When we fall in love, we take a leap into thin air. That’s why it’s called falling. I did it at 12 years old; it didn’t take maturity, consent or intention. It was a feeling, which happened to me. All I had to do was be: I met a boy with grey-green eyes who make jokes and called me by a special name.
Because of the euphoria we feel during the initial stages of a relationship, we make certain assumptions about what love is or means that prove detrimental in the long run. Love is complex, and sometimes difficult. But through better understanding love, we can learn to love better.
Here are four essential truths about keeping love alive, through thick and thin,
1. Loving is a skill set, and it takes practice.
Falling in love is a passive process: it just happens. The actual day-to-day practice of loving, however, requires work, time, and effort. Lasting love necessitates a skill set, which anyone can learn. Without the skill set of loving mindfully, we have only our feelings to fall back on.
And let me tell you this about feelings: they can carry us along just fine as long as the sun is shining on our relationship. But when the rain and storms come, and lots of fog, we’re quickly swamped. Afterward, we’re left high and dry, with a hollowed out, empty relationship and no idea how to move it back into the light unless we know the whole road map and how to navigate our way through the harder times.
2. If you don’t fill your own tank, you can’t be there for someone else.
The ultimate nourishment we must provide is to the garden of our own well-being. To nurture the creativity, friendships, mind, body, and spirit in our own lives is equally important as caring for the relationship.
For years, my husband and I used to finish our long workweek in much the same way. The moment we arrived home, he’d change into his biking clothes to go for a long, hard ride. Meanwhile, I’d head for my favorite couch, to get back to the book I was in the middle of, with a cup of ginger tea and our dog by my side.
“Come for a ride with me,” he’d say.
“No, I’d rather sit here and catch my breath,” I’d say.
For decades, this sort of exchange took place. Then he’d take off in a huff, and I’d sit there feeling low-level guilt. Thankfully, we finally figured out that each of us was doing exactly what we needed to do to rest and recharge. It just so happened that we needed to do different things: I recharged by turning inward and being intellectually stimulated, while he recharged by turning outward and being physically active.
Each of us needs to find our own way to rest, play, and comfort ourselves. The more room I have to care for myself, the more I can bring to you. And when you’re not available and I’m thrown back on my own company, I will have learned how to be with myself, not simply by myself. That ability is the taproot of any sustainable relationship.
3. The relationship needs to be nourished even when neither person feels like it.
To commit to an exercise program is easy when we’re feeling energetic and inspired. What matters is what we do on those mornings when we don’t want to drag ourselves to the gym. It works the same way in relationships. When all is going well, most of us find it easy to be generous, kind, and affirmative. When we perceive our partner to be the cause of our trouble, however, we must learn to counter our natural urge to punish, withhold, and otherwise flip into self-protective mode.
To make it a practice to be kind and build goodwill doesn’t mean we never say no, accept mistreatment, or disregard our own needs. Instead we realize that feelings aren’t the only measure of love. The positive actions we take to override our reflexive ones matter even more.
If I can bring you a latte in the morning, fill your car with gas, and make your birthday special even when I’m annoyed with you, I’m funding the goodwill account of our relationship bank. If I can care for some of your needs, although they’re different from mine, I can mine some of the gold in the relationship — the gift of seeing the other.
4. Healthy relationships are a balance between solitude and connection.
In the first cycle of love, you and I merge into a glorious illusion of oneness. In the second cycle, I awaken to your differences just long enough to panic, deny them, and cling to the comfort of “we.” By the third cycle, I find your differences are real, infuriating, and enduring. Profoundly disenchanted, I turn my back on the “we” and run for cover to the perceived safety of “I.”
Yet two individuals must integrate the “me” with the “we,” if they ever want to move through the fifth and final cycle to become truly wholehearted in loving one another.
Love is, in many ways, a balancing act. It is achieved through a combination of time spent alone and time spent together. Fierce independence breeds warmth and connection, and deep connection permits stronger independence.