Start small, stay positive, and don’t give up on love.
I’ve been a therapist, marriage and family counselor, for more than 40 years. I’ve counseled individuals and couples, young and old. I’ve found that every one of us wants real, lasting love. But just when we think we’ve found it, it disappears. Being a therapist didn’t make me immune to the desires for love or to the heart break when my relationships ended.
I met my first wife when we both attended U.C. Santa Barbara. We fell in love, got engaged, and married following our graduation in June. The marriage ended just shy of 10 years and produced two wonderful children, a boy and a girl. After a few years of healing I fell in love again, or probably better stated, I fell in lust and confused it with love. The marriage lasted three years. I felt I was lucky to escape with my life.
I eventually wrote a book about my experiences, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions. I learned that broken relationships can cause physical and emotional pain. I went through everything from serious bouts of stomach flu to serious depression and heart problems.
Before I started looking for love in some of the right places, I decided to look more deeply at some of the ingredients for real, lasting love that I was missing. I felt like I had found some when I met Carlin. Together we have discovered more and now have been joyfully married (but yes, we have still have our ups and downs) for 36 years. Here are a few of the ingredients we have found that we had not known before:
There are 5 stages of marriage, but most of us get knocked out at stage 3.
Growing up I was very attuned to Stage 1, Falling in Love. I went to romantic movies and longed to find the woman of my dreams. When I finally got married to my college sweet-heart, I was ready for Stage 2, Becoming a Couple. We built a life together and I thought we would live happily ever after.
When the incompatibilities hit us and we were pulled apart I thought I had picked the wrong partner and began looking for love again. I didn’t realize at the time that this was actually Stage 3, Disillusionment, and it didn’t have to mean the end. The purpose of Stage 3 is to get real with ourselves and our partner and to heal old wounds. If we hang in there and do the work we get to move on to Stage 4, Creating, Real, Lasting Love and Stage 5, Finding Our Calling as a Couple. Learn the 5 Stages and deal with Stage 3 without bailing out.
Large betrayals can end a marriage, but small betrayals weaken the foundation.
During my second marriage, I faced some big betrayals. My wife had grown up in an abusive family and she carried a lot of anger. She slept with a gun under her pillow and was violent and abusive to me (Yes, women can be violent and abusive and men can be the victims. We just don’t talk about it. I felt ashamed and kept it a secret for most of our marriage). My wife also had an affair.
But I realized that these followed a whole host of small betrayals. We often blamed each other when we were unhappy. She was often judgmental and in response I would withdraw. Over the years we were together I lived more in a fantasy world because interacting was painful and frightening to me.
There were big fights and then passionate makeups with lots of sex. We really weren’t very good friends to each other and the day-to-day lack of support undermined the foundation of our marriage and led to the big betrayals that finally ended it. To prevent the big betrayals deal with the small ones. Don’t keep your pain inside. Get help while the problems are small. Don’t wait until they are too big to handle.
Negativity is invisible abuse.
In graduate school in the 1960s we learned the value of telling the truth, of letting our feelings out. I learned the art of confrontation and standing up to power. I didn’t learn how devastating negativity can be in a relationship or how subtle and pervasive negativity is in our lives. The expert husband and wife team, Harville Hendrix and Helen Lakelly Hunt, feel that negativity is not only “not nice,” but is actually abusive to our partner.
In their excellent book, Making Marriage Simple, they say, “Negativity is invisible abuse.” They go on to say that “negativity makes your partner feel unsafe. Without safety in your relationship, your partner will never grow and your relationship will never be transformed.”
In most of our lives negativity is so pervasive we don’t even notice it. When Carlin would tell me my negativity had hurt her, I would defend myself, and say I wasn’t being negative. I felt she was being overly sensitive. When it was me who was feeling hurt, she often failed to recognize how her behavior was impacting me.
Hendrix and Hunt say, “Our definition of negativity is any words, tone of voice, facial expression (such as rolling your eyes), or behavior your partner says feels negative to them.” When I first reflected on that I wanted to defend myself, “but I was joking…I didn’t mean it that way…I can’t believe you were hurt by that.” I didn’t roll my eyes, but I would become angry, but tried to hide it. My wife saw it in my eyes and it chilled her. She called them “beady eyes.”
Once I understood the truth that negativity is invisible abuse, I could accept Hendrix and Hunt’s clear admonition. “Yes, your partner decides if you’re being negative or not. If it doesn’t feel good to your partner you need to CUT IT OUT.”
Our brains are Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive.
It’s not easy to focus on the positive. Our brains evolved to focus on the negative. That’s how we stayed alive in the wild. It was a lot better to focus a hundred times on fearful possibilities of a lion in the bushes that turned out not to be there, than to miss the one time that the lion was in fact in the bushes. Focusing on the positive, might make us happy, but focusing on the negative kept us alive longer.
As neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, “When the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else.”
When we watch T.V., listen to the news, or focus on our partner’s behavior, the good things in life seem to slip quickly out of our consciousness, while the crises, tragedies, and negative behavior get replayed over and over in our awareness. Dr. Hanson suggests that we are Velcro for the negative, but Teflon for the positive. Once we recognize the negative bias of our brain we can focus more on the positive and resist the temptation to notice our partner’s “mistakes” or “correct their behavior (for their own good, of course).”
Learn the lessons of the world’s best animal trainers.
After seeing Shamu, the killer whale, doing amazing tricks at Sea World in San Diego, journalist Amy Sutherland spent a year following students at Moorpark College’s Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, which she describes as “the Harvard University for animal trainers.” What she learned changed her life. It taught her to better understand herself, and more importantly how to improve her relationship with her husband and deepen their love. What she learned was very helpful to me and I know it will be to you as well.
“The central lesson I learned from exotic animal trainers is that I should reward behavior I like and ignore behavior I don’t,” says Sutherland. I’ve found it is one of the most powerful tools in improving our relationship. Instead of trying to correct our partner and get them to shape up, it works much better to ignore behavior we don’t like and reward the things that are in the service of our relationship.
“I followed the students to SeaWorld San Diego, where a dolphin trainer introduced me to least reinforcing syndrome (L. R. S.),” says Sutherland. When a dolphin does something wrong, the trainer doesn’t respond in any way. He stands still for a few beats, careful not to look at the dolphin, and then returns to work. The idea is that any response, positive or negative, fuels a behavior. If a behavior provokes no response, it typically dies away.” If we want to achieve real, lasting love, we can learn from the best. Ignore as much of the negative as we can, and acknowledge and appreciate anything that is positive. Love begets more love, negativity begets more negativity.
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