How Can You Tell if Love Will Last?
So, you have just found true love. Now, how can you tell if love will last? According to Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, parent/child relationships set the stage for close relationships later in life. Much of what we learn about love we learn as infants and children when we are most sensitive and receptive to feelings and sensations.
Childhood experiences of love powerfully etch the image of a future life partner into your psyche. You can, however, alter some of their limiting negative influences. If you are more aware of yourself, your partner, and the patterns that arise in your intimate relationship, you will be better able to choose a life companion.
The exhilaration of romance can be easily confused with true sensitivity to a partner’s needs. The woman who is showered with flowers and gifts during courtship might be shocked eight months later when her lover doesn’t notice her persistent cough. The man who enjoys a six-course homemade meal, served by candlelight, could be offended in later years when he is given take-out food on three consecutive nights. Love can be better appreciated knowing that courtship behavior does not always correspond to the give and take of an established relationship.
In an intimate relationship both partners must balance the need to give and the need to receive. These needs are rooted in the early experience of loving and being loved. In healthy mutual relationships caring does not threaten the individuals sense individual well-being. A full and vital partner is able to participate in the shared tasks of daily life without feeling over-burdened. At best, mutual love needs to be age appropriate and in tune with shifting needs of life through the lifespan.
One common barrier to healthy relationship is an individual’s unrealistic insistence on perfection in self or other. Unfortunately the romantic view of an ideal or perfect partner to rescue us is pervasive throughout popular culture. Music sings to us of meeting a true love. Movies and television have a multitude of story lines depicting the ideal romance. The popularity of such images speaks to a common yearning for a state of bliss. These intense desires really reflect the unmet needs of childhood, which are often confused with the wish for a perfect partner. When people cannot be comfortable with some of their requirements being met in an actual relationship, the fantasy arising from unmet needs takes over, and become amplified through popular culture. In other words, until the desire for a perfect love is renounced, you cannot make a mature partner choice. You might find yourself constantly searching for someone who does not exist.
Immature needs create havoc for a couple when they surface. For example, a man who never learned to be by himself creates a ruckus when his wife takes an important business trip. Or, a woman whose parents favored her siblings becomes enraged when her husband takes their daughter to a father-daughter dinner. In both of these cases, the intimate partnership is compromised by needs from childhood that have never been met.
Giving and taking form the very structure of your intimate partnership. You must try to discriminate those unmet childhood needs from your present reality.
Lovers hold numerous conscious and unconscious expectations of their partners. Some desires are in conscious awareness and can be clearly articulated. For example, one young woman, who plans to marry a physician like her father, might ask for an introduction to the medical student who is a distant relative of her best friend. Other expectations are vague and often outside our conscious awareness. For example, one tall young woman gets annoyed at her slightly shorter boyfriend when she sees their reflection in a mirror. The visual image violates her unconscious belief that a real man always towers above a woman. She is completely unaware that her unconscious expectation is the source of her irritability.
When expectations are unfulfilled, disappointment follows. If there is not much difference between the wishes and the actual qualities of the beloved, love can grow. In the following example, a young woman is able to let go of a restriction allowing her to marry. Sarah and Tom had been dating for over a year and had planned to get married. Tom was a widower with two young children. Sarah, who had lost her own mother during adolescence, had mixed feelings about having her own children and needed to see Tom as the perfect father. Perceiving him as an ideal parent made her feel secure. As their relationship developed she began to notice that, although Tom was generally kind to his children, he would fly off the handle when they challenged his authority. Sarah was disappointed because she could no longer sustain an image of Tom as the perfect father. Yet she could use her evolving sense of him to inform her decision about having children. She decided that they would have a fuller life without their own child, and that her need to mother could be redirected toward Tom’s children. Their relationship deepened and progressed into a loving marriage.
When there is a big difference between the romantic wishes and the actual qualities of the beloved, intense disappointment and anger can diminish love. In the following example, the young woman’s unconscious desire for commitment was in conflict with her boyfriend’s true character. During their first date, Marilyn told Frank that she wanted a carefree relationship with no commitment. In response, Frank told her that he felt too much daily contact spoils romance. After several months, they would typically spend one weekend night at Frank’s house. Frank’s behavior toward Marilyn was rigid and self-centered. Over the course of the year Marilyn became angrier and she began to pick arguments. Frank withdrew from the relationship. Although Marilyn had said that she did not want intimacy, her intense disappointment suggested that she did crave greater involvement. The difference between her unconscious need for intimacy and her choice of a rigid man who had never realized a close relationship with a woman was too great for her to sustain love.
If you want love to last then work hard to bring your expectations into awareness. When expectations are conscious you will be more able to see your partner realistically and be able to make good choices. When you catch yourself feeling excessive anger towards your partner it is likely that some unconscious fantasy has been disappointed.
For most people the beginning of a romantic relationship has an intensity that is all consuming. Fantasies of oneness and mystical reunion are common. Our language has images that describe these feelings, such as, “they seem like soul mates” or “she found her other half”. Initially lovers are enthralled by each other and only notice the ways in which they are similar. Inevitably, with time and life experiences, most lovers relinquish a sense of being one, and they begin to notice how they are different. For some this comes as a shock. For others, it is a mild disruption that requires only minor adjustments.
For love to last, lovers must have compatible styles of working out differences. Mr. Jones, a reticent man, is greatly relieved when Mrs. Jones, his more verbal wife, initiates discussion of painful topics. Mr. Smith, a man who likes to be in control, is angered when Mrs. Smith attempts to voice her concerns. The complementary quality of the Jones’ interpersonal style enriches their relationship whereas the Smiths’ differences generate tension. In partnerships where both participants take pleasure in discussing their innermost thoughts or where both prefer sharing only very discrete aspects of themselves, love can flourish.
What is important is that the couple’s approach to interpersonal dilemmas enhances resolution rather then perpetuates discord. Learning to accurately perceive how you and your partner interact with others can help you evaluate whether your styles mesh. Pay attention to how your partner handles conflict with family, with friends, and at work. That is the most accurate indicator you have of how he will handle difficulties with you. Be aware, in turn, of how you respond to controversy and how others respond to you. This is valuable information that can help you determine if you and your partner will be able to effectively resolve discord, thereby enabling your relationship to deepen.
A love that lasts requires an appreciation of the power and significance of irreconcilable differences, and an ability to take them into account when choosing a life partner. Individuals vary on many dimensions of personality and life style, all of which can shift over a lifetime. In considering a life together, lovers are forced to decide their future based on their current understanding of each other. Irreconcilable differences that push an individual too far outside of his capacity to tolerate change will put a relationship at risk. For example, a woman who could not move away from her hometown without experiencing a severe depression would find it impossible to follow her partner to a job in Europe. Commonly, irreconcilable differences can be found when divergent goals are strongly held. A woman who feels incomplete without offspring would not be able to resolve her anger with a husband who refuses to give her children. A man who wants a leadership role in industry will resent a wife who refuses to participate in the company’s social gatherings. Try to appreciate what is most important to yourself and to your partner. How flexible are you both?
When romance evolves into commitment, couples begin discussing building a future together. Shared ambitions and a similar style of realizing goals helps love flourish. For example, April and John might both want to purchase a home within the first three years of marriage. If they both feel comfortable with saving one income toward a down payment and living on the second income, they can avoid lingering resentment over this important choice. Some styles of manifesting a shared vision can be so consistently discrepant that the ongoing level of tension erodes loving feelings. A couple might want children and assume that since they both want a family they are in full accord. But, to one partner having children might mean one parent in the home full-time, whereas the other partner might expect both parents to blend home and work responsibilities. Their goals are the same, but they have very different ideas on how to translate them into daily life. In deciding to build a life together, love would be well served if both partners could describe to each other how they hope to achieve their aspirations.
How can you tell if love will last? There are no absolute predictors. There are, however, a number of ways to improve your choices and chances for long lasting love. Self-awareness coupled with the ability to know your companion will improve the quality of partner choice. Evaluate yourself and your partner in a variety of situations inside and outside of your relationship. Assume that a broad interpersonal style is reflective of character. How your partner treats others, particularly when the relationship is a dependent one, indicates how he will ultimately treat you. When you discuss your mutual goals make sure you understand exactly how your partner hopes to realize those goals. A relationship can best sustain loving feelings if there is a harmonious sense of how to manifest a shared vision. Be able to describe how you and your partner process interpersonal difficulties, and then evaluate whether your styles are compatible. If they mesh then love can grow, but if your styles clash then love will be sorely tested. Think about your “bottom line” in relationship what would be considered an irreconcilable difference and use that understanding in choosing a life partner. Work hard to become intimately familiar with the conscious and unconscious expectations you and your partner bring to the relationship.
For love to deepen, you must be able to contain the discomfort that stems from childhood’s unmet needs, recognizing how it is different from disappointment that arises from life’s shortcomings. The former cripples love. Try not to measure your relationship against the fantasy images that come from popular culture, for you will be perpetually disappointed. Be aware of how the past influences the present, especially in your closest relationships. If, in the course of your adulthood, your intimate relationships have improved over those of your childhood, you have emerged triumphant.
Judith A. Livingston, PhD.
Clinical Associate in Psychology (Psychiatry)
Massachusetts General Hospital
Content provided with permission from Judith A. Livingston, Ph.D. Copyright 2000.
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This content was last modified on: 08/11/2008