ROMANCE IS THE ICING, NOT THE CAKE!

 

Valentine’s Day is a celebration associated with romance, but it is often fraught with anxiety. Why is that? Why is a day that celebrates love sometimes problematic? As a narrative couples therapist, I look to the discourses and stories in the culture that contribute to how things are thought about and defined. When it comes to the discourses about love, I could be unpacking these all day and not even scratch the surface!

The odd thing is that even though love is complicated, it is not nearly as complicated as we make it. The problem is that, culturally, we have taken the icing and made it the cake. What I mean by this is that we have decided that romance, a prominent feature of infatuation (what we call falling “in love”), is the lead actor in the play, rather than an important, but only supporting, character. 

So how do we correct this particular troublesome narrative? We don’t want to get rid of the icing–I like icing! The value of deconstructing a discourse is in concluding that not all of it needs to go. The component parts can be examined and an evaluation made regarding their current value toward living a better life. 

So that’s what I want to do in this essay–examine our current story about romance, its relationship to love, and sift through what is troublesome and what is not. 

ROMANCE IS NOT LOVE: When I was a young man, I lived, like many others, for the thrill of romance. I looked around every corner for this feeling, knowing that an encounter with it would lift my day from the ordinary to the extraordinary. What I did not realize at the time was that I needed romance in order to feel good about myself–that without it I felt more or less flawed and unlovable. 

This was not true of me, of course, any more than it is true for any other person, but this is one of the ways that romance has turned into a “drug” of sorts–making the trip down a difficult path so much easier. The problem is that romance doesn’t really move us down the path. It creates the illusion of movement, but eventually we wake up at the same starting point. 

“Real love” is what gets us down the path of personal development, not romance. Romance is just one of the many doorways into real love. So why do we linger in the doorway instead of going all the way in? Well, because moving toward real love is not always fun–it can require hard work and a degree of vulnerability that feels unfamiliar. The main reason for the strong emphasis on romance in the narrative of love is because it feels so good.

But it is not love. Romance, clinically speaking, is more accurately described as bonding, an important and powerful part of the process of two people coming together, and it often leads to, and is strengthened by, sex. When we meet someone we are attracted to, our brains work overtime to build a connection with them because we are hard-wired to do so. As mammals, we thrive as social creatures who seek the company of others for safety and security, and pair-bonds are one way to not only achieve that, but also a way to build families. Romance is not the only draw toward this goal, but in modern times it has emerged as the dominant motivator. 

(Watch “Your Brain Wants You To Have Sex. Here’s How That Works”)

REAL LOVE IS ABOUT THE PERSON, NOT AN IDEAL: Let’s talk more about real love, shall we? Why should we work hard to achieve it when romance is such a great “quick fix”? Well, as great as romance is, it does not and cannot last. Our bodies could not handle eternal infatuation, because when we are in it our brain is in somewhat of a psychotic state! The chemicals that are required to feel infatuation are not sustainable in the body, in the same way that we would rapidly break down physically if we were angry all the time–the chemical process is meant for short bursts, not long term! 

Additionally, though romance is not love itself, it can be an effect of love. Without love, romance is about the person feeling it, not the person triggering it. Real love, by contrast, is about the person receiving it, and this is why it takes time to develop–we have to know about another’s inner emotional life before we can truly care about them. Real love grows out of empathy for another’s vulnerabilities–that is what connects us to them emotionally, not just physically. This ability to empathize also helps real love last over time, because it can override surface changes in a person that we might not like or agree with.

(Read “Marriage Isn’t For You”.)

Real love is a smooth calm feeling, not anxious or urgent. It is the feeling of caring for someone’s welfare and well-being–we feel sad when they are sad because there is an empathetic connection, not just sexual attraction. Real love takes time because it is sparked by vulnerability and pain–human elements, not ideals, that are not usually shown in the beginning of a dating experience (we only want to show our strengths!). 

REAL LOVE CAN INCLUDE ROMANCE: There is a myth about long-term relationships that romance and sex “die” over time; the day-to-day familiarity of being around each other stamps out the mystery and excitement that are the basis of romantic feelings. While this certainly can happen, it is not a given! Familiarity can interfere with seeing your partner romantically or sexually, but we can choose actions that re-introduce mystery and excitement if that is important to us. 

The problem is that most couples don’t know that it requires choosing these actions. We have been led to believe that “love is enough” and that romance should happen organically and spontaneously, and that if effort is required then it is not longer romantic. I push back against this way of thinking. I often tell couples that what they considered to be spontaneous romance during courtship was in fact the result of hours of preparation!

Anything worth maintaining requires some effort to do so, whether it is your physical fitness, your home, your career, or your friendships. The effort to maintain the things that are important to us is not always “fun”, but it is also not necessarily painful. It is just effort. Sometimes it is as simple as “setting the stage” for romance: dimming the lights, clearing the calendar, putting on soft music, making sure the kids are asleep. Sometimes it means doing little things for each other throughout the day, every day. If scheduling romantic or sexual time feels unnatural to you, then just schedule “time together” and see what happens once you set the stage. That is the organic part, and the preparation makes it possible for “spontaneous” romance to happen within a scheduled time period. 

(Watch “The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship”, by Esther Perel) 

When romance is a part of real love, it has a different quality to it than early infatuation. It is both more secure and more liberating, because there is trust established–something that is still forming in the beginning of a relationship. It can also be more playful and more erotic, because you know enough about each other’s boundaries and triggers that you can experiment with confidence. Most of all, it can feel joyful, more complete, and more creative, because it allows room for both or all partners compared to the individual self-focus of the infatuation stage.  

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Most of us love the excitement of romance–our bodies and brains feel like they are firing all cylinders. In today’s challenging world, who can blame someone for wanting that feeling? My goal in the work I do with individuals and couples is to make sure that the feeling of romance, or the desire to have it, does not end in malnourishment–that an understanding of how romance operates in the brain will open up a more mindful enjoyment of the experience, recognizing that it is the icing, not the cake. 

It can be liberating to know that there are many different ways to “do” a long-term relationship, and that you can both take advantage of the science that is available concerning love, and allow yourself to make it up as you go along. There is much to be said for developing romance without the usual anxiety, so if that is something that you strive for in your relationship, learn what it is, and what it is not. Then go in the kitchen and bake your cake!

WHAT IS TRUST?

TRUST

TRUST is a word that comes up often in couples work.  In fact, it usually comes up the first time I speak to prospective clients on the phone.  Why is this such a loaded word? Well, perhaps that is because so much weight is put on trust in relationships.  But what is trust?  Everyone has their definition, but my favorite is that trust is a belief.  It is the belief that your partner is on your side, they have your back, they are going to be honest with you and hold the relationship as lovingly as you do.  But how do we arrive at this trust? And what validates it?  Why is it so often weakened?

Initially, it seems that trust is established by whatever first attracted one to another: physical attraction, shared interests, common friends, shared profession, shared experiences, etc.  Early on, we “decide” that we are safe in this person’s company, and we often come to that decision without having very much information at all.  We base our decision on a “feeling” about this person, and that feeling can be based on simple attraction but often includes one’s behavior and response-ability.  We “trust” that this person wants to be with us as much as we want to be with them, is attracted to us as much as we are to them.  We want to believe this, sometimes we need to believe this. But what happens after the initial infatuation has passed and we find ourselves with someone who may, in reality, have a little tarnish on their armor?  Conflict can set in. Vulnerability gets withdrawn, Lies can develop and the relationship “team” can split.

With gay couples, there is often the added factor of competition that can have an effect on two men or two women acting together as a team.  And with gay men, you cannot discount the continuing influence of a freer sexual environment and its effect on a couples’ desire to be monogamous.  If the couple is not monogamous, by choice, then trust has a whole new list of potential obstacles.

All of these factors, and more, must be taken into consideration in any work involving gay couples and trust.  On an encouraging note, I have found that gay couples are often more forgiving around trust violations than heterosexual couples, and they also better recognize the fluidity of sex, relationship, and love. With this in mind, I like to look for ways in which the couple is already successfully challenging cultural obstacles, and then we can explore if those same strategies could work with inter-personal struggles.  Trust is sometimes easier to re-establish with gay couples because the framework around it is looser–though this does not lessen its importance.

I like to approach trust from a teamwork perspective.  It can be thought of this way:  if two people are on a rowboat, they can either both row in the same direction, or they can row against each other.  Discussions around the issue of trust often result in two people rowing in the same direction again, recognizing that they both would like to arrive at the same destination.  Trust is the belief that this destination is in the best interests of both the relationship and the individuals involved in the relationship. Without it, you are worse off than if you had no paddle at all.  With it, you can often get anywhere you want to go.

THE LAW OF ATTRACTION: SOMETIMES IT’S CHEMISTRY

Chemistry of Love

There are some laws that require a closer evaluation from time to time, because laws in general are not irrefutable and often have to be adjusted. However, there is one law that we rarely examine, despite so many instances of misuse, and this would be the Law of Attraction. I often get the sense that this is a law that is frequently applied yet seldom understood, and as anyone can tell you, if you don’t read the signs before parking, you are asking for trouble!

I am not sure how you would define it for yourself, but I tend to split the law into two areas: physical attraction; and emotional compatibility. This makes it easier for me to point out where we “break the law” so often, and why we should not be surprised at ourselves when this happens. Everyone understands physical attraction because there are bodily sensations that usually go along with it: heart rate increases, skin flushes, stomach butterflies, etc.  And perhaps it is also easy to understand emotional compatibility for its benchmarks: shared values, common interests, mutual respect, attunement, feeling safe.  Where we get into trouble is when we lump the two areas together and allow a “Yes” vote in one area to influence or even override the voting procedure in the other.  For example, it is very easy to assume emotional compatibility because we find ourselves attracted physically to someone.  Some of it may just be wishful thinking, but it can really get us into trouble if we stop the evaluation process right there.

We all know people who drink Diet Coke, and then think that this action alone will help them lose weight without changing any of their other habits.  This is similar to the way most people approach finding a mate, thinking that physical attraction is enough to bring about a resulting “good” relationship. And yet we all know that in addition to drinking low calorie drinks, losing weight also requires healthy eating and exercise.  Comparatively, when looking for a partner, you don’t have to throw out physical attraction—instead just add to the process.  Maybe this is why it is referred to as “chemistry”, since it is a process of combined elements!

Like many people, I have made the “mistake” of deciding on someone’s compatibility without a more thorough evaluation period.  I suspect that the necessity of an “evaluation period” is one of the main reasons we lean more on physical attraction—it takes less time!  Determining emotional compatibility requires repeated exposure to the other to allow attunement to build, trust to develop, and vulnerability to rise.  All of these ingredients are important keys to compatibility, and though some might argue that something like “trust” is a decision, I would contribute that it is a decision we make based on supportive evidence.  We decide we can trust someone because we have a history of trusting experiences with them; we allow ourselves to be vulnerable because we have a history of feeling safe around them; and attunement builds through prolonged closeness and intimacy.  The common denominator in all of these?  Time.  This is quite different from physical attraction, which can often show itself in a matter of seconds—sometimes the actual person does not even need to be present!

To sum up, it helps to think of the whole process like a recipe.  There are certain ingredients that are required, and the others can be altered or replaced.  Unlike baking, which is often extremely precise, your dating recipe can change with the mood—add a little more fun activities here, a little less making out in the car there.  Throw in a dash of trying something new together, stir, and bake.  We all know what happens when we leave out key ingredients in our recipe—the result exposes shortcuts that were taken, and we are suddenly not so hungry anymore!  Resist taking shortcuts with the processes involved in determining emotional compatibility and you have a better chance of ending up with a result you can enjoy.  As everyone always says about a great dish: “It was worth all the time that went into it”!