Heartbreak all around

Sad news of romantic love lost or in jeopardy has come too frequently this spring. It makes me melancholy, and it makes me try harder to rationalize everyone’s emotional reactions in order to pretend that any of them make sense.

loveEach human being, myself included, is a tangle of emotional contradictions. At the moment, I can’t help thinking we’ve gotten the idea of love all wrong—so wrong that we wind up conflicted at every turn. We’ve overcomplicated love. We’ve reinforced a mythology of love that is unnecessarily unrealistic. We’ve insisted that love is about tender feelings for another person, but I’m not sure we’re being honest.

If love is a way of feeling—an emotional state—then maybe it’s more correct to imagine love as the exquisite joy that arises within a person who has been accepted, validated, encouraged, and valued in any number of ways. Who wouldn’t want more of that? The risk of losing such an emotional high is like the prospect of going through detox.

Are we confusing ourselves with the words we use to speak of love? If we were to revise the usual definitions and come up with more appropriate metaphors, could we understand ourselves better as beings in whom a sense of love is evoked rather than bestowed? Should we correctly term love a response rather than an interaction? Maybe love doesn’t have an object.

It’s easy to predict that heartbroken lovers will experience love again. The inevitability of finding new love is part of what makes love look to me more like an enviable state of mind than a relationship between two people.

It’s old news from Psychology Today but worth remembering:

In the world of relationships, the most important numbers to learn are: five to one. That is the ratio of positive interactions to negative ones that predicts whether a marriage will last or become one of the sad statistics of divorce.

The Psychology Today article briefly summarizes some of the research findings of John M. Gottman, whose blog I found just this moment in order to link to the source of the studies. The blog looks like a wonderful distraction.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but Gottman’s research seems to support my purely extemporaneous contention. Grant, if you will, that the feeling or experience of love evaporates rather quickly, or can transform into pain, when the sensation of being regarded positively by another person is disrupted or the scales don’t remain tipped five to one. It can happen suddenly, or gradually over a long period of time.

Try to disregard all the clichés we use to describe it. Might love be nothing more than one person’s response to another’s behavior? Even if the other person’s actions are intentionally supportive, affirming, romantic, manipulative, or seductive, should they be termed loving? Shouldn’t we use separate, more accurate words for the effort and the reaction, the cause and the effect? Would more exact word pictures help us to understand the necessity of working at long-term relationships? Would precision with language allow us to comprehend why some people cannot feel loved? Would factual labeling make true love appear less haphazard and elusive?

Writers ought to be able to grapple with this idea better than I’m doing. What do you think? (That is, those of you who don’t believe it’s better for love to remain mysterious.) I’m open to debate and certainly don’t have the answers. Point me to some relevant research or just give me your thoughts.

5 Replies to “Heartbreak all around”

  1. Hi Robin,
    I once taught a class of teenage women, from cultures where the norm was for their parents to select their husband. I asked them how they felt about this, given that most of them had been brought up in Australia. An Egyptian student replied that she was confident her parents were the most suitable people to assess and choose the best life partner for her. I sensed that the students thought the Anglo-Saxon method in Australia—individuals finding and marrying someone on their own—was highly risky in terms of achieving a happy, secure relationship.

    The romance element for relationships is relatively new. (Although even in ancient times, people could be struck by love, or lust, such as King David when he saw Bathsheba bathing.) Long engagements were the norm, giving a couple more time to be together and discover more about each other–their values, goals, and compatibility.

    The discussion with my students led me to reflect on the western concept of love, often portrayed as starting with a highly charged romantic attraction. But superficial attraction can undercut other important aspects of developing and maintaining a good relationship.

    Great quote from Psych Today, about positive actions outweighing love talk. And if these positive actions proceed from a base of shared values and interests, a relationship has a good chance of succeeding.

  2. You’re right, Marsha. We’re indelibly influenced by our particular culture’s stories and traditions. Yet every generation tries to find a slightly better formula for their mate selection process, possibly because they’ve lost confidence in their parents’ generation’s methods, having observed the dismal results, even among couples who stay married until death parts them.

    It might be a recent evolution, but the couples I know whose marriages were arranged had the ability to veto the matchmakers’ choices. If on meeting, one or both of the arranged partners found themselves repulsed, they could halt the process. It sounds an awful lot like online dating: set up an in-person date and see if there’s enough sexual chemistry and compatibility to proceed further.

    Historically, financial pressure made marriage more appealing. It still can be a means of economic survival. Even when couples are very wealthy, and each person can easily afford to live alone, one or both partners might remain in the marriage primarily to maintain the privilege wealth affords. I’ve certainly heard this argument from unhappy spouses often enough to realize what the love of money can wreak.

    The quotation from Psychology Today uses the word interactions, which includes both nonverbal and verbal communication. Gottman always emphasizes the importance of both verbal and nonverbal communication.

    We’ve learned that nonverbal communication is more revealing (truthful) than verbal communication, but I think I heard or read something recently about research showing, counterintuitively, that a person’s words have a greater influence on whether the person is perceived as trustworthy than the person’s nonverbal communication does. I searched for and was disappointed that I couldn’t relocate the source so I could cite it. If it’s true, then it would mean a) people are easily fooled, and b) expressing yourself verbally improves your likelihood of being trusted.

    In a talk Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, gave at Google, he described what people are seeking in romantic relationships today:

    But on an interpersonal level we’ve also seen an erosion of trust, so that now the major thing that people want when they select a partner is trustworthiness. That’s the quality they’re looking for. And I think Julie’s right, we want to be with somebody who’s really going to be with us for a lifetime and going to cherish us and… take care of us when we’re sick, be with us for richer or for poorer just like the wedding vows, but now it’s even more important to find somebody who will really stay the course with us and we can rely on them. [@ 20:20 mark in the video]

  3. Trustworthiness seems like an ideal attribute to consider when contemplating a serious relationship. We’ve been watching the old series, Friday Night Lights, which has a few weak but volatile characters, who can’t be trusted. As for the non-verbal, this aspect of communication became devalued as body language, in which a single gesture, like pulling one’s earlobe, was ‘read’ simply, ie a single interpretation. Add cultural differences, and non-verbal becomes a fascinating study. In western cultures, I imagine it’s true that the verbal is preference in terms of perceived trustworthiness.

  4. I finally hit on the search string needed to retrieve the research results I mentioned before, which were supposed to indicate that trust between two people is established with words more than with nonverbal communication. The article is on PsyBlog, and it refers to findings published in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. I didn’t read the journal article, but based on the abstract, doesn’t it seem like a stretch to take “latent semantic similarity” as a correlate of trust? I don’t see that claim in the abstract.

    Another article on latent semantic similarity, written by one of the researchers who authored the journal article, describes LSS’s role in reaching a common understanding between two people. I can imagine myself fully understanding that the person I’m listening to isn’t trustworthy, with or without nonverbal cues!

    OK, I give up.

  5. I left out a comment re Fri Nite Lites, that one adult couple are portrayed as having a strong, honest relationship, which contrasts with the emotional volatility of the teen characters. In real life, relationships need to be worked on everyday, not ignored until there’s a major crisis.
    Thanks for the info on interactions. I hadn’t thought about the number of topics raised related to amt of time interacting. Interesting!

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