Apparently, falling in love is easy—even in a laboratory setting. A social psychology researcher named Dr Arthur Aron, who studies the science of intimacy, developed 36 questions that call for increasing self-revelation and honesty. Share your answers to these questions with a relative stranger and there’s a good chance the two of you will fall in love. Writer Mandy Len Catron became a minor celebrity after she published a story in the Modern Love column of the New York Times about how she fell in love with her current partner using Dr Aron’s method.
But to sustain love—that’s another story.
When a couple is not able to navigate the inevitable challenges of partnership, things fall apart, no matter how much the people love each other. Love is not a magical elixir. It doesn’t do the dishes, heal broken bones or re-materialize tuition money lost at poker. Just because a person loves their partner, has beautiful children AND the cutest dog, doesn’t mean they can bear to go to sleep angry yet again, and face the morning hopeless.
For couples with children, the pressure to work things out for the children’s sake is extra high. I urge every couple with children, no wait—I urge every couple that has created anything together to at least attempt the work of making it work. Seek help. Seize the opportunity to learn about yourself. (Unless you are the victim of abuse—then you should get yourself safe.)
Because yes mom—you were right. Relationship does take work. Not because I have to compromise and to be less selfish (although I admit that has helped!)—rather because it takes self-awareness and skills to do it well. Few of us learn this from our early caregivers; we aren’t offered courses in school.
Expertise in relationship takes training and practice.
Anders Ericcson is an “expertise expert.” He has studied elite performers in fields ranging from music to sports to mathematics and found that it is difficult to pinpoint any inherent factors (like innate talent) that could reliably predict future success in any given field (except height and body size in sports). However all superb performers did have some things in common—they had studied with devoted teachers, received support from community or family, and practiced intensively.
The conclusion: Experts are made not born. Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell , the 10,000-hour rule has become a household phrase. In his new book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericcson shows that this 10,000-hour rule is an oversimplification. The number of hours spent practicing is not enough—the quality and intentionality of the practice is what makes the difference.
For example: An aspiring violinist cannot expect to practice her scales in the same halfhearted manner I run through my physical therapy routine every morning and become a virtuoso. I tend to skip the exercises that target my glutes. Why? Because that muscle group hurts the most. Of course it does, it’s weak and underused. If I really cared about being a stronger cyclist I’d make the effort. To achieve mastery requires deliberate practice. It requires us to stretch beyond our comfort zone and continue when it’s hard.
For years, I put in the hours… in relationship. I kept at it—with one partner and then with the next. But my practice was not deliberate enough. I was like a hamster on a wheel, acting out the same bad habits again and again. Small insignificant low impact relationship habits like being overly critical. And acting like the boss—to name just a few.
Yes, change does happen over time as our awareness increases. We have insights; we discover past causes and hidden purpose for our “bad” behaviors, we find that something meaningful and necessary is trying to unfold and be expressed. We get to know our whole selves, our dreaming process, including the marginalized parts.
But I have found that awareness is not enough. We also have to practice new behaviors—deliberately and with our full attention.
As a Processwork facilitator it would be anathema to me to create a prescription for behavior based on preconceived ideas or on social conventions; I am especially wary of programs determined by oppressive, racist or patriarchal systems. But lately, in my work with couples I am surprising myself: More and more, I find myself telling people what to do. And making them practice.
Of course, mine is not a one-size-fits-all directive. The instructions and prescriptions I offer are tailor-made, based on the couple’s identified goals as well as their non-verbal signals and background dreaming.
For example. Let’s imagine two fictional women called Sandy and Grace. They love each other deeply but have grown apart; they are co-parents and partners in running the business of their life but are concerned that once the kids leave home there will be nothing left. They both desire more connection but their needs diverge. Sandy is hungry for more physical affection. She wants it to be hot again. Grace longs for deep, intimate conversation and emotional closeness; she wants to be listened to. She says that Sandy is always distracted by her phone or some household task. A fairly typical scene.
So I give them a prescription, I tell them what to do: Grace should put her hand on Sandy’s leg while they talk. Right here in the office. (Since Grace is leaning forward this suggestion is a no-brainer—I ask her to amplify what her body is already doing.) Although it is awkward she is willing to try. Suddenly, now that she is getting physical contact, Sandy pays attention. She is fully present, riveted in fact. And smiling broadly. Next I tell Sandy to say something nice, something that goes with her smile and sparkling eyes. But she genuinely doesn’t know how. It’s not that she doesn’t want to be kind; she has never learned the art of verbal affection. To her it’s not natural. It feels false. So I show her how; I do it for her. She watches me intently and nods. I (gently) insist that she gives it a try.
The new behaviors are extremely uncomfortable for each of them but their giggling and awkward energy indicate that we are on the right track. I tell them to practice the new behaviors every night and to notice where they get blocked. When they come back, we explore their discomforts, including the personal history issues that were triggered; we tweak the routine and practice again.
Relationship habits are hard to change, even when we know they aren’t working. People don’t have the patterns, models or language. Just like athletes or musicians, some couples need a coach to create explicit exercises that target the correct emotional muscles.
Of course this directive style is not right for everyone. But it feels good to me. And many couples in my practice are reporting all sorts of interesting things.
Perhaps I found a good and purposeful use for the boss.