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How You’re Killing Your Romance Without Knowing It

“Where they love, they have no desire; where they desire, they cannot love.” –Sigmund Freud

While later psychologists came to disagree with some (or parts) of Freud’s theories, his outlook on the nature of love and desire seems to bear some weight.  Flip through just about any women’s magazine, and you’ll find an article dishing juicy tips on how to spice up your marriage.  Strike up a conversation with a friend about his/her sex life, and if they’re in a long-term relationship, they’ll likely conjure up a complaint.

Which makes me wonder: is it possible to have a long-lasting romance with another person?  Can the so-called “honeymoon phase” be sustained over a longer period of time?

I hear incredible love stories every now and then, like the couple who died together holding hands after 72 years of marriage.  And it’s so refreshing to hear, but at the same time, it makes me curious: are these relationships special cases, or is long-lasting romantic love something anyone can achieve?

So, I did what I usually do when something makes me insatiably curious: I went to the library.

My mind-blowing discovery

Miraculously, there was one book that directly related to my question: Can Love Last?: The Fate of Romance Over Time by Stephen A. Mitchell.

Mitchell was a brilliant psychologist who specialized in relational psychoanalysis and observed some groundbreaking patterns in relationships.  He realized that romance can only exist within a very delicate balance between love and passion.  Mitchell essentially found a formula for romance:

Love + Desire = Romance

Desire is characterized by spontaneity, idealization, lust.  Love, on the other hand, longs for the safety of being returned in full, preferably for all of time (or, for as long as love is felt toward the other person).

The security and comfort that characterizes committed love destroys desire, and thus romance.  But on the flip side, when someone experiences lust and spontaneity more strongly than the yearning for returned love, romance cannot easily exist either.

So the big question is: If romantic love is this precarious, CAN it last???

Stephen Mitchell formulates a rich, complex, intelligent approach to this question, but never seems to answer the question outright.  It seems this is because the truth is unsatisfactory: It depends.

Romance thrives in uncertainty and instability

In the beginning of many relationships, one becomes smitten, idealistic, and longs to make the other person “theirs.”  The act of making the other person “yours” satiates that longing…but it’s the very same longing that must exist to fuel romance.  Maddening, isn’t it?

Mitchell makes a great point about this, though: Believing your relationship is secure is an illusion.

In terms of relationship safety, it doesn’t matter if you’ve built up a routine with your partner.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve both made vows to one another.  It doesn’t matter if you think you know your loved one better than the back of your hand.

Being with another person until the end of time is never a given.

The other person could lose desire for you.  They could die.  They could become so angry with you that they leave and never come back.  They could allow small affronts to build up inside their mind until one day they’re simply fed up.  The list goes on.

Intuitively, many people know this, and (often unconsciously) attempt to protect themselves and the relationship by forming habits and weaving a more elaborate illusion.  Which, Mitchell noted, sometimes places relationships into an even more dangerous position.

The (in)effectiveness of fabricating stability within a relationship

Let’s use sex as an example.  A common problem Stephen Mitchell encountered during his psychoanalysis sessions was that after having sex with the same person for awhile, many of his clients’ sex lives fell into an unsatisfying routine.

One man in particular could only orgasm from self-stimulation while fantasizing about unavailable women or watching pornography; for years, he had sex with his wife very rarely.

He held the belief that sex with his wife demanded an overwhelming effort, like climbing a gigantic mountain.  He didn’t even want to try; the thought of doing so killed all his desire.

Mitchell suggested that he try less and see what happened, and the man returned with a report that he’d had some sexual play with his wife.  Delving further into these experiences, Mitchell came to find that “[the man’s] focus in bed with his wife was exclusively on her sensations, her desires, her pleasures.”

When Mitchell suggested that the man allow himself to focus on his own pleasure, the man found the idea absurd.  The man felt this would make him selfish, rude, unloving.

To the man, not allowing himself to seem self-centered and impolite protected his relationship.  By not allowing his wife the possibility of seeing him in a negative light, he unconsciously believed he was preventing her from leaving.

While this is a unique, highly individual case, Mitchell observed that most people make the same mistake this man did; we fabricate beliefs and behaviors that we think will make ourselves or our relationships safer.

For instance, one might habitually walk on eggshells that don’t even exist…Or keep grievances inside for fear of rocking the boat…Or fall deeply into comfort and complacency because doing what we want might cause strife.

Most of the time, these kinds of things happen without much conscious choice and often result from childhood observations about how relationships are “supposed” to work.  Because no relationship is perfect, many of these observations actually cause problems when we act them out in a relationship.

How to strive for long-lasting romance

What Stephen Mitchell seems to ultimately suggest is that for romance to exist long-term, introspection and a huge paradigm shift are required.

If long-term romance is the goal, one must reject the notion that the relationship is safe; One must accept that it’s never guaranteed that a relationship will last forever.

Terrifying, isn’t it?  Crazily, that fear is actually a good sign.  Uncertainty, mystery, and a bit of fear are all essential elements of romantic love.

Introspection is also crucial; behaviors that serve to make the relationship feel more comfortable and secure often do the exact opposite.  Examining these behaviors brings awareness to our tendencies—and from there we can choose to work on our unhealthy relationship habits.

In a nutshell, the most essential lesson I drew from Can Love Last? is that we must always remember that a relationship is the most fragile thing in existence.  Forgetting to cherish mutual love by falling into comfort or acting upon illusions of stability is dangerous.

But learning to embrace the frightening truth that the outcome is unknown allows us to experience the incredible preciousness and exhilaration of romance.

So, can romance last?  Sometimes, sometimes not.   At the very least, we can try our damnedest to enjoy love as much as we can, while we’re lucky enough to have it.


Categories: In A Relationship, Relationship Concepts, Single
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