My wife, Carlin, and I have been married now for nearly 35 years and our love life seems to be getting better and better through the years. But it hasn’t always been so. This is the third marriage for each of us and there were times in our marriage that we wondered why we were so miserable and whether we should stay together or call it quits. We became angry, depressed, and overstressed. We had sexual problems and were confused about how to improve things.
Living happily ever after is a dream we all hope to achieve, but few seem to master. According to Richard Wiseman, Ph.D, who holds Britain’s only professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology, “In the United States about half of all first marriages end in divorce. And two-thirds of second marriages and three-quarters of third marriages fail.”
What can we do to improve our changes, particularly for those of us over 50 who have been married before? In my book, Stress Relief for Men: How to Use the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Healing to Live Well, I describe some of what we’re learning from the new science of love:
1. The most basic instinct of humans is neither sex nor aggression. It is connection.
According to the one of the founding researchers in the field of attachment theory, John Bowlby, M.D., “We are designed to love a few precious others who will hold and protect us through the squalls and storms of life.” It is Nature’s plan for the survival of the species. Sex may impel us to mate, but it is love that assures our existence.
2. Adult romantic love is an attachment bond, just like the one between mother or father and child.
Research by Sue Johnson, John Gottman, and others demonstrates that our need to depend on one precious other—to know that when we “call,” he or she will be there for us—never dissolves. In fact, it endures from, as Bowlby put it, “the cradle to the grave.” As adults, we simply transfer that need from our primary caregiver to our lover. Romantic love is not the least bit illogical or random. It is the continuation of the ordered and wise recipe for our survival.
3. Hot sex doesn’t lead to secure love; secure attachment leads to good sex. And also to love that lasts.
Pick up any men’s or women’s magazine and you’ll find cover lines blaring: “Seduce Him! This Sexy Move Works from 20 Feet Away”; “28 Things to Try in Bed…Or in a Hammock…Or the Floor.”; and “Sex Academy—Get an A in Giving Her an O.” In our ignorance, we’ve made physical intimacy the sine qua non of romantic love.
The tragedy is that by focusing so heavily on sex and neglecting love, we fail to get either. In our pain we check out emotionally, which eventually leads to small, then large, betrayals and eventually to a relationship that falls apart. “The growing craze for internet porn is a catastrophe for love relationships,” says Johnson, “precisely because it abjures emotional connection.”
4. Emotional dependency is not immature or pathological, it is our greatest strength.
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.
“Again, this is backwards,” says Johnson. Far from being a sign of frailty, strong emotional connection is a sign of mental health. It is emotional isolation that is the killer.”
5. Being the “best you can be” is really only possible when you are deeply connected to another. Splendid isolation is for planets, not people.
Many of us think of love as limiting, narrowing our options and experiences. Like many men, I grew up being taught that falling in love was the most beautiful thing in life, but it also limited my freedom and creativity. It would mean the end of my independence and ability to explore and adventure. But I’ve found it to be exactly the reverse. When I’ve been out of a relationship or in a relationship where I felt distant and insecure, I was afraid to try new things. I would usually overwork, the routine giving me a sense of safety.
But since Carlin and I have learned about the science of love, we are more connected than ever before. The connection has set us free not tied us down. When I know I can trust her and she will be there for me, and vice versa, it allows us to step out into the world and become the very best we can be.
6. Passion and Compassion are not incompatible and don’t have to drop off over time.
According to psychologist Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues, there are two basic types of love: compassionate love and passionate love.
When we’re driven by passionate love, we have an intense longing for union with our partner. We feel intense exhilaration, infatuation, and an emotional high when our desires are fulfilled and feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and despair when our love is unrequited.
Compassionate love is far more about attachment than attraction. Rather than focusing on the thrill of the chase and the intensity of the first kiss, we experience the joy, warmth, and comfort of feeling deeply “seen” and “supported.”
We can experience both types of love in a good relationship, but over time both can decline, usually the passion more dramatically than the compassion. But decline is not inevitable and when both partners understand the need for both and learn the skills to keep love alive, passion and compassion can last throughout our lives.
7. Keep doing exciting things together if you want passion and compassion to last.
When we first meet and fall in love, life forces us to deal with danger and create excitement. Remember how it was? We were full of energy, took risks, and acted a little bit crazy. We were “crazy in love,” and that allowed us to stretch ourselves. As we get older we enjoy our comforts.
We don’t try new things or take risks as often. If we’re already in a relationship we want to keep things running smoothly. If we’re not in a relationship, we don’t want to get hurt again so we try and protect ourselves and don’t take risks.
In an interesting experiment psychologist Arthur Aron recruited fifty married couples who had been together an average of fourteen years. He had them write out lists of enjoyable and exciting activities. He then, split the couples into two groups. One group spent 1 ½ hours a week for ten weeks doing activities that were most “enjoyable.” The other group engaged in activities that were “exciting.”
He found that those couples who had spent time engaging in exciting activities (such as skiing, hiking, dancing, or sky-diving) were significantly happier with their relationships than those who had been encouraged to carry out pleasant activities (such as going to the movies, eating out, or visiting friends).
We can find, develop, and keep a good relationship throughout our lives, but we have to have courage and perseverance. Fortunately, we all have both. We just need to keep the juices flowing, stay healthy, and take some risks.
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