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!

MAKING MONOGAMY WORK

When the holiday bustle ends, there can be a feeling of “letdown” that follows as we return to our “regular lives”. This is not the only option for us, however. We can look at the beginning of the year as a time to “clean house” in our lives and relationships–we can toss out what does not serve us anymore and dust off what does.

One issue that can gather quite a bit of dust is the topic of monogamy. It is possibly no coincidence that it sounds so much like the word “monotony”–because for many couples, that is exactly what monogamy feels like! I like to invite couples who are invested in monogamy to thicken it, so to speak. Most of us are raised with a “thin” story of monogamy: we will be attracted to and have sex with one chosen partner for the rest of our lives, AMEN! That is like tofu–sounds good in theory, but not very appealing in reality unless you “spice it up”.

In order to make monogamy work, it can be helpful to adjust our approach to it as well as our perspective. Instead of feeling like a jail cell, it can feel like a protective fence around your relationship. But how? In order to make modern monogamy work, I had to look back about 250 years for inspiration…

KANT’S PHILOSOPHY: The appeal of philosophy for me is that it is not simple–it deals with the complex reality of human behavior and thinking in a way that modern self-help books do not. The former is concerned with understanding as a way to live better, the latter more often concerned with easy fixes that neglect underlying conflicts. Philosophy can help me to understand modern issues in relationship because we still have the same core needs.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a philosopher who was interested in an approach to “goodness” that did not rely on religious stories–he was interested in a way of living that was motivated from within because he suspected that such a morality would be unflappable. He came up with something called the Categorical Imperative.

Regarding monogamy, I want to refer to the second section of his philosophy, which is called the Formula of Humanity, and it simply states:

“Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

What this means to me is that it is best to go into relationships with others using “respect” as your behavioral guide, something I wrote about in my last post. When you respect someone, you won’t try to “use” them to get something (unless they agree to this). You won’t see them as a means. Why is it disrespectful to see someone as a means? Well, because it is treating another person in a way that you would not treat yourself, in essence placing their value as less than yours.

APPLYING KANT TO MONOGAMY: If you are wondering how this applies to modern monogamy, bear with me! Monogamy today is treated as an end rather than a means, and this is, in my observation, one big reason why it so often fails. Monogamy, rather than being a chosen active approach to a couple’s sexual relationship, is being used to symbolize commitment. It is dead in the water. You want to know what I notice? The majority of people who cheat on their partners love them very much–commitment is not the issue!

When monogamy is used as an end rather than a means, then our partners are reduced to being a measure of our virtue and sex becomes a proving ground. Not fun! We have used monogamy as a gauge for virtuous commitment: to ourselves, our partners, and in the eyes of others. This in turn makes our partners a tool for our own reward. Another way of putting it is that we have turned our partners into a means for us to feel good about monogamy.

What if we instead used monogamy (means) to feel good about our sex life with the partner we are committed to (end)?

When we treat monogamy as a means to something positive in our relationship, it can open up all kinds of delicious fun in bed! This is because when monogamy is a means, it changes from being a descriptor of commitment into being an instrument for commitment–one that is used willingly and joyfully. It is acting on this premise:

“I choose to have sex only with you, because that is respectful to me, to you, and to our current relationship agreements, and it strengthens our commitment to remain interested in each other over time.”

Chosen monogamy (means) is very different than imposed monogamy (end). Chosen monogamy requires mindfulness, because if you decide that you want to be with just one person sexually for any reason (and there are some good reasons to do so!), then you will benefit by making it interesting. Monogamy does not equal monotony if you choose it mindfully.

So how do we do that?

THICKEN IT! Mindful relationships are the goal of couples therapy. A mindful relationship means that two people see each other as not only a partner, but also as an individual with differences. Do you think you can meet every need that your partner has? Good luck! But you might find that you can meet many more needs than you thought possible, merely by:

    • finding out what they are
    • deciding if that is a need you want to fulfill
    • being willing to move outside your comfort zone at times

With sex, we often fall into a very thin understanding of our partner’s needs based on “what worked” at the beginning of the relationship. When this limited repertoire becomes boring, that is usually the time when eyes wander to others. What if, instead, we could see our commitment to monogamy as a means, with our and our partner’s sustained sexual interest as the end? How might that influence how we approach each other? How might it influence how much we reveal to each other or ask? How might it influence our own sexual development, and our interest in our partner’s sexual development? How might it influence how much effort we put into keeping things interesting and fresh?

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One downside of living in an advanced society is that we sometimes think that everything should be “easy”. This can work against us. Some things require effort, regardless of how advanced our technology is! Having a satisfying, long term, monogamous relationship requires effort no matter how much you love each other, but effort that is applied in the right areas can pay off handsomely.

By treating monogamy as a means, rather than an end, I am suggesting that you put effort into defining monogamy for yourself and for each other–thickening it so that it fits your relationship rather than your parents’, and allowing you to see a rich sex life with your partner as a wonderful end goal rather than a way for you to feel good about values that may never have been  yours in the first place!

You want monogamy to work in your relationship? Put in the effort to bring it alive, and clearly define where you hope it will lead you. Treat it as a means to the preferred end!

 

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”!