Love is one of life’s greatest rewards. But, like many good things, there is both a sweet side and a sour side to it. Serious or chronic illness, infidelity, intimacy concerns, changing roles and circumstances, anger, finances, parenting, communication problems all can contribute to distress in marriages or other partnerships.
We start out at a disadvantage because many of us aren’t very clear about what love is in the first place. I like to think of it as a behavior and a choice as well as an emotion. This makes the vague and intangible concept of love clearer and more concrete to me. If love is a behavior, then we should be able to see it and measure it. If love is a choice, then we might have a little control over what we do with it. It is much easier to work with something that, to a degree, can be observed and controlled.
In my practice, I sometimes encounter clients who are in relationships that are admittedly very painful and destructive for them, yet they insist they are loved. When I ask them how they know this, they say, “I just know” or “I feel it in my heart”. If we take the view that love is a behavior, we should be able to list the ways our partners are demonstrating their love for us. We should also be able to list any unloving behavior we are experiencing. It is also important to consider what your own loving and unloving behaviors are regarding your partner. Are you taking for granted that your partner “just knows” you love them, or are you showing them every day that this is true?
What do I mean by love being a choice? Many of us were led to believe that “love is blind” and that we are powerless over it. Think of the images of Cupid flying by and shooting victims with his arrow, making them “fall helplessly” into love. We are taught that love is forever, that it is fated, and that there is a “Mr. or Ms. Right” or a “soulmate” out there waiting for us. These beliefs can be a problem because they take much of our responsibility and autonomy away from us.
I prefer to believe that we make some conscious and not-so-conscious decisions about who we love. In fact, researchers have demonstrated that we do a sort of “cost-benefit analysis” in our relationships which determines who we invest in and how much of ourselves we invest. Keep in mind that the costs and benefits can be very different depending on the individual and what makes sense to you might seem absurd to someone else. The costs and benefits can also change over time which can in turn change our feelings about our partners.
Everyone is different, but differences aren’t always a problem in relationships. It isn’t necessary to have most things in common or to like everything about your partner – some relationships are complimentary. However, differences can begin to cause friction over time. Have you ever seen the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Remember the orange sweater? This movie provides a great example of how things that once seemed intriguing or endearing about a person can become annoying or irritating. Fighting isn’t always a problem either, as long as it is done without abuse, harsh criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling (see also John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” – NPR interview).
Couples counseling can help partners work through conflicts together and experience greater satisfaction in the relationship. There are risks to couples counseling as well; you may instead discover that the best option is to separate. Either way, couples counseling can help you make thoughtful decisions about and gain insight into your significant relationship.
Couples counseling addresses communication skills, understanding differences, problem solving and empathy. Your counselor should remain relatively neutral and will act as a mediator helping you to communicate effectively with each other so that you can understand and work through your differences.
Unfortunately, many couples wait until their problems are severe before they pursue counseling. You don’t have to be on the verge of a breakup to seek counseling – relationship therapy can also help make healthy relationships even better. In order for relationship therapy to work well, both partners must be motivated to improve the relationship.
If there is active violence or abuse going on in a relationship, couples counseling is not the best starting point. The better route is for each individual to get their own counseling until the danger is eliminated. If you fear for your safety or for the safety of others in your home consider contacting the police or a local shelter or calling a crisis line such as 1-800-799-safe. A good internet resource for researching relationship violence is the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.