Sometimes love takes work

I’m not a fan of this aphorism. It’s true, in the sense that all human endeavours are sometimes hard work and that love is not some magical exception that just perfectly coasts along for years if you are sufficiently star-kissed or pure of heart. But it can also be a excuse for tolerating a truly unhealthy relationship.

We all know people who should just leave their partners. Whose relationships seem to be built on tears and stubbornness. What I’ve found particularly disheartening, though, is learning that friends are in this type of relationship after I’ve shared a “love sometimes takes work” story. Say I’ve been complaining about how my wife and I haven’t seen much of each other recently – haven’t really been present for each other – and lamented that sometimes you have to work hard to make sure that complacency doesn’t lead to neglect. They may nod and say, “relationships take work. For example, my wife phoned me from her spa hotel at the weekend and screamed at me for forgetting to charge her mobile for her before she left, so she had to buy a new iPhone 7, but the account was overdrawn from the spa bill, so the payment was rejected and she was humiliated, and so had to use the credit card instead. And when was I going to start earning proper money because her spa-friend’s husband is a CEO?”

They then wryly reflect on their emotionally abusive partner with a smile and a sigh, and say again, “I guess love takes work”.

Well, yeah, but it shouldn’t be a bloody labour of Hercules.

Anything worthwhile takes work, but it should be work focussed on doing necessary but time-consuming tasks that move you towards your goals, not massive sacrifices in order to make life tolerable. Improving your communication skills to express your needs and understand your partner is a good thing; trying your best to not cry or rage when your partner has humiliated you in front of their friends again is not.

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And don’t get me started on that “love and hate are two sides of the same coin” bullshit.

I think limerents are especially vulnerable to this tendency. First, there’s the idealisation of LO, and second, there’s the romantic view that “if I love them hard enough, this will get better”. The splendour and power of limerence tends to amplify the significance of love in a limerent’s mind. Something as potent as this must be life changing, they think – indeed it already has changed the limerent’s life. Everything changed when they found and bonded to LO – their whole world was upended, so naturally enough they think that if only the same reaction can be provoked in LO then all their selfishness and pettiness will be washed away.

Instead, of course, the LO behaves just as they always did, and the limerent keeps rationalising.

So, that’s why I have a problem with the “love takes work” cliché. At one level it’s a sober reminder that nothing good comes easy and that you should take nothing for granted. At another level, it’s a fig leaf for unreasonable behaviour.

In summary, purposeful work = good. Desperate slog = bad.

The seduction of Romance

I tend to assume that limerents must all be romantics. Life certainly makes it easy – the Disney model of the one true love overlaps nicely with the idealisation of LOs. Oh, they are so very special. It must be something cosmic.

Now, cards on the table, I am a believer in true love, and I’m not ashamed of it. But, I think we all know it’s not cosmic; it’s actually a very human and changeable and personal thing. The path does not always run smooth, and limerence can be as much a hindrance as a help.

In the early stages of romantic love, limerence is essential for limerents. I don’t just mean that as an obvious truism – I mean it in the context that having experienced limerence, a love affair without that initial thrill will always seem second best. I’m not denigrating healthy loving bonds between caring people that didn’t get the initial butterfly stage, but that path is very different to the mad, love-overload-that-matures-into-something-stable which most limerents crave. Maybe I’m greedy, but I’m not the only one.

As with many aspects of limerence, however, when it comes to romance, Problems arise.

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I knew it

First and foremost – just as for the mental model of the LO – romance largely arises from the limerent’s own mind, and their fervent desire to interpret reality in a manner that justifies their intense feelings. When the limerence is reciprocated, this is brill. One of the greatest liberations in being human is our freedom to imagine the sort of world we want to live in and seek it. For many of us, that world includes another individual that we are sure is definitively and uniquely special, and who feels the same about us. Indulging romantic fantasy is healthy, when it helps us to escape and transcend the limitations of everyday life. I’m with Tolkien, in his sentiments about fairy stories –  What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape? Jailers. 

But, when the limerence is not reciprocated, or when it’s focused on an inappropriate LO, romantic thinking can be decidedly unbrill. First, it obviously makes the limerent vulnerable to minimising the LO’s unsuitability. “They only do that because they hurt inside. My love will soothe their inner turmoil.” Second, romantic notions are very deeply embedded in our subconscious, and feelings beat the intellect out of the starting gate every time. We almost can’t believe our own thoughts, because of the disconnect between our rapid emotional response and our more sluggish intellectual response (which comes puffing up afterwards waving its arms and gasping “hold on a minute”). This impulse also underlies the risk of relapse after a period of no-contact with LO – we retrospectively airbrush memories to fit our romantic notion of LO, not the reality.

So, how can we embrace romance when it’s healthy, be suspicious of it when it’s not, and learn to tell the difference?

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*Sigh* it’s self-awareness isn’t it?       Why yes!

A super important skill in self-awareness is learning to detach your observation skills from your emotional response. The emotional response is going to hit you first. That’s fine. Let it happen. But then, when your rationality catches up, think “how interesting, I am experiencing emotion X”. For example, you could be remembering a time when LO behaved badly, and feel your stomach turn over, and then think “how interesting, I am experiencing guilt and feelings of protectiveness when I think badly of LO.”

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I…will…analyse…romance…

Emotional intuition is important and useful and keeps us safe, but needs to be cultivated like any other skill. This sort of detached analysis is a good way to assess strong emotional feelings by overlaying them with an intellectual review and deciding “yes, I am right to worry about this,” or “my emotional triggers are stopping me from seeing this clearly.” Incidentally, this should be an intensely personal experience – it’s risky to let others direct it, as manipulative people can try and persuade you that you are being hysterical. Develop this skill and you can learn to trust your emotions better and indulge them healthily.

Romance is brilliant, but it’s also seductive. Just like limerence it can add to, or subtract from, life’s joys.