I’ll admit it. I’m a hopeless romantic. I cry at weddings and read Nicholas Sparks novels. I watch romantic movies and still get choked up remembering Titanic, Dirty Dancing, When Harry Met Sally, and Casablanca. I make up holidays so I can bring my wife flowers. But it’s taken me a long time to figure out how to have a romantic relationship that lasts. My first two marriages ended in divorce and Carlin and are still learning about love after being married for 36 years. Our book, The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come, is a guide for those who still believe in love, but don’t have a lot of time to waste.
We all pick our profession for a variety of reasons. I’m sure that part of the reason I wanted to become a marriage and family counselor was to better understand my family life—my parents divorced when I was five years old. My father was become increasingly more irritable, angry, and depressed. My mother was always anxious and worried and pre-occupied with death. I wanted to learn the secrets of love so that I could have a passionate, powerful, and satisfying relationship that lasted a lifetime. But to master the secrets of love, we must let go of some of our most cherished beliefs.
- Love Secret #1: Love is not exclusive.
We all understand that we can have many “loved ones.” We can love our children, our parents, even friends and relatives we rarely see, in addition to our spouse or lover. But we believe that love is limited to a small group and that we can have only one “great love of our lives.” Often when we’re single we long for that special someone who we will fall madly in love with and love forever.
But the truth is that love is not exclusive. I tell my clients there are 5,284 perfect partners that you can fall in love with and who would be wildly happy to be with. The actual number is someone facetious, but the idea that there is a “one and only” lover out there makes us more afraid than we need to be. The truth is there are many people we can love.
- Love Secret #2: Love doesn’t last.
There is a joke about the couple that had been married for 54 years. The wife complained that “you never tell me you love me.” The man answered, “I told you I loved you when we got married. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.” We have the mistaken belief that “when we fall in love, it will be forever.” It sounds great in a love song, but it doesn’t work in reality.
Imagine you’ve just gotten married. You’re madly in love and look lovingly into the eyes of your spouse and imagine to a lifetime of joy. You sit down for dinner following the wedding. No one would think that following the wedding dinner you’d never have to eat again. We understand that our bodies need nourishment at least three times a day. Yet we mistakenly assume that love, once experienced, should last forever.
- Love Secret #3: Love is a series of emotional connections of care and support.
I remember falling in love with Jeanie in college. The truth was everyone fell in love with Jeanie. She wasn’t the prettiest or the sexiest girl we knew, but every time you were with her she was totally present to the moment. She looked into your eyes and you felt bathed in love. You felt like the most important person in the world, that she deeply cared about you. She also seemed to draw out the best in you.
In her book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D, says, “Within each moment of loving connection, you become sincerely invested in this other person’s well-being, simply for his or her own sake.” These exchanges of love are like food. We need multiple experiences of love every day in order to remain healthy. If you don’t feed your relationship with love, it will die as surely as you will without oxygen to breathe or food to eat.
- Love Secret #4: Love and marriage don’t necessarily go together.
There was a song I remember growing up about love and marriage going together like a horse and carriage. When we fall in love and get married, we think about love being the cornerstone of the relationship. If love seems to disappear, as it often does in a long-term committed relationship, we feel that there must be something wrong with the marriage. We think we’ve chosen the wrong partner or that the partner we’ve chosen has somehow disappeared.
I often hear couples say, “I still love my spouse, but I’m not in love with them anymore.” That’s usually a sign one or both partners are planning to bail out. But the truth is marriage is not all about gentle kisses and loving embraces. Like all hero’s journeys there will be confusion, anger, suffering, and pain.
“When you equate love with intimate relationships, love can seem confusing,” says Dr. Fredrickson. “At times it feels great, while at other times it hurts like hell. At times, it lifts you up with grand dreams for your future and at other times oppresses you with shame about your inadequacies, or guilt about your past actions.” In even the best marriage, love often seems to disappear when we need it the most.
- Love Secret #5: Love often feels scarce in Stage 3 of intimate relationships. Don’t give up.
Most of us have learned some variation of the belief that there are two stages of marriage. In the first stage, we find that special someone and fall in love. In the second stage, our love deepens and we build a life together. We move in together and we may have children. We hope that this stage will continue and the fairy tales tell us that “they lived happily ever after.”
However, most relationships aren’t like that. Even in great relationships, we don’t live happily ever after. There is disillusionment and conflict. Marriage experts Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt say, “When Romantic Love fades, it feels like you can do no right. The person who was once your greatest fan can become your worst critic. Adoration is replaced by napping. You notice yourself thinking, ‘Who IS this person I married? We used to be so compatible.’”
Often it’s difficult to give each other the love we so desperately want and need. We feel betrayed and the well-spring of love seems to dry up. Don’t despair. This is the third stage of an enlightened marriage. I call it disillusionment. It’s a time when we are forced to let go of all the projections we place on our partner. We don’t see them as they are, but as we wish they were. The good news is that now we get the chance to see our partner accurately.
At first, we don’t like what we see. But what we don’t like, for the most part, are the projections from our wounded childhoods. Most of us didn’t have perfect parents and the abuse, neglect, and abandonment we felt as children surfaces in this third stage. In fact, one of the main reasons we are together are to surface these old wounds so they can be healed.
Dealing with these childhood wounds, in the context of our adult relationship, allows us to move into the fourth stage, what I call real, lasting love. We fall in love again with our partner during this stage and can then move into stage 5, finding our calling as a couple, where we can build upon the love we have created to do good works in the world.
I teach you how to move through all five stages of love in my Enlightened Marriage Masters Class. If you’re struggling, don’t give up. Keep giving as much love as you can. Give it to your partner and give it to yourself. Remember, learning to love is a hero’s journey. It’s challenging, but so is everything else in life that is worthwhile. I look forward to hearing from you. Please feel free to share your experiences below in the comments section and then join me on Twitter.