Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Make Love Last

Make love last
Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar steers you away the impossible pursuit of perfect love and towards an optimal way of staying together, even in tough times.
In movies, the protagonists fight and quarrel – this is necessary to hold the audience’s attention – but then after 90 minutes or so, they resolve their disagreements, they kiss passionately, and from then on it’s smooth sailing into the sunset and the happily ever after. It happened to Mr and Mrs Smith, it happened to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and even Wall-E and Eve show us that this is what love’s about.
Of course, this pattern is the opposite of what usually happens in real relationships. The initial stages – courtship, marriage, honeymoon phase – are relatively conflict free. But then, for as long as the couple is together, there is conflict. To many, conflict within a relationship means that the relationship itself is in trouble; perfect harmony – the absence of conflict – is considered the standard we should all strive for.
Conflict is crucial
As it turns out, conflict is not only unavoidable but is actually crucial for the long-term success of the relationship. Psychologist John Gottman, who has, for many years, researched thriving and failing relationships, has shown that couples in successful long-term relationships enjoy a five-to-one ratio between positive and negative events. For every expression of anger or criticism or hostility, there are five instances where the partners act kindly to each other, show empathy, make love, express interest, or display affection toward one another.
The key messages from Gottman’s research are, first, that some negativity is vital and, second, that it is essential to have more positivity than negativity. Little or no conflict within a relationship indicates that the partners are not dealing with important issues and differences. Given that no person or partnership is perfect, absence of conflict indicates that the partners are avoiding challenges, running away from confrontations rather than learning from them. At the same time, while conflict is important, relationships that do not contain significantly more kindness and affection than harshness and anger are unhealthy.
Unconditional acceptance
It is healthy for partners to challenge one another’s words and behaviours, if there is unconditional acceptance at the heart of the relationship. What is most destructive for a relationship, Gottman found, is hostility – an attack on the person – be it in the form of name-calling, insults, hurtful sarcasm, or other ways of putting the partner down. Telling your partner that he is an inconsiderate slob is an attack on the person; telling him how it upsets you to enter a smelly kitchen after you had agreed he would take out the garbage is focusing on the behaviour.
To make matters worse, more and more couples engage in public displays of contention. Sanctioned by our culture of reality shows that have brought voyeurism to prime-time television, many couples feel comfortable airing their dirty laundry in public. Strife, when public, adds humiliation to the equation, embarrassing not only the person being chastised but also those who are forced to witness the interaction. In essence, what a relationship needs is basic respect and common courtesy.
Gottman’s advice to couples, beyond striving to higher levels of respect and acceptance, is that they should accentuate the positive aspects of their relationship. Accentuating the positive does not necessarily require radical change and transformation. Just as architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once asserted that “God is in the details”, so have relationship researchers illustrated that love is in the details. Lasting love is not found on the lavish one-week cruise or the nine carat diamond but rather on the day-to-day, ordinary expressions of love.
Accentuate the positive
Peter Fraenkel of the Ackerman Institute for the Family recommends introducing “60-second pleasure points”. Fraenkel suggests that rather than relying primarily on special events or special gifts to sustain a relationship, each partner should initiate as few as three pleasure points each day. A passionate kiss, a thoughtful or funny e-mail or an amorous text message, a simple “I love you” – all these can go a long way toward sustaining and cultivating love.
Heartfelt compliments are important, too. Mark Twain once quipped that he could live for two months on a good compliment. If we fail to appreciate the positive in our relationship, then the positive, instead of appreciating, will depreciate. Compliments and other forms of accentuating the positive are not merely pleasant in and of themselves; they also amount to a good long-term investment. Just as depositing money in a savings account when things are going well can generate interest and can help us weather financial difficulties, positive actions committed regularly can generate goodwill and help a couple weather bad times within the relationship.
A beautiful enemy
In his essay Friendship, Ralph Waldo Emerson recognised opposition as a necessary precondition for a friendship. In a friend, Emerson wrote, he was not looking for a “mush of concessions” or “trivial convenience” – in other words, for someone who would agree with everything he said. Rather, he was looking for a “beautiful enemy, untameable, devoutly revered.”
A person who only wants to be “beautiful” and supportive towards you without ever resisting or challenging what you do or say does not push you to improve or grow; a person who disputes what you say and do without caring and supporting you is antagonistic and harsh. However, a true friend will be both “beautiful” toward you and behave as an “enemy”.
A beautiful enemy challenges your behaviour and your words and at the same time unconditionally accepts your person. A beautiful enemy is someone who respects and loves you enough to question your ideas and behaviours; at the same time, their opposition to any of your words and actions does not change how much they care for you as a person.
Sex and cellulite
Sex therapist David Schnarch, whose work has revolutionised the area of marriage counselling and sex therapy, points out that sex can actually get better with time. As Schnarch puts it, “Cellulite and sexual potential are highly correlated.” Our potential to peak sexually is greater when we are in our fifties and sixties, and sex with the partner we’ve been with for decades can be significantly better than with a new person. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom. After all, sexual arousal is generally higher at 24 than 64.
However, as Schnarch points out, great sex is not the product of the immediate biological, physiological response to a partner; great sex combines our hearts and minds in addition to our bodies. Schnarch compares “genital prime” – the peak years of physical reproductive maturity – with “sexual prime” – the specifically human capacity for adult eroticism and emotional connection. And when it comes to sexual prime, older can be better. If you want intimacy during sex, there isn’t a 16-year-old that can keep up with a healthy 60-year-old. People are capable of much better intimacy as they mature.
Understanding that love can intensify with time and that, with it, sex can improve takes us from a fixed mind-set to a growth mind-set, from the perfectionist’s way of thinking to the optimalist’s. Deviations from the straight line – an imperfect performance in the bedroom, a heated argument, or a cold exchange – are not indicative of a tragic flaw but rather part of the natural flow toward a better, more intimate relationship. The fixed mind-set leads to the all-or-nothing approach, where each imperfection is catastrophised. The growth mind-set, in contrast, allows for imperfection in oneself, in one’s partner, and in the relationship.
Exercise: Sentence completion
Complete the following sentence stems as quickly as possible; try not to think too much before you write. Then read them over and consider what you can learn about yourself and your relationships. Some stems relate to a particular person (for X, write the name of a person you care about), and others focus on relationships in general.
To improve my relationship with X by five per cent …
If I open myself up five per cent more …
To create more intimacy in my relationship …
If I accept X five per cent more …
If I accept myself five per cent more …
To improve the relationship I have with myself …
To bring more love to my life …
I am beginning to see that …

Source : Nature and Health


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