Motivational speaker Tony Robbins once said that “We waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.”
While the initial phase of a relationship seems effortless, the sublime chemical release of early love will only get us so far. Eventually, if we want the partnership to endure, we have to roll up our sleeves and start to sweat.
My husband and I recently attended a marriage retreat where we heard from couples who have survived affairs, medical problems, family feuds, and other kinds of heartbreaks and hurdles that are left out of the pages of fairy tales. Their crushing stories inspired everyone in the room with the conviction that infidelity, illness, financial stress, and other hardships don’t have to end a relationship. In fact, sometimes they inaugurate the best phase yet. I have summarized their wisdom into the following eight strategies for creating the love you want.
1. Understand the stages of a relationship.
Relationships are ever-evolving, changing organisms. They take different forms over time. Initially, there is romance, where your brain is so flooded with dopamine that going grocery shopping together feels like a Caribbean cruise. Inevitably, though, disillusionment happens, when you may question if you have fallen out of love. Some are tempted to bolt and seek the dopamine spike with another partner.
Often the disillusionment morphs into sheer misery, the third stage of a relationship, where two people who were once madly in love with each other feel nothing but resentment and contempt. If they manage to navigate around the various potholes of this stage, they arrive at awakening, a deeper and fulfilling intimacy than even the initial romance.
2. Don’t rely solely on your feelings.
Most self-help books urge us to trust our feelings. The process of identifying our feelings and aligning them with action is a critical part of self growth. However, feelings can also be misleading. Given their unpredictable and fickle nature, they are often not a reliable GPS for relationships. If we’re not careful, they can take us down dead-end paths.
A committed relationship is a series of decisions rather than a collection of feelings. By making a daily decision to do what is required to sustain a relationship, we clear our brain of some of the interfering static that confuses us. This gives us more energy to love completely.
I compare it to staying sober. If I relied solely on my feelings to determine my path, I’d be drunk. Instead, I make a conscious decision every 24 hours to not pick up a drink.
3. Understand yourself.
We all have baggage from the past that informs and shapes our behaviors and conversations. Most of us have learned to protect ourselves from hurt and rejection with certain masks we wear: the caretaker, the clown, the bully, the perfectionist. Identifying how previous wounds impact the way you relate to your partner can afford you a truer perspective on the relationship dynamics. With this understanding you can approach problems more objectively and interact more fairly.
Rewriting the narrative you learned in childhood is never easy and takes time, but will lead to a more honest, deeper relationship.
4. Don’t just talk – communicate.
Talking is good, but it’s only the beginning. True communication is much more involved than a simple conversation. It is a process of learning how to describe your emotions in detail to your partner so they have a shot of understanding the complex world between between your ears.
During the retreat weekend, we picked from a thesaurus of adjectives to describe our feelings. We used physical sensations, nature scenes, mental pictures, animals, movies, shared memories, and our five senses to express in vivid detail the nuances and complexities of our feelings. While I thought this was a tad overkill at first, the exercise proved effective in communicating emotions to my husband that I assumed he understood.
5. Take the risk to be vulnerable.
It’s one thing to bare your soul under the influence of a dopamine rush. It’s another when you’re faced with disillusionment and doubt. However, this is precisely the time when you need to be brutally honest with your partner and lay your soul out for his gazing.
The most powerful session of the weekend for me was the one on what is required for trust: honesty, openness, and the willingness to change. Trust means giving your heart to each other for their safekeeping, which can feel terrifying to someone whose past hurts remind them of the price of vulnerability. However, it is the trust that pushes us through to the final and best stage of a relationship, where we awaken to an intimacy beyond our imagination.
6. Don’t shirk from confrontation.
Despite the way it feels, confrontation is where the gold lies in a relationship. It can be tempting to either avoid or manipulate, but neither resolves the problem at hand. Constructive confrontation is done with respect for the other person.
Create some ground rules to fight fairly. For example, don’t bring up past history, stay away from name-calling, don’t go for the jugular, and stick to “I feel” statements. You might refer to a thesaurus of emotions and express your feelings in writing. Refrain from a difficult conversation when you are hungry, angry, tired, or are in the car.
7. Learn his or her love language.
We all absorb affection differently. Folding the laundry might say “I love you” more profoundly to your partner than a reservation to a nice French restaurant or a scrapbook of memories that you spent a week on.
According to pastor and author Gary Chapman, emotional needs are met in five ways: words of affirmation, quality of time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Learn your partner’s love language so that you can communicate your appreciation and love most effectively.
8. Forgive, and forgive some more.
“You come to love,” says American philosopher Sam Keen, “not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.” We are all imperfect. When two people spend enough time together, they are bound to hurt each other. The transgression isn’t as important as the rebound. While you can hate the sin, try to love the sinner. Do your best to separate the awful thing that your partner did from the imperfect, lovable person she is. Trust that she is trying her best to learn from her mistakes and do better next time.