“[Close relationships are] the merciless revealer, the great white searchlight turned on the darkest places of human nature.” (Katherine Anne Porter)
One of the most profound needs of a human being is to love and be loved. Most individuals long for the intimacy of a long-term romantic relationship in which love can be mutually experienced. In fact, although interest in marriage is declining in individualistic cultures such as the United States, it still is estimated that over 90% will get married at some point in their lifetimes.
However, close relationships often do not live up to expectations. Of those who get married, at least 1/3 will get a divorce, with another 15% or so separating long-term. Marriages that stay together have at least one relatively unsatisfied partner in approximately 2/3 of cases. Statistically, then, relatively few marriages “succeed” (if one defines success as staying together and having both members of the couple reporting relative satisfaction). These statistics suggest to me that close relationships are difficult, especially in the long haul. They often reveal the best and worst of people. They require character strengths to flourish. They reveal areas of weakness that can result in long-term personal development if one is willing to use them as learning opportunities.
I long have been fascinated by the differences between couples who have successful relationships from those who do not. In fact, when I was in graduate school, I spent a year studying intensively with Dr. Ellen Berscheid, one of the world’s foremost experts in close relationships. I also have independently studied marriage for years, particularly with an interest in understanding the relationship between Christian spirituality and marriage. In this post, I try to summarize some of the most important insights I have gained in my study of close relationships.
Given that most married couples either split or have at least one relatively unsatisfied member, it seems to me that successful couples must break social norms in how they think or act toward each other. In other words, if members of couples think or act like most in our culture, they likely will break up or be unhappy. This is a major problem, given that most learn the skills of relationships from those around them (or worse, from the media).
In fact, I think that many individuals in our culture lack knowledge of the meaning of “love.” Partly this is because the word “love” has different meanings in English. Other languages (such as Greek) have different words for different kinds of “love.” This understanding is very effectively communicated in Dr. Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, which suggests that “love” might be translated into passion, intimacy, or commitment. In romantic relationships, most seem to agree that the ideal would be to have high levels of each of these kinds of love. However, for various reasons, many seem to get overly focused on one kind of love and neglect one or more of the others.
Many might assume that passion, intimacy, and commitment all go hand-in-hand. And, there is some truth to this. Couples who report one of these kinds of love are more likely to report the others. However, there are more exceptions to this than many might guess. For example, couples high in passion may lack intimacy or commitment. Couples high in commitment may lack passion or intimacy. Couples high in intimacy may lack commitment.
Given this, below I discuss passion, intimacy, and commitment separately. I hope to show how each of these kinds of love are different, and how different ways of thinking and acting contribute to each.
Passion is the most erotic kind of love, based mostly on sexual and romantic attraction. This is the kind of love most often felt when people say they’re “in love.” It brings with it the most emotion and energy. There are downsides as well, however. For instance, I think this is the kind of love spoken of in the sentiment that “love is blind.” That is, passion often blinds us from seeing the negative qualities of a partner or the negative consequences of pursing one’s feelings in a different relationship.
One of the primary characteristics of passion is its time course. Passion tends to be strongest in the beginning stages of a relationship. However, with time, passion tends to dip. On average, the strongest dips tend to come in the first year of marriage (or maybe the first year of living together, which can be confounded with the beginning of marriage in older research studies) and the first year after the first child. Interestingly, the most number of divorces tend to correspond roughly with these time periods (years 3 and 7 of marriage). I imagine that many of these divorces come when individuals start to lose the passion they had or maybe when they start to experience passion toward another. Because many people in our culture equate passion and love, and don’t value intimacy and commitment as much, they may feel that they no longer love their partner when this occurs or that their “true love” is elsewhere. They also may lack the more stable foundation that intimacy and commitment provide.
However unromantic it may sound, passion often requires commitment to experience in a long-term relationship. After time, for many couples, it may not come as naturally as it did in the beginning. One helpful psychological theory (aptly entitled) is the “exotic becomes erotic” theory. This theory basically suggests that whatever is new and different most promotes passion. This helps to explain why passion most easily comes in the beginning of a relationship and tends to subside. It also provides guidance for couples who want to “keep the fire burning.”
Intimacy is based on feelings of closeness. It is the kind of love that builds good friendships. Unlike passion, intimacy likely will increase with time (in healthy relationships).
Conventional wisdom is that “good communication” is the key to building and maintaining intimacy. What most interests me about this idea is how vague it is, however. Ask 10 people what they mean by “good communication” and you’ll likely get 10 different responses.
One way that I translate this notion of “good communication” into something clearer and more applicable is to realize the importance of “emotionally intelligent communication” in a close relationship. Dr. John Gottman probably is the foremost expert in studying this. Amazingly, Gottman finds that he can predict with over 90% confidence which happily engaged couples eventually will get a divorce based on communication patterns they show when discussing problems in his lab. Specifically, Gottman discusses the destructive communication patterns of criticism (i.e., attacking someone’s personality or character; e.g., “You never. . .”, “Why do you always. . .”), contempt (i.e., attacking your partner’s sense of worth; e.g., namecalling, sarcasm, rolling your eyes), defensiveness (e.g., making excuses), and stonewalling (i.e., withdrawing to avoid conflict). In contrast, couples with greater intimacy discuss problems softly, openly listen to the other’s perspective, “re-start” if the communication doesn’t seem to be going well, and take responsibility and make amends for their fair share.
Another critical component to long-term intimacy is to accept one’s partner for who they are, even if they are imperfect (and they are). Consistent with this, research on couples counseling suggests that interventions that help couples accept partners and problems (as long as they’re in the realm of being “acceptable”) encourage much better relationship outcomes that strategies that focus on improving communication alone.
Acceptance sometimes can be really difficult. It would be preferable if we were married to the perfect person. Maybe it seems that we’re “settling.” However, most of the time, we’re probably not; we’re just in relationship with an imperfect person, or experiencing personality differences that are acceptable. Perhaps it’s helpful to think about this in the reverse, from the perspective of our partners trying to deal with us. As C. S. Lewis once wrote in his essay “The Problem with X:”
“You know, in fact, that any attempt to talk things over with “X” will shipwreck on the old, fatal flaw in “X”‘s character. And you see, looking back, how all the plans you have ever made always have shipwrecked on that fatal flaw – on “X”‘s incurable jealousy, or laziness, or touchiness, or muddleheadedness, or bossiness, or ill temper, or changeableness. . .” However, “you also have a fatal flaw in your character. All the hopes and plans of others have again and again been shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have been shipwrecked on theirs. It is no good passing this over with some vague, general admission such as ‘of course, I know I have my faults.’ It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives the others the same feeling of despair which their flaws give you.”
In a related vein, intimacy depends on clear and reasonable thinking about one’s partner and one’s relationship. This is difficult in a culture of high expectations. In fact, whereas before the top predictors of divorce were cheating, lying, substance abuse problems, and poor communication, today the #1 predictor is overly high expectations. Part of the problem here is that we often tend to compare our partner and relationship to others, an unfair practice, given that we don’t know everything there is to know about others and their relationships, and tend to only observe the good, at least at first. Another way to put this would be a maxim that a good friend of mine often uses to keep me in check: “Comparison kills contentment.” In contrast, gratitude for what is good about our partners and relationships seems much more likely to lead to satisfaction.
The final aspect of the triangular theory of love is commitment, the ongoing decision to do what is best for one’s partner and for one’s relationship. Sometimes, this may be in contrast to doing what feels best for one’s self.
In one way, then, commitment is a choice. It involves having certain priorities that are not entirely self-oriented. For instance, I once had an acquaintance who complained that her ex-husband was at fault for their divorce because he was unreasonable about her work lifestyle. When I inquired, she said that she was a flight attendant, and was gone approximately 300 days per year. I suggested that her commitment to her career made it difficult for her to be committed to her husband. She freaked! After a few days, though, she came back to me and admitted that, after reflecting more about what I said, she agreed. She didn’t make choices that allowed for a good marriage. Interestingly, she said that she never was challenged to think about this by any of her close friends or family.
This reminds me of a story in Stephen Covey’s wonderful book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” In the book, Dr. Covey sites an encounter with a client in which the client asks him what he should do about his struggling marriage. The client reports that he’s tried everything and that there’s no love left between him and his wife. “Have you tried loving her?” asks Covey. “I’ve told you, there’s no love anymore,” says the client. Covey reiterates, “But have you tried loving her?” The client begins to get mad before Covey explains. “Love is a verb. Love, the feeling, is the fruit of love, the verb.” Eventually, the feeling did return.
In my mind, commitment is the cornerstone of marriage, in particular. I realize that some people think of marriage mostly as a piece of paper, something you could have in spirit without a formal ceremony. I’m sure there is truth to this. However, when I think of marriage, I think of the decision point to commit and become a family (with or without children). For the most part, just as one wouldn’t disown a child, one shouldn’t divorce a spouse because a spouse is family. The fact that most people don’t think of marriage in this way, I believe, explains a large percentage of actions that contribute to dissatisfaction and choices to divorce.
Of course, this ups the ante about who one decides to marry. It’s helpful to realize that the length of dating before marriage predicts length of time of knowing someone before commitment to marriage predicts better marital outcomes. Perhaps this is because some of the blindness of passion begins to wear off after a few years, and one can see the other person clearly enough to know them for who they really are. Then, one is able to make a decision about whether it is wise to commit. As a friend of mine advised me when I was thinking about getting married, perhaps the main question to think about in reflecting on the marriage commitment is whether one can live without one’s partner, fully aware of their various faults and character defects.
The problem this raises is that it can be difficult to be aware of a partner’s faults and defects, especially if one really wishes to be married with them. Again, love can be blind. For this reason, I think there is a lot of wisdom in involving other people in the decision to marry. For example, before I got married with my wife, I asked a number of people that I respected, often who had been married for some time and who knew both my wife and I, whether they thought this was a good choice, whether they noticed anything I didn’t seem to notice. They all thought it was a good decision. If everyone would have come back with concern, though, I was willing to rethink my leaning. I wonder how many divorces could be prevented if everyone did this before the wedding day.
A final social psychological issue that often influences commitment is the perception of available alternatives. To some extent, this is based on perception (i.e., “what would it be like to be with X or by myself?”). It also is based on people around us. For instance, a friend of mine once reported falling in love with a work colleague because they spent so much time together working alone in close proximity. Sometimes, loving one’s partner involves having boundaries and not putting one’s self in situations that may lead to temptations. As I’ve written above, passion is very fickle, and is easy to be swept up by.
Overall, I feel like I can’t speak highly enough of the value of close relationships and of marriage especially. I remember having three separate people independently tell me after I got married that they noticed that I was different, that I seemed happier, more light-hearted, and fun. Being married to my wife really has developed me in wonderful ways. It is one of the great blessings of my life.
On the other hand, marriage is difficult. In the first years of marriage, my wife and I struggled. To remind us of some of the principles I’ve outlined above, I bought for my wife a framed reminder of what marriage is all about. It’s been in our bedroom ever since. I read it regularly to remind myself of what it means to have a loving marriage.
“Marriage is. . . the promise to continue discovering and caring for one another through all the ordinary joy, pain, sorry, and peace of life. . . a cozy hour before a roaring fireplace when snow and ice fill the world outside. . . fear, anger, tears of frustration. . . a union of bodies alive with spirit in indescribable sexual pleasure, in laughter, healing, and love. . . telling the person you love most in the world that you want to spend some time alone. . . gazing with awe into the eyes of children the two of you have miraculously brought into this smiling world. . . a prayer breathed at the bedside of a child in the grip of an illness you do not understand. . . washing dirty dishes, doing laundry, trying to think for the 5,327th time what to fix for dinner, doing these things with love – love that probably does not feel warm and good – but love nonetheless. . . listening to how her day has been when all you want to do is retreat behind the newspaper. . . trying to understand his point of view and the pressures he must cope with daily. . . having faith in one another, hoping, and believing. . . loving when you feel there is no love left. Marriage, lived in a climate of ready forgiveness, will be alive in and vibrant, ’til death do us part.’” (Mitch Finley)