“Are you still as attracted to me as when we first started dating?” I asked my husband late in bed one night after not having sex for a few days. We had both been busy, but since my brain is always overburdened by early warning signs of relationship peril, checking in is the best way to defuse my neuroses.
“Even more so,” he said, turning to me and resting a hand on my cheek.
“I suppose we have six more years until the seven-year itch hits,” I said, only half joking. “Although I think that’s a myth. Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know if I believe any of those relationship stereotypes,” he said, embracing me. “But I don’t plan on ever falling out of love with you.”
Except, sadly, he’s wrong about that. Because we — along with every other couple on the planet — are definitely going to fall out of love.
According to science, that’s just the way love works. As much as the world has been fed countless fairy-tales about the never-ending nature of romance, new research actually refutes the idea that love lasts forever.
Instead, as psychologist Barbara Fredrickson explains in her book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become, love is much more fleeting than people think — but, fortunately, it’s endlessly renewable, too.
This wholesale destruction of the primary relationship myth (because, it turns out, we are all falling in and out of love constantly!) got me thinking about other romantic fallacies that might be doing more harm than good. Here’s what I found out.
Love Myth No. 1: You can’t sustain the “honeymoon” period of relationships.
Oh, but you can. In fact, a study conducted by Dr. Bianca Acevedo in 2010 used fMRI to study relationships that had never lost the initial “spark” that occurs early on and found that the brain scans of long-term couples mimicked those who were newly in love — with just one exception. Gone were the anxiety and obsessive thoughts that show up in brain scans of people who are in relationships in the early stages.
“I used to look at my first marriage as sucking because that’s just the way things were supposed to go,” I confessed to my husband. “When I could have actively worked toward sustaining the spark, like I do with you.”
This means: I dare to have great expectations. The other day I surprised my husband the way he so often does with me by buying him a new yearly calendar and writing an inscription in it, “I can’t wait for our next year together.”
Love Myth No. 2: Jealousy just shows how much you care.
You might think a little bit of jealousy is good for your relationship, but it’s not. The green-eyed monster consists of “fabricated, fearful ideas” that can doom a happy union through unnecessary fights and micromanagement. Being jealous leads to a desire to control, and control isn’t love. It’s death.
I used to be so jealous in past relationships, and I would insist this emotion came from love. It actually stems from insecurity. Now when I feel jealousy strike I talk it through with my husband (a calm and rational “Here is how I’m feeling” vs. an unhinged and hysterical “You don’t love me anymore!”). And he does the same with me. Ran into an ex? No problem. As long as honesty is in play, you can work toward healthy expressions of love that aren’t just fear in disguise.
Love Myth No. 3: Fights are usually about money or cheating — important stuff.
Actually, they’re usually about nothing. Yep. Think about the last fight you had. For me and my husband, it was about coffee. I wanted him to make it for me, and he didn’t want to be my chore boy for the fourth day in a row. But what was this silly argument really about? It was about the narrative we were creating — our “Story of Us” — which had temporarily corrupted from focusing on irritations rather than our appreciation of each other.
Love Myth No. 4: Problems in a relationship can and should be solved — otherwise you’re doomed.
Quite the opposite, in fact. The relationship expert I recommend above all others is Dr. John Gottman. If you don’t have time to read his books (my favorite is The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work), Google his name along with “love myths” for a starter course on pummeling every assumption you’ve ever made about romance. He blasts through fallacy after fallacy that many people cling to while trying to save or improve their union: “If a relationship needs therapy it’s already too late.” False. “It’s compatibility that makes relationships work.” False. “Love is enough.” So false.
The secret to healthy relationships, according to Gottman, is learning how to defuse tension. For example, my husband knows that I like to be touched or held when we talk about stressful stuff. And I know that he appreciates undivided focus until we reach a resolution, rather than shifting attention to a more comfortable topic.
Not knowing how to disagree and fight in a healthy (i.e., kind, empathetic, and compassionate) manner can easily lead to what Dr. Gottman calls the “four horsemen” of the marital apocalypse: Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Once the “fight or flight” reflex takes over your body – heart pumping, blood pressure rising — most people don’t have much control over what happens next.
“We’ve seen how quickly discussions fall apart as soon as one spouse’s heart rate begins to soar,” Gottman says. “Learning how to calm down helps prevent unproductive fighting or running away from the important discussions you may need to have.”
That’s why, in response to our three-day sexual drought, I’m very glad I did not say to my husband, “You’re too self-involved to give me enough attention” (criticism) and “it disgusts me” (contempt) which “I’m sure you’ll find a way to turn around on me” (defensiveness) so “I don’t want to talk about it” (stonewalling).
Stress-free fighting. Who knew?