Rethinking Happily Ever After
I love that David Byrne song that likens the love of his life to his dream house. He sings, “You gotta face with a view.” How inspiring to imagine surrendering into our partner’s love the way we nestle into our warm bed or the relief we feel as we pull up our driveway and know we are home. As Valentine’s Day bears down upon us with all its visions of perfect love, I can’t help thinking about the underbelly of Valentine’s Day: the whistling window that won’t close properly, the leaky faucet and dust bunnies under the couch.
I hope this will read like a love story. It should. I am married to my true love. My heart still leaps at the unexpected sight of him. But it is impossible for me to write about my love without talking about conflict. What I want to say, as we collectively embrace/brace for Valentine’s Day this week, is that true, abiding, deep love that can withstand a lifetime shouldn’t play out as happily ever after. It is a fallacy that the tough part is finding your love and the rest is gravy. I know this to be true not only as one woman a decade deep into marriage. I know this because the brain science of the last 20 years has revolutionized our understanding of romantic love.
We now know that the path of loving our partner well and letting ourselves be loved is shaped by our willingness to participate in a cycle of loving, learning, fighting, forgiving, loving. Conflict is a critical ingredient to intimacy; it is actually a catalyst that moves us closer. New research on love tells us that our partner’s love, our feeling of being connected to and appreciated by our partner, is the linchpin that holds together our wellbeing. Most of us no longer live in villages or in multi-generational homes. Our feelings of safety and wellbeing transfer from our primary caregivers to our partners. This isn’t unnatural dependency; this is how our brain works. We are wired for connection, to love and be loved. When there is a perceived threat to that love: You don’t help me unload the groceries, You always tell me what I’m doing wrong, You never ask how my day was- We can respond with fight or flight survival strategies. Which isn’t our most skillful or effective side.
My husband and I are profoundly different. I like to leave knowing I’m going to be 10 minutes early. He prefers to cut it close. I’m not going to ask for help or share my preference unless I feel pretty strongly, and then I really want you to listen. My husband will share his thoughts and tastes without hesitation, and is not as attached to them. My moods seem to fly with the weather, the moon, how cluttered my kitchen feels, and a thousand other factors I can’t pretend to know. My husband will be unsettled if he thinks too long and hard about the president or if Kentucky loses too many basketball games. I freeze in conflict, he lights on fire. I could go on, but perhaps some opportunities for conflict are clear.
This spring we will be married for 10 years. In the last 10 years we’ve had two children, bought and sold two houses, gotten our first fulltime jobs, bought cars and health insurance. He’s started his own business. Trump was elected. My father died. Basically, we’ve become grownups, and started to deal with grownup things. Sometimes I lose sight of his face amidst the onslaught of decisions, bills, logistics, and emotions of carrying all that we do.
The brain research says that keeping his face in focus is the best thing I can do for us both. Learning his vulnerabilities and sensitivities, his tendencies and patterns and what lies beneath is my job as his partner. And it’s his job as mine. Our relationship can become its own entity, almost like another child, that requires us to put aside our own self-interest and prioritize our connection. We’re not here to fix each other; were not supposed to get it right every time; we just have to be willing to learn and try.
To walk this path we must convince ourselves again and again to be vulnerable, to be uncomfortable, to let go of needing to be right, of how this is supposed to look, to forgive ourselves when we treat them horribly and to forgive them when they’ve torn us up. We can learn to be resilient in our love. We can practice not seeing each fight as failure, to rebuild trust when it is broken.
We are raised with fairytales and romantic comedies that only tell the first part of the love story: how we find our partner. The love story itself- what happens after you fall in love- is written off with a ride into the golden sunset. I’ll tell you what happens then: things get messy. We will feel hurt, threatened, lost and infuriated. We will feel battered and heartbroken. We will be sure there is something wrong with our relationship. This is normal.
If you have someone who’s standing right there beside you in that storm, who’s looking you in the eye and saying here I am. I am right here with you and we are going to learn how to do this together. Then you, my friend, are home.
Engaging in conflict skillfully, becoming mindful of our own patterns and motivations, reaching for support, nurturing our love to let it thrive- these are skills we can learn and practice.
These are some sources I’ve found unbelievably helpful:
Putting the ideas and practices found in these resources, and so many others, and developing a vision of health for yourself in your relationship can take practice, patience and support. Coaching can be that support, be in touch if this resonates.