We’ve all seen the headlines over the past few weeks: Brad and Angelina fairytale romance ends among irreconcilable differences over parenting conflicts, possible substance use issues, and child abuse allegations, with society news outlets running retrospectives of the glamorous couple’s most dazzling red carpet appearances and lamenting the salacious end to what many call one of Hollywood’s golden couples.
What does this mean for the rest of us who want to believe in fairytale romance? It means relationships are hard, especially long-term relationships. It means Brad and Angelina are human; two people with demanding careers attempting to find balance between work, family, raising six kids, and sustaining a meaningful, connected relationship. It means that no matter a person’s personal success or financial resources, creating a strong, lasting relationship with another human being requires continual effort by both partners. Does that mean long-term romance is a myth? Let’s break it down.
The thing about romance
Studies show that the crazy experience of ‘falling in love’ is fueled by a neurobiological process in the body, honed through evolution. Multiple neural pathways become involved in shaping our infatuation with the new romantic partner. When we’re infatuated with someone, the brain releases multiple hormones and chemicals, including dopamine and oxytocin, responsible for bonding, attachment, and that near-obsessive feeling of constantly wanting to be with the romantic interest. Over time, the chemicals fueling that breathless, swept-off-your-feet euphoria return to normal levels. A few years into a relationship, a couple may find themselves wondering how to regain the spark they once had.
As a relationship matures, it becomes important to foster a deeper love and appreciation for our partner. This includes making a conscious effort to know our partner’s inner world, including values, friends, and current interests. It also includes noticing our partner’s efforts and appreciating the positive things our partner brings to the relationship. Many of us become experts at pointing out our partner’s flaws on a regular basis without remembering to comment on the efforts our partner does make. When we’re in relationship with someone, we want to feel seen and valued by our partner. It is often easier to listen to a request or complaint if we know we are appreciated in other ways.
My favorite idiom for relationships is that if there are no disagreements, there is no communication happening. Conflict is inevitable if two people are speaking their minds and asking each other to meet emotional needs. The important part is how we deal with the conflict.
Take a minute to think about your go-to reaction when your partner brings up a complaint. Are you able to stay curious and ask questions to better understand your partner’s position, or do you tend toward the defensive, possible denying any part in what your partner is bringing up? Defensiveness is not a road to communication. Instead, defensiveness shuts down communication by blaming the other partner for bringing up the issue in the first place.
Continuing to dialogue about difficult issues in your relationship should produce just that – dialogue. Not agreement, not a ‘winner,’ not some magical state where you will see eye-to-eye forevermore, but dialogue and open communication about the thoughts and feelings you are each having and any values or experiences you are aware of that fuel those positions.
“Turning towards” and remaining open
I believe we form our own image/internal self through the way we perceive ourselves in relationship with others. If we feel loved and accepted by those around us, we are likely to feel better about ourselves. When we perceive our partner as closed off or unavailable, it can become more difficult to remain positive and open in return.
As relationships mature and life priorities such as work and family start to tug at us for time and attention, it becomes increasingly important to recognize when your partner is reaching out for attention. Not many of us are in the habit of saying things plainly to our partner, such as “I really need someone to talk to right now. Could you sit here and sympathize with me for the next five minutes?” More often it comes out as “I had a tough day” or “The kids were monsters after school.” These are ways we communicate with one another that carry the deeper meaning of asking our partner to turns towards us and give us some attention. The key is becoming aware of your partner’s attempts to ask you for this. Joining with your partner in these little ways builds intimacy and connection for lasting love.
So, while the fairytale romance portion of a relationship may fade, deep love and affection can continue to grow through understanding and communication. Engaging in individual and/or relationship counseling can help a person take responsibility for any personal issues or expectations being imposed onto the relationship. A better understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses (because we’ve all got ‘em!) allows for more honest dialogue and creates space to better hear what our partner is asking for without feeling criticized.