do this if you want love to last

The One Thing You Must Do If You Want Love to Last

Love has been a complicated presence in my life from the very beginning. My parents had been trying, unsuccessfully, to have a baby for many years. My mother was finally able to get pregnant through a procedure of collecting and injecting my father’s sperm into her womb (a procedure that was “experimental” seventy-plus years ago). Being pregnant brought both joy and fear. I still remember stories about her walking, gingerly, down 5th Avenue in New York, afraid she might lose the baby.

When I was born, both my mother and father were overjoyed, but my mother was afraid something would happen to me and rarely let my father hold me. My father felt the pressure of being out of work and the shame at not being “the family bread-winner.” He became increasingly manic and depressed. When I was five years old, he took an overdose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, just north of Los Angeles.

I got married shortly after graduating college, but the marriage ended after ten years. We both found it difficult to trust and were always worried that we would be left by the other. A second marriage ended badly. Well to be truthful, it started badly. The fact that she slept with a gun under her pillow should have been a tip off that she was not the best mate choice. Later in life when I became a writer I wrote a book, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions that described the ways we confuse healthy love with “love” addiction. For instance:

  • Healthy Love develops after we feel secure. Addictive Love tries to create love even though we feel frightened and insecure.
  • Healthy Love begins with loving ourselves, being the lover we feel we need. Addictive Love believes something is missing in us and looks to another to love us better than we love ourselves.
  • Healthy Love grows slowly like a tree. Addictive Love grows fast, as if by magic, like those children’s animals that expand instantly when you add water.
  • Healthy Love is unique. There is no “ideal” lover we seek. Addictive Love is stereotyped. There is always a certain type that attracts us.
  • Healthy Love creates life. Addictive Love creates melodramas.

The renowned Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky wrote a wonderful book Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-related diseases, and Coping, that helps us understand that humans are mammals like Zebras, but Zebras handle stress much better than we do. Sapolsky concluded that we can learn a lot from our mammalian cousins.  Journalist Amy Sutherland also felt non-human animals had a lot to teach humans.

After seeing Shamu, the killer whale, doing amazing tricks at Sea World in San Diego, Sutherland spent a year following students at Moorpark College’s Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, which she describes as “the Harvard University for animal trainers.” What she learned changed her life. It taught her to better understand herself, and more importantly how to improve her relationship with her husband and deepen their love.

What she noticed when she saw the trainers teach killer whales, and other animals, to do tricks was one thing. Whenever the whale did anything that was positive, no matter how small, he was given a reward. Whenever he did anything negative, which was most of the time, the trainer did nothing. I mean really no thing. The trainer would freeze for a moment, no negative words, no negative looks, not even a negative thought. She was told that “every interaction is training. We’re either reinforcing positive behavior when we give rewards or eliminating negative behavior by totally ignoring any behavior we don’t want.”

She decided she’d try what she learned in her interactions with her husband and her marriage improved dramatically. Here was one of the examples she offered.

“As I wash dishes at the kitchen sink, my husband paces behind me, irritated. ‘Have you seen my keys?’ he snarls, then huffs out a loud sigh and stomps from the room with our dog, Dixie, at his heels, anxious over her favorite human’s upset. In the past, I would have been right behind Dixie. I would have turned off the faucet and joined the hunt while trying to soothe my husband with bromides like, ‘Don’t worry, they’ll turn up.’ But that only made him angrier, and a simple case of missing keys soon would become a full-blown angst-ridden drama starring the two of us and our poor nervous dog.

“Now, I focus on the wet dish in my hands. I don’t turn around. I don’t say a word. I’m using a technique I learned from the animal trainers. I only reward positive behavior. When there’s something negative, which would always suck me into trying to fix things, or give him suggestions, or give him a piece of my mind, I restrain myself. It took a lot of discipline to maintain my calm, but results were immediate and stunning. His temper fell far shy of its usual pitch and then waned like a fast-moving storm. I felt as if I should throw him a mackerel.”

I’ve found this has worked well in my own marriage. Let’s be honest. If you are married for any length of time there are a thousand little things that can bother us, most are made worse by our attempts to bring them to the attention of our partner.

So, what’s the one thing we need to do if we want love to last? Do nothing! That’s the first step. When our partner does something we dislike, we need to stop. Don’t react. Don’t do anything. Then we can tune in, breathe, get back into a loving frame of mind and get on with our life. Too many of us go part way with this plan. We don’t say anything to our partner, but our body language still says, “I’m pissed off at you. You screwed up big time. But I’m such a loving partner, I’m not going to say anything.” Nope, doesn’t work.

It’s hard enough not to say something, to want to give advice, to correct errors. “I mean, how is my partner supposed to learn what he/she is doing wrong unless I tell them?” But the animal trainers, as well as marriage counselors who have been working in the business for many years, actually help marriages stay together, and have a long-term marriage that works, tell us something different.

We have come to believe that we make relationships better by fixing them. In fact, the more we try to fix our partner, the worst things get. We start focusing on what we aren’t getting, instead of feeling gratitude for that we have. If you want love to last focus on the love you have now, even there’s not as much love as you’d like. If you want love to die, focus on the things you don’t like in your relationships.

We may think we’re a superior species, but if you check our track record on how to have successful, long-term relationships with our loved ones or a successful, long-term relationship with the only planet we’ll ever have, you may want to learn from species who know more than we do.

I’ll look forward to your comments below.

This article first appeared on Jed’s blog.

Photo by Alejandra Quiroz on Unsplash

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