Last week I outlined why the "perfect" partner doesn't exist. We are attracted to people for a myriad of complex, contradictory and unconscious reasons. This week, I want to get practical. No matter who we've chosen to love, how could we be doing romantic relationships better?
Firstly, we need to let go of some long-standing beliefs about how relationships work. Romanticism espouses that if you love someone, and they love you, they should more or less intuitively understand you.
Early on in a relationship, we often feel like we've found someone who truly 'gets us' and they seem to do this effortlessly and without much communication.
But as many of us have experienced, love does not create the ability to read your partner's mind, especially in moments of distress. A refusal or inability to communicate upset or any other feelings, and the underlying needs that fuel them, create periods of avoidable disharmony and can lead to longer term damage in a relationship.
Once the honeymoon period of any relationship ends, and the glow of early romance wears off, things get real. Here, open and constructive communication becomes vital if we are to have a long-lasting relationship that is also happy and functioning.
Also, as individuals, we can change considerably throughout life. To really understand an intimate partner's sensibilities also requires ongoing communication over the course of any relationship.
In this vein, contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton argues that instead of doing love by way of Romanticism and relying on intuition, we should take a few lessons from the Ancient Greeks. They believed, for example, that when you love someone, you are embarking on a journey of "mutual education".
In the contemporary context, this can translate to educating our partner in how we are psychologically patterned, what childhood wounds we carry, and how best to love us and meet our needs. It also means challenging each other to grow and develop beyond previous patterns of behaviour that are not working.
This requires getting away from trying to be 'right' or 'winning', to fostering mutual understanding and growth.
One specific approach, called Imago Therapy, insists that we unconsciously choose partners that will directly challenge us to heal unresolved childhood wounds, in order to grow as individuals. Here the focus is on collaborative exploration and healing, in a safe and caring adult relationship.
Under the guise of Romanticism, this sort of mutual relationship education has almost become, to put it in de Botton's words, "illegal". When you are meant to unconditionally love your partner, warts and all, it becomes difficult to communicate anything negative or too challenging about your partner's behaviour – any criticism feels like a "breach of love".
But being able to talk about our psychological tendencies or wounds, lovingly and with mutual curiosity, can be enlightening and constructive. One of the reasons many relationships often dissolves is because of the things that go unsaid and remain unresolved. As well as the unwillingness of one re both parties to face their own psychological tendencies.
To conclude this three part series, I've compiled a list adapted from de Botton, and my own research, on how we could be reinventing modern love:
1. First and foremost, we are all a "little mad" or psychologically patterned in very specific ways – let's joyfully accept this
2. We need a good grasp on our own special flavour of "madness" or psychological patterning and the ability to communicate this
3. We need to let go of seeking perfection in others or trying to be perfect yourself
4. We should shift from an instinctual approach of how loves comes together, and is maintained, to a therapeutic and educational one
5. Don't attempt to educate each or discuss important issues when you are triggered, upset or angry – wait until you are both calm and relaxed 6. We could be much more generous with how we interpret the intent behind our partner's behaviour (they didn't leave the milk out to spite you, maybe they were running late or distracted) 7. We should strive to bring lightness and humour into the relationship (if it helps, view your partner, and yourself, as a "loveable idiot")
8. Love and partnership involve many practical aspects and daily routines that are not always blissfully romantic. And this is perfectly okay. The mundane can be beautiful.
9. Create space for connection, communication and romance (but remember that romance is only a small part of a much bigger tapestry of what constitutes love)
10. See love as a journey of mutual education and mutual healing, embrace the unknown and be flexible with what the contours of love brings
We need to take a much more active role in creating the relationship we want, mutually, rather than blindly following our instincts or psychological patterning. This starts with self-reflection, self-analysis as well as critically examining the dominant cultural messages we receive about love. Intimate relationships can offer us an invaluable resource for psychological growth if we are open to this process of mutual education. Only then will we be able to create the love we want, and need, rather than the love we are patterned to have.
Find original publication here.