Even the possessor of the most hardened or scarred heart secretly yearns to connect deeply with another person. How else to explain why Mandy Len Catron's January, 2015 New York Times essay "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This," about her efforts to create love using a 20-year-old study by researcher Arthur Aron, drew 8 million views in one month?
Instead of a movie date, Catron and her co-experimenter, an acquaintance she'd admired from afar, asked and answered a series of increasingly personal questions like, "Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?" and, "For what in your life do you feel most grateful?" The pair then stared deeply into one another's eyes for four minutes. They fell in love.
Catron was attracted to the study in the first place because she was newly out of a toxic relationship and determined to change her negative pattern. She wrote, "I turned to science, hoping there was a way to love smarter."
In my nine years as a therapist, I have learned that there is a way to love smarter. It's not as simple as a 36-item questionnaire, but it works.
1) Make a "love résumé"
Before you can make a relationship work, you have to figure out what made all your old relationships not work. A question I am often asked is, "Why do I keep finding all the horrible men (or women)?" I counter with my own question, "Why do you keep looking for them?" followed by a suggestion, "Let's look at the reasons you've thought love meant pain."
To aid in this psychological excavation, I asked Rachel (names are changed), a survivor of multiple dysfunctional relationships, to do a "love résumé" as homework and to bring in the results during the next session. This involved making a chart listing details of her most important failed romances. There are four categories for each partner: his or her good points during the relationship, his or her bad points, your good points, and your bad points. I told her to be as honest and detailed as possible. It wasn't necessary to add a "conclusions" category — we would do that together.
The next week we looked at the résumé, and then I asked her: "What patterns do you see in your partners' behavior? In yours?" Rachel discovered she always fell for men who couldn't commit, just as her father's love blew hot and cold during her childhood. The more attention she craved, the more distant the man in her life became. Two of the men she wrote about cheated; a third only saw her twice a month.
Rachel's résumé also helped her realize that sometimes she was the self-absorbed one: wanting favors done for her, but not necessarily willing to go out of her way in return. On a few occasions she'd noted "selfish" behavior on her part. "Even though Jim took me out for a lavish meal to celebrate my work promotion, I never even asked him how he felt after he was passed over for partner at his law firm. What kind of girlfriend is that?"
Writing out the patterns helped Rachel more clearly see her romantic strengths and weaknesses, as well as offering a road map toward overcoming her weaknesses. For instance, she had labeled herself "needy" in four of the five relationships she outlined. As we uncovered, neediness typically spurred defensiveness, as she feared being vulnerable: "I've been disappointed so much, starting with my father."
The process of writing out her résumé led my patient to focus in a new way on her issues and how for years they'd gotten in the way of her finding healthy love. Rachel said, "I am starting to realize that it wasn't my fault my father didn't know how to love me ... also that just because I feel needy doesn't mean I don't also need to be giving."
2) When you meet someone, don't brainwash yourself into rejecting them
Eating junk food harms our bodies. That may not stop us from devouring hot fudge sundaes and Big Macs, but at least we're aware of the risks. The same holds true for "junk thoughts" we feed ourselves about potential partners: "My friends won't think she's interesting"; "I'm embarrassed to be with anyone who likes Taylor Swift"; "I can't be with someone who doesn't have an edge!"
With this kind of self-induced psych-out, it's next to impossible to give a potential partner outside your comfort zone a true chance.
Tami's parents rejected her when she came out to them at age 16. As a result, she didn't expect to be loved for who she was, and for years Tami chose partners who didn't share her values — monogamy, family, honesty, kindness: "My most serious girlfriends and former wife cheated and lied constantly. My wife kept promising she would have a baby one day ... till she finally admitted she never wanted a child."
A question I am often asked is, "Why do I keep finding all the horrible men (or women)?" I counter with my own question, "Why do you keep looking for them?"
Now, finally dating a woman who possessed qualities Tami cherished, she subconsciously looked for excuses to pull away — thus the constant stream of negative propaganda she fed herself. I told Tami, "You're scared, and that's totally normal, but being okay with uncomfortable, scary feelings ultimately takes more energy than sabotaging the relationship."
I told her when a thought like, "Sheila has no sense of style; I can't be with someone who wears Gap clothing" invaded her head, to yell: "Stop — I'm creating bullshit because I'm scared!" I also suggested she discuss her fears with Sheila. Communication — real sharing — is the best offense against self-destructive defenses.
It took time and patience, but gradually Tami quieted her brain, began confiding fears to her new partner, and experienced an emotion she'd never experienced in a relationship: safety.
3) Lower your expectations
We're constantly seduced into buying the shiniest toys, upgrading our iPhones every couple of years, and returning any item that delivers less than complete satisfaction.
When this mindset is applied to our relationships, alas, many could-have-been-happy-together couples crash on the shoals of unrealistic expectations. When you run into relationship conflict, then, it's vital to ask yourself why this person is displeasing you — is it something concrete he or she has done or not done? Or is it that you expect your relationship to be perfect and your partner to effortlessly fulfill your every whim without you having to communicate exactly what that whim may be? If the answer is closer to the latter, your expectations are out of whack.
Meaning, stop thinking of a potential mate as the person who should slay every dragon, answer your every need even before it's voiced, deliver happiness on a gold plate, and drop grapes and bonbons into your mouth.
You don't quit a terrific job because your boss has a few annoying habits. Rather, you adjust, because the positives far, far outweigh the pain. Apply this same rationale to your relationship, and your happiness will exponentially increase.
The "expect less and receive more" philosophy was borne out by a 2014 study at Northwestern University led by psychologist Eli Finkel on the "suffocation model of marriage," which found that "Americans today are increasingly — and perhaps unrealistically — asking their marriages to fulfill higher-level psychological needs, such as those related to personal growth and self-realization."
Certainly spend quality time with the person you are dating — forgo movie dates to partake in activities the two of you can bond over. But don't depend on your partner to dot your every emotional "i" and cross every wrenching "t." Take care of many of your own needs through your job, hobbies, self-reliance, friendships. Dr. Finkel said, "The irony is that asking less of the marriage ... will actually make the marriage stronger."
Jamie's relationships typically bottomed out because the woman inevitably came up short. "My mom and dad were always joined at the hip. They never needed anyone else around, even the kids," he said. Jamie sees now that growing up he felt superfluous to his parents. This led him to crave a romantic partner who'd be totally focused on him and do everything exactly right.
Pressed for what "exactly right" meant, Jamie had no answer. "Just to do things the way I want them done," he said limply.
"Your parents' inattention left a hole no partner can fill," I told him. "Dealing with remnants of our childhood pain is an inside job. Tell yourself you're not that sad little boy anymore. You're a wonderful grown-up who deserves grown-up love."
When Jamie met someone promising, I reminded him, "Relationships are better when both people have a light touch with one another and can be happy with what is freely offered to them, versus demanding more, more, more."
This relationship blossomed as Jamie learned to tell himself things like, "Tara does things her own way, and that's okay" when his girlfriend's bed-making style after a sleepover lacked the hospital corners he was accustomed to. "It's nice to not be so rigid in my expectations, Sherry," he said at our most recent session. "How nice she makes the bed at all!"
4) Protect your relationship from negative influences
A promising new relationship must be nurtured and cherished to increase its odds of success. However, real life is not a fetal care unit. There are outside forces that can urge you to follow your worst instincts. Forces you must run from like a chocoholic fleeing Valentine's Day Godiva. Forces such as a "friend" who is jealous of your shot at happiness. Or an encounter with the ex you can't forget.
Ivy was a recovering addict. Through a 12-step program, therapy, and much self-reflection she arrived at the place where she could flourish in a relationship with Timothy, also a recovering addict, who treated her "like a special being."
You don't quit a terrific job because your boss has a few annoying habits. Apply this same rationale to your relationship.
She came in one session, exclaiming, "Sherry, I ran into Vic!" A decade previously, Ivy and her ex husband shared a drunken, abusive relationship that ultimately drove her to AA.
The former couple went for a cup of coffee that turned into eight hours of nonstop conversation. Ivy told me, "At first he seemed so charming and funny. I remembered all the reasons I'd been attracted to him in the first place. Then he turned mean and insulting and condescending, and I started slipping back into the bubble. For a moment."
Happily, Ivy remembered how far she'd come, and made a conscious decision that she'd gone too far to slip backward. She threw money on the table and ran to "call Timothy and tell him how great he is." Ivy smiled at me, "I'm over the crap. I'm ready to be loved properly and to give 110 percent back. I deserve it."
5) Cultivate gratitude for your partner
We've all heard the advice that focusing on what we have versus dwelling on what we lack results in greater life satisfaction. Similarly, studies tell us that fostering a spirit of gratitude rather than annoyance toward our partner has a positive effect on our relationship.
Ava was in the habit of moaning about all the reasons she could never fall in love with her new boyfriend. "Dan's not as romantic as other guys I've been with." "He's funny sometimes, but I'm the one who makes him laugh more."
I said to her, "Let's look in a different direction. What are the things about him that you are grateful for?" She thought a few moments, and then said, "Dan is super considerate, more so than anyone I've ever dated. If I have a cold, he's at the door with chicken soup. I really appreciate that. He also treats me beautifully — opening doors, pulling out chairs. I didn't realize I'd like that so much. And, well, he's a terrific kisser."
To keep the momentum going, I gave her a homework assignment: Spend 10 minutes every day thinking of reasons she was glad Dan was in her life. She also had to express thanks when he did something kind and loving, as well as extend herself toward him in kind and loving ways.
Over time, this changed the way she viewed the relationship. Dan indeed was someone with whom she could fall in love. A year later, she handed me an envelope with lovely calligraphy: her wedding invitation.
Sherry Amatenstein is a couples therapist in New York City and the author of three books on relationships.
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