This is a special year for me and I’d like to share it with you. I’m 72 this year. My wife Carlin and I have been together for 36 years. She teaches a class called “The Perks of Aging” where she explores the upsides of getting older. I’m continually reminded of the challenges of aging. I’m just recovering from a leg injury that has kept me from enjoying my usual physical activities. I had a small cancer removed from my nose and I look a bit weird with a nose bandage. And there are more serious challenges. A number of friends our age are dealing with life-threatening illnesses.
One of the upsides of aging is having a successful, long-term relationship. As a marriage and family counselor, I’ve always been disturbed by the statistics that tell us around 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. I was a part of that statistical group when my ten-year marriage ended. Like most people, I went through the grieving process, got back out there eventually, fell in love again, and re-married. That marriage lasted less than three years. I joined another discouraging statistical group. 66 percent of second marriages end in divorce.
Before giving it another try, I decided there were some things I needed to learn. I was determined not to be one of the 73 percent of third marriages that failed. I read everything I could on what makes a successful marriage. I interviewed couples. More importantly, I went back through my relationship history, all the way to the family I grew up in, and began to see a pattern I was subconsciously repeating.
My parents divorced when I was five years old. My father had been suffering from bipolar depression, which eventually lead to his attempted suicide. My mother suffered from constant worry and anxiety. Getting a better understanding of my relationship roots helped me heal some of the old wounds. Therapy was helpful, even for a therapist like me who thought he had all the answers.
After 36 years of learning and growing together, Carlin and I share what we learned in my new book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come, and a new course, The Enlightened Marriage Master Class. It’s not easy to capture the core practices that can turn good marriages into great ones and get shaky ones back on track. But I’ve found there are eight effective ways you can connect with your lover and fix problems in any relationship. Here they are:
- Understand why it’s so hard to find and maintain real, lasting love and why it’s so vital that we do so.
- Learn why our brains are hard-wired to be Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive.
- How to find a new love-map that can guide you safely through the 5 Stages of Love.
- How to fully embrace Stage 3, Disillusionment, and learn the powerful lessons that can heal your present problems by healing your childhood wounds.
- Why sex matters and how you can learn what men really want and women truly desire.
- How you can fall in love with the right partner or reignite passion with the person you are with.
- Learn to heal the irritable male syndrome and male-type depression, the major male maladies that undermine most relationships.
- How you can navigate the mid-life crisis and prevent the gray-divorce avalanche that buries so many couples over 40.
They are all important, but there is one thing that can either make or break a relationship and I cover it in item number six. It’s deceptively simple, so simple that most people don’t even know what it is. When it’s happening, relationships soar like an eagle. When it’s not present, our relationships crash and burn or suffer a slow death.
This critical factor begins with a question that every human brain must get answered and a “Weak Yes” or a “Maybe Yes” or an “I’m thinking about it, Yes” won’t cut it. Every brain alive—men’s, women’s, children’s brains–want a substantial, resounding, unequivocal “Hell YES!, Yes.” The question we all want answered is, “Are You There For Me?”
According to Mark Brady, Ph.D., author of How Parents Screw Us Up (Without Really Meaning to), the question takes many forms in children’s brains and resulting behavior and is rarely asked directly, but always needed. If it could be voiced, it might include questions like the following:
- Do I matter enough that you’ll put me first when I need you to—ahead of your job, ahead of your friends, even sometimes ahead of yourself?
- Can I count on you to attend to me in the ways I need you to?
- Do I truly and deeply matter to you?
We often understand that children need this kind of unequivocal attention and response, but we assume that adults outgrow that need. When we do express our anger, frustration, or hurt when we don’t feel we are getting that kind of attention, we are often accused of being “too needy “ or “overly sensitive” or “too dependent.”
Like most of the people in Western society, I believed that “dependency” was something I needed to avoid like the plague. I believed that a “real man” was strong, independent and self-sufficient. He didn’t complain and he never showed his weaknesses. To a lesser degree, women are also raised to value independence and see dependence as a weakness to be overcome.
Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships believes we’ve got it backwards. “Far from being a sign of frailty,” Johnson has found in her research, “strong emotional connection is a sign of mental health. It is emotional isolation that is the killer. We know that men live sicker and die sooner than women and the suicide rate is 2 to 18 times higher for men than for women. The main reason, I believe, is that men have fewer social supports than women do. We associate manliness with independence and dependence with ‘wimpiness.’”
This attitude needs to change if we are going to have relationships that continue to be loving and passionate through time. Learning to allow ourselves to be held and to see our emotional needs as important is one of the most important things a man or a woman must learn to do. I remember the Eagles, song, Desperado and the plaintive lines, “You’ve got to let somebody love you. You’ve got to let somebody love you. You’ve got to let somebody love you…before it’s too late.”
I wish that we all have relationships where emotional dependency is accepted, appreciated, supported and emotional neediness is as accepted as our need for air, water and food. I look forward to your comments and experiences. Come visit me at www.TheEnlightenedMarriage.com.
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