings of despondency and despair.
In much the same way, Bradshaw viewed the ‘might as well face it, I’m addicted to love,’ brain chemical cocktail reaction, Hatfield viewed passionate love as short-lived, usually lasting between 6 and 30 months.”
Ideal relationships are a fusion of the two.
Rose and Harry had such a relationship. After meeting in their early 30’s, they married, raised two children, had successful careers, volunteered in their community and had an active social life. They faced the early deaths of their fathers prior to their marriage, followed by the deaths of their mothers before their oldest daughter was in her mid-teens. Each endured health problems and there were times when he was laid off from his jobs, so money was limited during those periods. During each of those events, they existed in both of the aforementioned realms. Throughout their nearly 52- year marriage, they saw each other as sweethearts and treated each other as such. There was indeed sexual attraction, fulfillment, elation and affection; absent the other less savory aspects of passionate partnership. They called each other sweet names, wrote cards and love notes and danced in the kitchen. Despite disparities in upbringing; having grown up on ‘different sides of the track,’ what helped them maintain their marriage was that they were certain that love was louder than any doubt that might have told them otherwise.
They were both head over heels in love and loved each other for who they were, flaws and all.