Being part of a couple is one of life’s biggest challenges, but it’s also an experience that has the potential to yield some of life’s biggest rewards. At first, it may seem like the best thing in the whole world. In this one person, you’ve found an available sexual partner who thinks you are the best thing since sliced bread (I’m showing my age, aren’t I?). You’ve found someone whose every word (or every other word) is brilliant or funny or endearing. And you’ve found someone who laughs at your jokes, and shares things that you’re sure they’ve never shared with anyone else. You love the ways in which he or she is different than you, because this brings such richness to your relationship. You at first fall deeply in lust, and then love follows. You decide this is the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life. And you thought it would never happen!
At some point, after a couple of months or even a year or two, you begin to notice yourself thinking, “if only this person was more like me (or my idealized spouse), we’d be doing so much better in this relationship.” The thought is not there all the time, but it regularly pops up during those times when your partner is not thinking, feeling or behaving in a way that works for you. The interesting thing is your partner may be having the same thought.
This is one of those places in a relationship where conflict begins to take root. One or the other of you (or maybe both) begins to focus on changing the other. Usually it starts with the casual remark, offered out of love and the wish for the other person’s self-improvement. “Honey, our bedroom would look so much better if only you’d pick up and put away your clothes.” “Sweetheart, I don’t think you would get so stressed over the little things if we had sex more regularly.” On some level, your partner detects the not-so-hidden “you are not good enough yet” message, realizes you are trying to get him/her to change, and begins to remind you of all the ways you are not perfect.
You realize not one of these sayings is true. “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” “Love is blind.” “Love makes the world go round.” “Love conquers all.” And you can’t help thinking: “If you really loved me, you’d change for me.”
How do we get people we love to change? Strategies employed often include demanding, criticizing or verbally attacking the other person (causing anger, hurt, defensiveness), refusing to be caring or loving until your partner does what you want (causing anger, hurt, alienation), threatening to leave the relationship (causing anger, hurt, fear). These strategies may work short term but over time they damage the relationship and erode feelings of love and closeness.
And sometimes, your partner doesn’t need to change, you do.
So here’s the “what’s love got to do with it?” part. In loving relationships, people help each other feel good about themselves, offer praise, share tender caring gestures, show the same consideration they would to a good friend, and learn to focus on what’s right about the other person -- rather than what’s wrong. When conflict arises, they learn to communicate in respectful ways, including listening to the other person’s point of view, sharing feelings in appropriate ways, and looking for win/win solutions to differences whenever possible. In loving relationships there is no attacking the other person’s character, behavior or beliefs. There is no name calling, blaming or belittling. The goal is to feel connected and close, not disconnected and distant.
Relationships take work; they just do. “We need to give long-term partners credit for their marriages. These couples have probably worked their way through hundreds of disagreements, illnesses, financial problems, kids’ issues, maybe even an affair. They survive because they understand that they are a team, and they work to find ways to come together, whether in crisis or in good times.” (Diane Sollee, M.S.W., smartmarriages.com)
In the movie “As Good As It Gets”, Jack Nicholson’s character is struggling to understand what being in a healthy relationship means. He says “you make me want to be a better man.” Maybe that’s it. One of the rewards of a committed loving enduring relationship is it helps moves each of us towards becoming our best self.