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What is Love? Maybe Don't Hurt Me?

“All you need is love.”

“Love is friendship on fire.”

“Love is like pi – natural, irrational, and very important.”

“The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence.”

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

I’m sure, like me, you’ve heard some of these and more. I’m sure, like me, you’ve heard an innumerable number of opinions on what love is or is not. What it looks like in terms of relationships, friendships, and even loving ourselves. I’m sure, like me, you’ve gotten some great advice that has stuck with you. And I’m sure, like me, you’ve gotten some bad advice that’s best left to sitcoms and magazine covers in the grocery store.

There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t talk about religion or politics, due to the fact that it will most likely end up hurting someone’s feelings. If you live in the south you might be able to add college football to that list as well. Regardless, as a person and as a counselor, I think the idea of love and relationships is an unspoken item on that list regardless of where you live. Opinions, as the saying goes, are like armpits. Everyone has a few and they all stink.

From movies to television shows to even the people we love and cherish, everyone has some thoughts on what love is and what love isn’t.

While it seems like there’s an endless amount of relationship advice out there, I’d like to posit that it is perhaps due to the fact that 62% of people identified as “in a relationship” of some kind according to the 2021 Pew Research statistics. This doesn’t take into account people who might have previously been in a relationship and no longer are, or people who know someone who gives good relationship advice. Adding in those two categories we might, jokingly at least, that just about everyone is accounted for.

But what do we do about the fact that so much of the information that’s out there, just isn’t helpful? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had the misfortune of being told something about relationships from someone I trusted only to later realize it was just a deeply ingrained opinion that person held, not a fact and not information that was in any way helpful to *my* relationship. Even as a counselor trained to work with couples I like to remind people that when you take two unique people and join them together, it’s bound to be something that is just as unique as they are as individuals. So if each relationship is unique, how do we know what works apart from trial and error? Not every bad encounter can be chalked up to the need to “kiss a few frogs to find the princess”.

The good news is that John Gottman has been researching couples, specifically what makes for a good relationship (or one that will last), since 1970. This includes a number of longitudinal studies spanning more than a decade in length. In other words, this is not just an opinion or people’s reports of what has worked, this is backed by scientific and numerical data about what makes relationships good and what makes relationships last. I’ll repeat my previous statement that not all relationships look the same, but I think an analogy to personal health is in order. All people may be unique, but medical research is able to show that some preventative factors can reduce the chance of illness and injury, things like routine exercise or healthy diet. If we can do the same for relationships, why wouldn’t you want to take a look at some of these good habits and start to implement them in your own life?

There’s a number of healthy habits that John Gottman discovered in his research. These can be things like showing affection or appreciation as well as having a date night once a week. He also advocates for a specific time to be set aside for a “State of the Union Meeting”, where a variety of issues can be discussed. All of these habits center around building a more stable and effective relationship.

One of the most jaw dropping statistics to come out of this research is the fact that even healthy couples who stay together and present the positive traits identified in the Gottman research are still unable to solve 69% of problems in the relationship. That’s right, even the healthiest relationships still leave more than half of the issues “unsolved”. That is, unsolved in the sense that they still exist. Instead, they rely on being able to communicate well and work around these issues.

Too often couples are sucked into negative styles of communication that are not only unhelpful, but often leave them feeling worse than if the issue had remained unspoken. Conflict in relationships is unavoidable and some issues are unsolvable, so what do healthy relationships look like?

Well the prolific author on childhood development Daniel Siegel has a saying that seems imminently applicable here. He is well known for saying that when raising children the goal is not to be perfect or to never make mistakes, but to be sure to repair the ruptures. This information is repeated in the Gottman research, demonstrating that even while arguments still exist, healthy couples display positive to negative interactions at a rate of five positive or affectionate interactions to each negative one.

The commonality between these two influential minds is their focus on moving people out of a stress response state and into a state that allows them to fully integrate and use the various parts of their brain. John Gottman has a saying that the goal of an argument is to stay in the open and curious mindset epitomized by the phrase “What is this” instead of the radicalized mindset of “What the hell is this?”. Siegel’s words for this are people “flipping their lid”, or losing access to the cognitive functions they need to solve problems when their more emotional survival oriented functions take over.

You can read more about all of these principles and more in John Gottman’s book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”. All this is not to say that a positive mindset can wish away real issues in relationships. There are some issues that are insurmountable even with good communication. If you feel like the issues in your relationship are too much to handle, consider setting an appointment with a counselor who specializes in working with couples to help get you back on the path to the life you’ve always dreamed of.

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