ROMANCE THAT WORKS

February is a month that one either dreads or dreads more, from what I hear–and yet it does not have to be so! I notice that the dread affects both those who are in relationships and those who are not–with just slight differences:

    • dread for those in relationship can include anxiety
    • dread for those who are single can include depression

The source of this dread just one day in the month–you guessed it–February 14th, Valentine’s Day. What is currently an opportunity to celebrate love and romance has turned into a day where love is often tested and romance is bought.

But it does not have to be this way.

The power we have as humans is the ability to make choices that align with our values–regardless of what others are doing! This includes our choices about love, sex, dating, and romance.

In this Special February Issue, we will take a look specifically at romance, and how to make choices about it that work–meaning less dread, anxiety, and depression–leaving you to experience more fun and love.

THE BITTER TRUTH ABOUT ROMANCE: Here is what needs to be understood about romance: it was never intended to be mixed up with love. There are many theories of where romantic love began. In Medieval times, for example, it was something of a social ritual that bolstered the public status of those involved–who most often were not in an actual relationship with each other! Romantic love was more of an ideal to pursue for personal and social gain, not something to actually achieve–it was a motivational tool of sorts!

Over time, as marriage became an act of choice for many, “dating” began and romance became the primary fuel for relationship building. This would have been fine except for one problematic influence from previous times: people equated feelings of romance with actual love. Rather than differentiating passion, or sexual chemistry, from real love, modern dating culture fused them, resulting in a misunderstanding of what we feel towards our object(s) of desire.

THE BIGGEST MISTAKE: Have you ever eaten a slice of chocolate cake? If you have, and you liked it, then you will remember how you were able to enjoy it even while knowing that it had nearly zero nutritional value. And yet despite this ability to reason intelligently about what we enjoy, we regularly abandon reason to experience infatuation with someone, thinking we are “in love”. Just as chocolate cake is not broccoli, infatuation is not love!

The distinction between initial passion and time-developed love does not have to be bad news. Just as you can enjoy chocolate cake while recognizing it has zero nutritional value, you can enjoy infatuation (and the romantic feelings that come with it) without thinking that it is love (yet). In fact, if you do so, you may enjoy it more because there will be less anxiety about it.

So why isn’t romance love? Because it is based on an ideal rather than a reality. Romance is about the one feeling it–how it makes them feel interesting, sexy, young, and alive. It is about perfection and fantasy. It is not about the other person–the other is just the catalyst for feelings that make us feel better about ourselves.

On the other hand, real love is about the other person, not about you! Romance during infatuation is about bonding and attachment–real processes that brings people together–but they are not love. Love takes time to form because it cannot happen until there is an empathetic and caring understanding of the other person and an interest in their inner emotional world.

The biggest mistake one can make when seeking love is to assume that if you feel romantic toward someone, you are “in” love. This assumption will actually prevent you from moving toward real love, because romance has you see the other as you want them to be, instead of as they are. Preferably, romance is an ingredient of loving relationships, not the container. So how do you make it work well?

HOW TO MAKE ROMANCE WORK: Let’s go back to the chocolate cake for a minute. Remember that there is nothing wrong with enjoying cake, as long as you don’t kid yourself into thinking you are eating broccoli. This is how you make romance work for your relationships. You enjoy it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t. 

Many people think that romance is something you either feel or don’t feel–but actually it is something that we can (and often do) choose to feel toward another. Just because you choose to feel it does not mean that it is not authentic. And in relationships of a year or more, choosing romance is a smart decision because the closer you get intimately, the less romantic you may feel towards each other–the elements that fuel intimacy and romance are oppositional.

So you make romance work by choosing it and then allowing the brain and body to follow your intention. Why do so many suggestions for building romance include soft lighting, sexy music, and candles? Because that helps put us in a romantic mood–you are setting the stage for romance! This seemed to be the idea behind Valentine’s Day at one time, but somewhere along the way romance became an expectation of love rather than a desired and chosen effect of it.  Romance is an element of love, not the proof of love.

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Just as you would never dream of eating only chocolate cake (or would you?), you would not want a relationship to only be romance–that won’t get you very far. At some point, all our partners will “let us down”–they’ll get sick or have a blemish, they get impatient with us or become depressed. This is all part of life, and it is not very romantic. But as a team you can both choose romance whenever you want to experience it together, in the same way you can choose to have a slice of cake when you desire something sweet.

It’s great when romance comes “naturally”, but when it doesn’t, chosen romance is still romantic. Why not take advantage of both options?

IS LOVE A FEELING OR A CHOICE?

I recently read an opinion piece that explored what led to a more successful relationship: feeling love for, or choosing to love, a partner. This got me thinking about the two, and whether they were in fact different approaches at all. The debate is often based on data showing that arranged marriages, those in which the partners meet only briefly before commiting to a life together, tend to be just as happy as love-based marriages (suggesting that choosing to love someone works as well as feeling it “naturally”).

What is going on here? If we can be just as happy in an arranged marriage as a love-based one, then why go through all the trouble and expense of dating? If dating does not guarantee a better match than one set up by your parents, what is the point? I started thinking of all the time that could be saved! And yet there is not just one right way to start a relationship. The concern for me as a couples therapist is whether the approach my clients take to relationship is working for them.

Love is often misunderstood, and that can get us into trouble. It is like thinking that if you have courage, you have no fear–when courage is a response to fear, not the lack of it! If you take love as a stand-alone concept, you might be missing the point. Rather, think of love as the heading for a whole list of influences–love is a category, not an item. So when we ask if love is a feeling or a choice, the answer is…yes! Let’s look at why that is…

THE BIOLOGY OF FEELINGS: When we meet someone and feel a connection, we may think that it is “love at first sight”. Let me assure you that it never is love! What it is is the limbic system (a series of structures in the brain that release hormones and are involved in emotion and motivation) wanting desperately to bond with the other, and if it finds someone who it attunes to emotionally, physically, and intellectually, well, that need to bond can feel overpowering–like love. But it’s not. More likely it is your limbic system releasing dopamine and  norepinephrine, making you feel really great when you are with this new person!

This is why it is a good idea to hold off on starting a sexual relationship with someone new–giving the rational brain a chance to catch up with the limbic system. This is not a moral stand, but a practical one. The lymbic system does not evaluate whether a partner is a good match–it just wants what it wants. This is why feelings can mislead us into thinking that something is a good idea. Ideally we use both parts of the brain when making emotional decisions. If we take our time, we give our brains a chance to bond based on time spent with a person, resulting in the eventual release of oxytocin and vasopressin, the bonding hormones. Love, or care and concern for the other, begins to build. True love is not about us!

DO WE CHOOSE OUR FEELINGS? The short answer is: sometimes. Since the brain and the body are part of a system, they work interactively and they affect each other. Sometimes we have a feeling that causes us to think a certain way about what is happening, and sometimes we have a thought that result in a feeling. I suspect that in arranged marriages where love develops, it is a result of both processes happening.

I often tell couples that if you want to be in love with your partner, “act” like you are in love with them. This is a cognitive exercise that uses thought to trigger feeling.  Have you ever gone to a movie that you want very badly to love? Your thought about wanting to love it will influence how you feel about it, regardless of the merits of the film! You can’t completely separate the brain’s rational thought processes from its feelings center, so why not use it to your advantage? Go with the “feelings” initiated in the limbic system, and then use your rational brain to either support or suspend that process.

LOVE AS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE: It is time to do away with the harmful, foolish, and frankly crazy notion of “falling in love” as an actual state of being. Let’s replace it with a combination of both the great feelings that occur during attraction and a rational exploration, over time, of whether the other is responsible for his or her own stuff, and responsive to yours. This approach uses the best of both feeling and choice, and can lead to healthier results!

Choice is best done with an awareness of what the options are, and therapy can help to uncover these and make them conscious! I like to think that this type of work on the self helps one to respond to the world rather than react to it–leading to a more preferred experience and outcome. What could be wrong about that?

We all love falling in love because it feels great and makes our “regular” world extraordinary for a while. I am here to say that by inviting the rational mind into the process, that extraordinariness can be extended into something real and lasting: secure attachment with another and feeling cared for. Relationships are hard enough even when they are good, so why make them more difficult by relying only on your feelings? When you make love a choice, the odds are that you will feel even better about it in the long run!