“When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep… “ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
They say that Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year for any couple. So as we head towards the chaos of presents, parties, over-indulgence and young children’s excitement, I thought I would share some of the lessons I have learnt about love in my 50 years of endeavouring to get it right (and inevitably not succeeding!). I am not sure that anyone gets it ‘right’ of course. We just muddle along in the confusion that is oneself and another person. But some things work better than others, I have found, and I wish I had known them when I was younger. So here goes…
- I have come to see that love is an activity of the mind as much as the emotion because one sparks off the other. We need to keep love in focus, not just assume it will be there forever without conscious thought. You can train your brain to remember why you fell in love with one another in the first place – the first image, the attraction, the conversations and the interest you showed towards the other in those early days. This activates the emotions and memories that reinforce love even through the pressures of the Christmas season when one is woken early by children or under a deadline to put the turkey on the table at a particular time for the in-laws. I have found that one can fix many of the everyday challenges of living with another person if one holds love central. Once we allow it to fade it is much harder to reignite that wish to be together.
- I have just discovered, at my ancient age, Karen Horney’s model that one can become aware of one’s tendency to respond in three different ways to one’s partner – to turn towards them, to turn away from them or to turn against Realizing that I have a conscious choice as to whether I turn towards my partner and listen to their needs, turn away from them when they ask me for something, or turn against them and get angry, has been a really helpful insight. I become alert to what I am doing and make a more helpful choice, especially when I acknowledge that my response may have had nothing to do with them precisely but more to do with me just being in a bad mood about something completely different! It’s a great model to keep in mind.
- I don’t think I knew enough about the nature of love earlier in life, the give and take, joy and pain that is a natural part of being in relationship. Nor the need to express one’s inner being with one’s partner. I met my ex-husband when I was 18 and was very naïve and rather buttoned-up. I knew nothing about love nor, indeed, at that age much about life either! The myths about “happily ever after” did not prepare me for bumping up against another person’s perfectly legitimate but different habits and moods. Maturity makes a difference. Self knowledge enables us to achieve a degree of honesty about our own quirks and expectations of life and love. We can then learn to question whether those expectations are realistic! After all, the Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn movies of my youth gave us the impression that it would be so easy but of course that was just Hollywood. Perfection doesn’t exist.
- There can be some science to it: I have found that understanding personality types is both interesting and helpful to observe the different way each of us responds to a situation. Myers Briggs (http://www.myersbriggs.org), the HBDI (http://www.herrmannsolutions.com) and the Enneagram (https://www.enneagraminstitute.com) all give insights into why one’s partner does things the way they do and can also help one understand the impact of stress on behaviour. I become horribly nit-picky and anxious when I am stressed. Others become sharp, angry or withdrawn. Getting to the bottom of the emotional concern beneath the behaviour can be enlightening.
- The advent of young children inevitably skews the balance of the relationship. I didn’t realize how many men feel sidelined at the birth of a baby. I could have been more sensitive to this. It’s really difficult to keep the couple relationship central, even in the midst of a child’s demands but nonetheless so important. If you value family then value each other because if the two of you don’t hack it the family falls apart and that is sad for everyone. Divorce is a miserable affair. You won’t see as much of your children and are likely to have less money to spend on yourself or them. So keep the romance alive. Make time for the two of you to be adult, to be lovers and stay on each other’s side, as your children will test you on many levels as the years go by.
- I know it’s really hard in today’s 24/7 digital world to put love before career. But in my experience it can often be far easier to find another job and far less easy to find love with someone you can live with. Watch the balance of priorities in the midst of the reality of having to pay the bills. “I’m doing it all for you” has a hollow ring if you aren’t giving enough attention to the relationship. Being at the bottom of a priority list doesn’t feel good. Review your mutual priorities often as you and your partner’s lives change and the children grow up. Working late and focusing on career is ok some of the time but not all of the time. The reality is that work loses its meaning when life at home is unhappy.
- It’s easy to forget that we will change. When I hear people say things like “She isn’t the girl I married” I think to myself, of course she isn’t because you married her twenty years ago and none of us are the same people we were twenty years earlier (just look back at the photos!). Inevitably each of you will change over the years, and the nature of your relationship will change with time. This is totally natural but can take adaptation, particularly if one of you takes a new turn or develops an interest that you personally can’t understand. I know I found it threatening to be with someone as they changed. But it means a lot to have a partner who encourages you when you try something different – as David does now with my poetry.
- I could have been better prepared for the reality of marriage. What Gibran says is true. Love is a long journey and its lessons are tough and challenging. It isn’t for the faint hearted. It is a decision. A decision to commit, to be loyal, a decision to push through the problems and challenges. A decision to keep the positive aspects of the relationship to the foreground of our mind and not to keep harking back over old wounds or allow a spiral of negative dialogue to build up about how the other person is wrong. All divorces, just as all relationships, take two to create the dynamic. Each has to take responsibility for their part in what they contribute to the union. When you feel like judging or blaming the other person ask yourself “but do I do that too sometimes?”. It’s shameful how often I have realized that I have got irritated about something that, when I reflected on it, I have to accept I do too.
- I read John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work a few years ago. He describes ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’ that break relationships – criticism, contempt, defensiveness (ouch, how difficult it is to avoid that one!), and stonewalling, which is where you refuse to talk about an issue the other person has raised. The book is full of good advice taken from well-researched cases. Read it, reflect on it, act upon it and it gives you a chance to keep love alive.
- As we get older the number of people we love grows – children, parents, grandchildren, siblings, friends, nieces, nephews and intimate partner. We have room for all of them in our heart but there can be times when, say, a baby arrives or a parent is needy and we get pulled in different directions. Watch for the real need versus the emotional blackmail and don’t lose sight of what really matters to you in the long-term.
- Learning about cognitive-behavioural psychology has been very useful. Reflecting on how we are all fallible and make mistakes, checking whether expectations of one another are rational and helpful. If you find yourself using should, must, ought-to’s in your thinking – “he should know how I am feeling” (even though he is not a mind-reader and you haven’t shared your emotions with him) or “she ought to have understood how difficult my day has been” (even though she hasn’t been there), then check whether your thinking is helping you connect or just pushing you apart.
- Life changes. It was my ex-husband’s 70th birthday last week and David and I went to his party to celebrate. It’s hard to believe that someone you have known since you were 18 is now turning 70 – scary in fact as it means that I must be heading for that number too soon. And 70 is an age I associate with my parents and their friends, not with myself. But of course I’d better learn to live with it. For me the most poignant aspect of the evening was that I could toast my ex for feeling blessed that we have a good relationship, that when either of us is concerned about our sons or grandchildren we can turn to one other and talk about it. That we have been able to share graduations, weddings, children’s parties and Christmas happily together. It’s a lonely place if you can’t talk about what is best for your children with the person who loves them as much as you do. You may not live together but you can remain loving parents, rejoicing in their successes, supporting them through harsh times. It’s not always easy but it means a great deal to those children when you do manage it. If you are parents you will be parents for life. No-one else cares for your children as much as the two of you do. So it’s worth keeping that relationship on good terms and I know many families who will be celebrating Christmas happily with ex-spouses and their extended families.
I love Christmas but it is often a muddle of family relationships, burnt gravy, spilt red wine on white carpet, noise and chaos. Acceptance, forgiveness and a sense of humour work wonders at releasing you to enjoy whatever happens. There’s no perfect template for living. Nor for love. But some things help, and as it has taken me to reach the age of 66 before I learnt many of them, I thought I would share them with you so that hopefully you don’t have to be the slow learner I have been!