How to Make Love (Last) When Romance Flies Out the Window

FEATURED IN SWERVE MAGAZINE – CALGARY HERALD FEBRUARY 10, 2012

Written by Tyee Bridge

Romance has been a going concern in the Western world—a cultural obsession, really, and an industry unto itself—for centuries. The theme is universal: separated lovers meet, fall for each other, and overcome long odds to share an undying bond and window-steaming passion. Scan the bestsellers and theatre listings and it’s clear the industry continues to do very well for itself, and not just during the holiday consecrated to lovers and sweethearts. In North America, every day is Valentine’s Day.

While chick-lit authors and Hollywood screenwriters are financing their vacation homes, however, actual relationships are not doing so well. In Canada, 40 per cent of first marriages end in divorce, and Alberta beats the national average with the highest divorce rate in the nation (around 9,000 per year). An Italian study at the University of Pavia in 2005 noted that the brain chemicals associated with being “in love” fade after only one year, when romantic love is replaced by the less thrilling “companionate love.” Steeped as we are in images from Hollywood rom-coms, novels like The Notebook and pouty teen-vampire epics—heavy on steamy yearnings and flirtation, short on the gravelly realities of couplehood—we’re generally lousy at this long-term form of love.

“Of all the ideologies that possess the contemporary soul,” writes therapist James Hollis in his bestselling 2005 book, Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life, “perhaps none is more powerful, more seductive and possibly more delusory than the romantic fantasy that there is someone out there who is right for us, the long-sought soul-mate, what I call ‘the magical other,’ the one who will truly understand us, take care of us, meet our needs, repair the wounds and, with a little luck, spare us the burden of growing up and meeting our own needs.”

Our problem isn’t just marriage. If Statistics Canada data included relationship breakups among common-law partners—defined in Canada as living “conjugally” under the same roof for over 12 months—the numbers would probably spike by a factor of 10. Our lack of faith in long-term relationships may be one reason (along with a slew of other socio-economic factors) fewer people are getting married these days. One U.S. study showed that 72 per cent of Americans over 18 were married in 1961; by 2011, only 51 per cent of people over 18 had an occupied ring finger.

I’ve had my own share of breakups, and more than once thought that I was cursed, or just not cut out for couplehood. After getting married for the first time in 2008, however, I’ve come to believe that successful relationships—even between two hard-headed people like my wife and I—don’t have as much to do with fate or personality as they do with knowing the differences between real love and romance. (And learning some new, deeper ways to deal with our conflicts—more on that later.)

“People have lost the skills, they’re fresh out of skills,” says Kathleen Maiman, a relationship therapist based in Calgary. “We’re all running around this lost zone, this unknown territory of relationships. Couples break up or get divorced because they don’t know how to navigate the post-romantic, power-struggle phase of relationships. So they start over with a new romantic love affair, only to repeat the same cycle, perpetuating it and doing it over again. And it doesn’t change! Finally they resign themselves to saying ‘I’m not meant to be in a relationship’ or ‘I’ll never marry again.’”

This is when Cupid gets hit with a poison dart, and drops like a frozen sparrow. The question for all of us this Valentine’s Day may not be what kind of chocolates to buy our sweetheart/spouse/common-law lover—but how to make our relationship, and love, last.

Addicted to Romance: A Tale of Two Emmas

Emma is unhappy. Her husband Charles is a doctor, and when they first met—he was helping mend her father’s broken leg—she fell for him. He was humble, kind, accomplished. But now she’s ambivalent about their marriage. Bored, even. At home alone in the afternoons, she stares out rain-streaked windows and questions herself. Was she ever really in love, or had she fooled herself? Charles has no sense of adventure, he doesn’t like theatre or opera, and he doesn’t know how to swim—or how to hunt, for that matter. He lacks that real-man roughness. Conversation-wise, he’s as dull as a sidewalk. Where are those feelings—passion, rapture, bliss—she’d dreamed of as a young woman? Is this really what love, what marriage is about? Where is her soulmate, the man of her dreams?

As you may have guessed, this Emma is a famous character in literature—not Emma Woodhouse, title character of Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), but Emma Bovary, title character of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). This later Emma is the anti-Emma, her less endearing, more self-destructive twin. As a 15-year-old in a convent, Flaubert tells us, the future Madame Emma Bovary was a big fan of Gothic romances—cheap novels smuggled in by a local seamstress, popular and as readily available in the 1850s as Harlequins are today. All starred raven-haired, put-upon young women awaiting cleft-chinned, rain-tousled hunks. Emma absorbed their archetypes into her psyche, as most of us do in some form or another, like the DNA of an emotional virus.

Charles Bovary, unlike his wife, is smitten. He’s desperately in love with Emma, or rather in love with what he knows of her—the way you might love a lamp for its nicely painted lampshade, whether the bulb is on or off. Charles has no real idea what Emma really thinks or feels about her life as, for him, that’s rather beside the point: she’s a classic beauty, and she’s his. If Emma seems reserved, isn’t that simply a sign of contentment? When he enters a room and sees her staring out of rainy windows, he doesn’t ask what’s on her mind. All he wants after a day of bed-ridden patients is to come home and nuzzle her neck, kiss her arms, smell the scent of her hair. In other words, Charles is as much in the grip of an image as his bored wife, and as uninterested in her—as an actual person—as she is in him.

If you’ve read the book you know things don’t get better from there. The myth of romance keeps its pallid fingers tight on Emma’s throat, making the mundane aspects of marriage impossible to swallow, and Charles remains blind to her inner yearnings. While Jane Austen’s plots tend to make great Valentine’s Day material—the tortuous lead-up to a long-delayed marriage proposal, always ending happily (with a double wedding, often as not)—Flaubert’s novel begins with a marriage, rather than ending with one, and ends tragically. It’s more Requiem for a Dream than Twilight.

Emma Bovary is a basket case, but at 150 years old, she’s a shiny mirror for a modern problem: relationship-wise, many of us are clinging to teenage fantasies of the magical other. “The romantic phase is the early phase, based on illusion, where we’re not really seeing the fullness of our partner,” says Maiman. “We’re on our best behaviour, and we’re also doped on the chemical cocktail of love-drugs like dopamine and oxytocin that ramp up the urgency, necessity and euphoria of being together.” Eventually, says Maiman—after the cocktail has been watered down by familiarity—couples move into the second phase, the power struggle. Anger, frustration and petty annoyances become more common, and distancing starts to creep in. “This stage is inevitable and unavoidable; it’s the growth phase, and it usually happens when couples are deepening their commitment to each other.”

Madame Bovary is the archetype of this dilemma, and she represents the undying teenager in all of us who wants to uncork, just one more time, the fizzy bliss of a new romance. (Just as Don Quixote gave us the word “quixotic,” there’s a French term for Emma’s condition, “bovarysme”: to be blinded by romantic ideas of life.) In the end, her quest for the good stuff is not a hard-won, happily-ever-after tale, but the story arc of a junkie, wreaking havoc on herself, her marriage and her daughter. This is the vital idea in Flaubert’s tragedy: romantic fantasy is an addiction like any other, and if you don’t rein it in, it will destroy your life and the lives of all those who care about you. “This fantasy is in us all,” writes James Hollis, “and is the most virulent ideology of the modern world, even more powerful than its chief rival: the fantasy that material goods will bring us happiness.”

 Emma and Steve: Meet Imago

My wife and I both—how to put it?—enjoy being right. We’re not the most judgmental people on the planet, but we’re not the most easygoing, either. We tend to put high expectations on just about everything, including each other, and we each have our raw spots. Rub them the wrong way and in a few seconds we’re spun from happy to snippy; one or two reactions later and things can get downright vicious. Three years in, we’re typical early-years marrieds, in love but also in recovery from our respective senses of entitlement and our various forms of damage. We’re working on it.

The real victory, for me, has been to ignore advice from a familiar inner character, the male equivalent of Emma Bovary. I’ll call my alter ego Steve, in honour of his anthem, Steve Earle’s “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied.” Steve is the restless seeker, the highwayman. “If you were with the right person,” Steve says, “you wouldn’t be experiencing all this crap. All this fighting means you need to hit the road.” Having hit the road many times, I started to suspect Steve might actually not have my best interests at heart—that he might be, in fact, a saboteur par excellence.

During a flinty patch in our marriage a couple of years ago, when Steve frequently jangled his car keys in my ear, I started looking online for couples’ counsellors. Several searches turned up references to something called Imago Relationship Therapy. As I found out later, Imago began seeping into mainstream culture in 1988 when its founder, a psychologist and former theologian named Harville Hendrix, appeared on Oprah. Hendrix explained his approach to relationships and couples therapy as a mix of Western spiritual traditions, depth psychology and cognitive therapy. He had endured a painful divorce some years earlier, and was disturbed by the number of failed relationships he saw in his practice. After setting out to find the major causes of breakups, he eventually embraced a new understanding of the reality and purpose of couplehood.

“You’re unconsciously drawn to your partner,” Hendrix told Oprah, “because that person can heal your old unresolved wounds.” Your partner is not there just to make you happy, explained Hendrix, but to show you where you’re scarred—and help transform the personal damage that keeps you stuck in various states of judgment, anger, resentment and the rest of the Seven Deadlies. When first reading about Imago, the idea seemed underwhelming to me. It didn’t promise a fix, or a return to romantic bliss. But as I considered it, I understood this was partly the point—Imago is the antidote to bovarysme and its self-centred quest for romantic ecstasy. The purpose of couplehood, according to Imago, is not to fulfill our conscious fantasies, but to get us to face our unconscious realities.
I was intrigued by the Imago approach, and Steve was disturbed. Via Imago, from what I could tell, relationships were reframed not as the perfect fulfillment of our dreams but as a house of mirrors where we face our distorted views of ourselves and of our partners. Once aware of this process, we can transform snippy bitterness into something closer to true love. Warped reflections start to dissipate, and the relationship evolves into a new place—the spacious and light-filled home, so to speak, of a more open heart.

Over the past two decades—together with his wife, counsellor and philanthropist Helen LaKelly Hunt—Hendrix has gradually developed Imago into an open-ended, adaptable structure, with practical tips and dialogue techniques for couples. There are classes, retreats, even a workbook. “Imago gets us off the pedestal that we create, with couplehood as this fairy-tale myth where you’re supposed to meet and then live happily ever after,” says Maiman, who is a certified Imago therapist. Instead, the Imago approach celebrates conflict by reframing it as growth, as evolution and transformation trying to happen. “When differences and conflicts appear, we tend to say, ‘We are no longer compatible,’ and therefore ‘Incompatibility is grounds for divorce.’ But in Imago Relationship Therapy, we say ‘Incompatibility is grounds for marriage!’”

Hendrix returned to Oprah’s show 17 times—dubbed, at one point, “the marriage whisperer” in Oprah magazine. The host rated her encounter with him as her No. 2 “aha” moment in the 25-year span of the show, and credited Imago with helping save her relationship with her partner Stedman Graham. In the past two decades the organization says it’s certified “over a thousand” therapists in 25 countries worldwide. There are many couples, and I’ve met a few, who claim Imago helped turn around death’s-door relationships. One of them is Maiman herself. Several years ago she and her boyfriend¬—now fiancé—were in the midst of a breakup when, she says, Imago “found her” via a therapist colleague’s invitation to attend a weekend workshop. Imago, she says, helped her focus on what she was bringing to the relationship, rather than on her partner’s faults. “It opened the door to seeing that I was the common denominator in all my relationships. It took the finger off of my partner and what he was doing, and blaming him. It was a huge wake-up call, personally and professionally.”
Love, Dialogue and Lady Gaga: Wrestling the urge to walk

In October, my wife and I joined an eight-week Imago course. I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the class at first—couples therapy and relationship work is, after all, couples therapy and relationship work. But the first thing to know about taking any couples course, Imago or otherwise, is the significant relief it is to hear stories from other couples. After two hours it dawns on all of you that everyone is dysfunctional, lost and struggling in one way or another. From there, everyone starts to loosen up. It’s like sharing a bottle of tequila. There was a lot of laughter in our group, usually when someone told a story about a particular annoyance or pattern that we all knew well but had been too ashamed to admit.

Still, you need to face your defences. The practical core of Imago is its dialogue techniques, which require each partner to “mirror, empathize and validate” the other. When I heard this on our first evening in the class—sitting in a large circle of chairs with nine other couples—I had to wrestle with my urge to get up and walk out. This did not sound like a way to be right more often, and my inner Steve wasn’t into it. When engaged in an Imago dialogue, one partner talks, and the other person listens, period. No arguing, no rebuttals. You simply listen, repeat what you’ve heard and tell that person why what she’s saying is valid and makes sense. In other words, torture.

During an Imago dialogue the listener asks when the speaker has finished: “Is there more about that?” It’s a simple question, and surprising. In North America nobody responds to what you’ve just said by asking to hear more of your thoughts; that’s not how we do things. Instead, we jump in with a related story of our own, argue against various points they’ve made, or take the conversation in another direction entirely. If you’re the speaker, being asked this question is oddly relaxing; it unlaces decades of say-it-quick-and-get-it-right conditioning.

Imago warms couples up with dialogues on trigger-free subjects, but eventually encourages couples to use them on topics (money, for one) that previously might have turned into a badger fight. The ideas are not necessarily resolved, but each partner gets a chance to say what they really feel, and know that they’ve been heard. Which, again, is dead simple but surprising in its results. It loosens things up, allows new possibilities.

Imago also asks couples to make deliberate efforts at fun. This was one of the more difficult aspects of the course for me. Fun is not my best subject. If I’m ever again asked to do what our Imago group’s leaders call a “laughing meditation”—looking at your partner and forcing out a hearty laugh until, at least in theory, you both end up laughing at how ridiculous you sound—I’ll run for a bathroom break. But I did end up appreciating it. Any shared activity that gets you both laughing or your heart rate up is part of the required “high-energy fun” portion of the course, and to satisfy our homework we broke up walks to the park with block-long foot races. And, later, I confess, by dancing like drunken teenagers to Lady Gaga.

True Romance: Beyond the Cleft Chin

Imago means “image” in Latin, and the approach was founded on the belief that your chosen partner is the image of your parents or caregivers—a perfect match for the things you loved and hated about them. Both Hendrix and LaKelly have degrees in theology, and their Imago approach takes it on faith that you and your partner have been brought together by some higher (or deeper) intelligence in us—whether you call it the soul, the unconscious, the higher self, or even God—to get us to deal with our old wounds and become more truly human.

This kind of destiny is not the stuff of watery-eyed romantic fantasies, nor part of what Maiman calls “baby beliefs” about relationships: “You’re going to meet all my needs, and I don’t need to do anything.” It puts an emphasis on necessary labours, which is especially refreshing in our fast-food, what’s-in-it-for-me culture. Still, I’m not convinced that our partners are the “perfect” match for our unconscious patterns, out of all possible mates. But you don’t have to believe that your particular wounds are perfectly matched in order to trust that together you can transform your lives and purify your hearts.

The strength of an approach like Imago is that you don’t have to buy into all of its underpinnings for it to work (at least in non-abusive relationships between two reasonable, willing people). While Imago doesn’t try to turn partners into in-house psychologists for each other, it does encourage them to talk about their hopes, joys and frustrations in childhood, which is a beautiful basis for intimacy. At one point, using the Imago dialogue techniques, my wife and I were asked to each discuss one joy and one disappointment from our childhoods. For some reason, we both seized on memories of Christmas, and as we free-associated with our feelings and thoughts, we ended up going to some poignant and unexpected places. As we did, that hackneyed“soulmate” ideal began to feel real and alive between us.

Talking to each other may sound like a mundane solution to a troubled relationship, but it is probably the only thing that ever saves them—and one of the great strengths of an Imago course, or something like it, is it requires you to have conversations you might never have. Romance addicts always want someone new, something fresh, but the good news for those in recovery is that there is always something new within our lovers and spouses, something unseen that is waiting to emerge. This may be the mature form of romance: falling in love with someone again, every few months or years, not for their cleft chin or alabaster neck but by learning something new—as they do—about who they really are.

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