“Die, Cupid, Die”: Valentine’s Day and Saving Your Marriagehttp://savethemarriage.com/stmblog/wp-content/themes/corpus/images/empty/thumbnail.jpg 150 150 Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D. Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D. http://0.gravatar.com/avatar/669b7e375d93f77521ddaba08adb8063?s=96&d=blank&r=pg
Let me be clear: Dave was not in disagreement. He said he wasn’t feeling “all gushy,” either. But his solution and his wife’s solution were a radical departure from each other.
Dave wanted to work on the marriage, rebuild their connection, and respark the flame. His wife, “Sue,” wanted to divorce.
Sue reasoned that “If you don’t feel THAT way, there is nothing you can do. You either feel it or you don’t. If you don’t, then you need to get out.”
What happened to that feeling? Why did it disappear? And can it come back?
Dave was working hard to save his marriage. Sue was working hard to end her marriage. Neither seemed too interested in the questions I was pondering.
Ponder with me for a few moments.
Why are we so preoccupied with those feelings of attraction? Is it built into our DNA? Or is it a rather recent issue?
My answer: both. We are wired for this attraction. It is certainly a wonderful method of making sure there are future generations! We know that the drive to have sex is rooted very deeply in our brains, at the most primitive level. This is the reason that we see such reckless behavior that is motivated by sexual attraction and desire. People put their lives, their health, the jobs, their relationships, and anything else, on the line in pursuit of that desire.
But romance and how important it has become, that is a rather recent phenomenon. Families have been a part of human existence from the beginning. Living together, in a unit, was a method of survival. Relationships that started as sexual attraction developed into units of preservation — nurturing and protecting children and adults.
The emphasis on romance as the basis of the marital relationship, though, is much more recent. Once survival was less the issue, other goals came into view. Feeling connected, relating in loving ways, and sharing of lives became more important.
When a family is focused on surviving, getting nourishment, staying warm, and avoiding predators, there is little room for a couple to have long “relationship talks” about “how we are doing.” The focus is survival. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs verifies this. We have to have our basic needs met before we can be bothered with higher levels of relating and meaning.
For many of us, those basic levels of survival have been met. This allows for another, higher, level of relating. But higher levels of relating are often corrupted and cheapened by humans. We humans tend to overshoot potentials and often strip the deeper meaning for a “quick fix.”
Let’s take an example: self-esteem. Originally, self-esteem was the notion of feeling good about doing good. In other words, self-esteem was feeling positive about taking positive action. Along the way, we forgot the second half. Self-esteem became “feeling good about one’s self.” Over time, this became more and more divorced from actions. It was just about having a feeling. This is, you will note, a very short step from being narcissistic — feeling good about yourself (regardless of your actions/inactions), and seeing yourself as being superior to others (a rather simplified definition, but let’s go with that).
Research has shown that self-esteem (as culture now defines it) has nothing to do with life success, higher earnings, or any other positive life indicator. In fact, research has demonstrated that juvenile delinquents have a higher-than-average level of self-esteem. I would take that to mean that there may actually be a negative association, not a positive one.
Human nature: take an idea with potential, go overboard, and destroy the positive in the process. Dumb it down and make it nearly worthless.
Which brings us to the notion of romance.
Recent times have brought more and more of an emphasis on the importance of the feeling. The feelings associated with romance have long been there (tied back into that whole “sexual attraction” wiring).
My very wise Grandmother several times remarked, “Chemistry is not a big deal in marriage. . . unless it isn’t there.” In other words, that feeling of attraction, when it is in a good place in a marriage, is not the measuring stick of how a marriage is going. But if it is not there, it can be painful.
Let’s add some fuel to the fire and corrupt what should be a healthy, nurturing aspect to a marriage. We live in a culture that inundates us with messages: romantic movies where the romance is always there, books with the same premise, songs that emphasize this one facet of love, the marketing of Valentine’s day as the penultimate expression of romance (with flowers, jewelry, dark dinners, and “lubricated” fun at the end). Unfortunately, as is usually the case when merchants and marketers get their grips on it, reality vanishes and fantasy is substituted.
Reality: a couple that is overwhelmed with a house, children, bills, work (including 24/7 connection to email, messaging, and phone calls), and guilt over the undone things (eating well, exercising, reading, etc., etc., etc.).
Should it be any surprise that the typical couple loses touch with that romantic side of life? Is it a mystery that a couple might stop feeling that “gushy” feeling of attraction? Absolutely not. It is dangerous and counterproductive, but rather expected, unfortunately.
As one woman so poignantly told me, “I thought we had just placed our marriage on pause. After the kids and work, we would get back to us. But instead, he thought it meant we were done.”
Relationships don’t go on pause. Marriages cannot be set aside, expecting the relationship to be alright when both decide to return. It is like not exercising a muscle for years, then being surprised to one day notice the muscle has atrophied and is weak. Relationships are either growing or they are atrophying. There is no pause.
At the same time, thanks to the cultural messages we all receive, the over-emphasis on romance and romantic feelings causes people to believe that if the feelings are absent, the marriage is over.
Can a marriage survive without those feelings of connection? As those family units of long-ago demonstrated, survival is possible. But thriving is not.
The real question is, can those feelings return to a marriage that has been allowed to decline? Absolutely (and probably easier than most imagine).
My colleague, Dr. Bob Huizenga, notes that when one spouse requests more romance or more sexiness, it comes from a place of neediness — of the one making the request. Men are often urged to be more romantic. Women are often urged to be more sexy. But the one doing the urging is doing so from a place of neediness, ” I NEED you to be more romantic/sexy.” It is not about a shift in the relationship, but an attempt to get a “hit” of something. Kind of like a drug. In fact, very much like a drug.
Adrenaline-connection is the type of attraction experienced at the beginning of a relationship. It is the gushy, butterflies-in-the-stomach, “I can’t stand to be apart” feeling that happens in the early stages of the relationship. And it is the feeling that Hollywood has sold us as the indicator of 1) a TRUE relationship, 2) an ever-present feature of a good relationship.
Unfortunately, sustaining that level of connection is impossible. Our neural system develops a tolerance for the adrenaline (just like a drug), and the feelings subside. This can feel like a disaster, if someone does not expect this. Sometimes, people take this as a sign that the relationship was not meant to be. Yet, it is a normal stage of development.
Adrenaline-connection is all about “what am I getting out of this?” It is a desire for ME to feel that gushy feeling. It is a desire for ME to get that hit of adrenaline/dopamine.
Endorphin-connection is the connection of a maturing relationship. It is based in acting lovingly toward a spouse. It is based in “What can I put INTO this relationship? How can I show love?” It is not about neediness, but expressing love and commitment. From that, the feelings of connection grow and mature.
Do you see the shift? Instead of going after that maturing, endorphin-based connection, we elevate the adrenaline-based connection that is unsustainable. We built an entire holiday and industry on that idea.
Saint Valentine, the saint whose day we celebrate, was imprisoned for an act of civil disobedience. He continued to marry couples, in spite of an injunction against marriages. The king had decreed that weddings were illegal, as he wanted young men to be unencumbered by families, so they could go fight his wars. Valentine believed in love and commitment. He continued to marry couples. And he paid the price.
His sainthood was about committed love — not just a simple romantic notion.
So how do you respond to Valentine’s Day, if you are trying to save your marriage?
First, don’t get suckered into the cultural messaging. Marriages do not perish or revive around a moment of romance. While I am all for building feelings of connection and love (from which those romantic feelings will emerge), I do not believe you can jump-start a hurting relationship by making a grand romantic (or “sexy”) gesture.
Second, you don’t have to ignore the holiday, either. Your spouse is noticing. So, you want to do something that expresses your love and commitment. A simple arrangement of flowers with a note of appreciation for the love you have shared over the years can be a way of demonstrating love, honoring the holiday, and building some connection.
Third, never fall for the “romantic getaway,” “big relationship talk,” or “romantic gesture” as the way to win him/her back over. It works in the movies, but they do have a script to follow! It does NOT (or will rarely) work in real life.
Fourth, change the equation in your head: look for how to put love into the relationship, not how to make things romantic, hoping it will bring love back. The endorphin-connection is created by loving acts. It builds and strengthens as a couple acts in loving ways toward each other.
So, what happened with Sue and Dave? In a unilateral move, Dave continued to focus on acting in loving ways. He didn’t try to win Sue over. He simply kept being loving, showing his commitment to the relationship. At that point, Dave would tell you that he was acting on his commitment, not on an abundance of feelings of romance.
At first, Sue was resistant. She simply did not trust Dave’s actions. For awhile, Sue was constantly on-guard, trying to guess what was motivating Dave. She simply could not understand the reason for his actions.
A funny thing happened to Dave, as he continued to stick with his plan: he fell in love with his wife all over again. He remember what first attracted him to her. And that gave him the courage to stick it out.
One day, Sue began to feel some connection. She smiled a bit more, was less snappy and defensive. It became easier for Dave to keep on moving ahead. Sue began to make some simple gestures.
As it turns out, their love had not died. It was simply in hibernation. Some warmth from both was all it took to bring it out of hibernation.