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Relationships • Mature Love
How to Make Love Last Forever
When relationships start, enthusiasm for our partners is typically natural and intense. We think of them constantly, we want only to spend more time in their company, we delight in their many skills and accomplishments: but this early phase of powerful admiration and longing rarely lasts.
The world often explains this cooling as an inevitable result of sheer exposure. It is, they say, typical to neglect what is always around. But the true reasons seem more complicated, more psychologically rich and, in their own way, a lot more hopeful.
If we stop admiring, it is chiefly because we are, at some level, furious. Anger destroys admiration. We cease to love because we unknowingly grow entangled in various forms of unprocessed fury. We can’t cheer the partner on because, somewhere deep inside, we are inhibited by trace memories of certain letdowns, large and small, of which they have been guilty. Perhaps they caused us immense difficulties around an examination — and never apologised. Maybe they flirted with a friend of ours — and refused to admit to the fact in a way that left us tricked and unsure. They may have have booked a holiday without asking us — and then insisted that they’d done nothing wrong.
Every infraction was not, on its own, necessarily always particularly serious, but taken cumulatively, a succession of minor disappointments can acquire a terrible capacity to dampen and ultimately destroy love. Yet it is not the simple fact of being let down that counts very much, the true problem comes about when there hasn’t been an opportunity to process our disappointment. Irritation is only ever toxic when it can’t be rapidly and thoroughly discussed.
Perhaps we tried to explain what was wrong but we got nowhere. Or, more subtly, we might have felt unentitled to make a fuss over so-called ‘small things’ and therefore said nothing, even though, in our depths, the small things mattered immensely to us. With great unfairness to our partner, we may have forgotten to admit to our own sensitivities even as we developed a steady burden of resentment on their account.
What follows from such buried anger is something that can be mistaken for disinterest. We’re not so keen on celebrating their birthday, we withhold sexual attention, we don’t look up when they walk in a room. This could seem like the normal impact of time and familiarity. But it is no such thing. It is evidence of cold fury. We do our anger an honour, and can start to dismantle its deleterious impacts, when we recognise the distinctive stranglehold that frustration can acquire on our emotions. We never simply go off people; we only ever get angry with them. And then forget we are so.
To refind our instinctive enthusiasm for our partner, we need to accurately locate our suppressed distress. We have to allow ourselves to be legitimately upset about certain things that have saddened us and properly raise them — for as long as we need to — in a way that lets us feel acknowledged and valued. A good couple should allow for regular occasions when each person can — without encountering opposition — ask the other to listen to stories of incidents, large or small, in which they felt let down of late. It goes without saying that we might not immediately see why a given thing should matter so much to our partner; but that isn’t the point. The objective of the exercise is just to let the partner know that we care about whatever they happen to be concerned about.
To ensure that our desire never suffers, this kind of hygienic ritual might unfold as often as once or twice a week. If couples too often ignore the requirement, it is because they operate under an unfair burden of bravery: they assume that it cannot be sane to want to make a complaint about things that given off an impression of being minor and so stay silent about their upsets until it is simply no longer possible for them to love. Wiser couples know that nothing should ever be too small to cover at length — for what is at ultimately at stake in a marathon conversation about a single word or event can be the fate of the entire relationship. It might, in a similar spirit, not be silly at all to devote an entire evening to understanding why a partner got silently immensely upset by the way we said the word ‘ready’ to them at breakfast the day before or was a little slow at laughing at a mildly unfunny anecdote about a train and a suitcase. The gratitude that will flow from such an effort to understand them will be amply repaid the next time we feel abandoned because they forgot to put the lid back on the olives or omitted to add a second x at the end of an email.
To complain in love is a noble and honourable skill very far from the whininess with which it is sometimes confused. The irony of well-targeted and quickly raised complaints is that their function is so very far from negative. Honesty is a love-preserving mechanism that keeps alive all that is impressive and delightful about our partner in our eyes. By regularly voicing our small sorrows and minor irritations, we are scraping the barnacles off the keel of our relationship and so ensuring that we will sail on with greater joy and admiration into an authentic and unresentful future.