In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

Lust, Love, Like

Keeping love strong

We live in tough times. It takes work to stay together in relationship and there's certainly lots of temptation out there. Our high-tech, warp-speed consumer culture is adept at breeding short attention spans, seemingly directing us to the "next best thing". In addition to that, our psyches are often guided by the "pleasure principle" that seeks to override that which causes emotional or psychological discomfort and pain. We have become conditioned to gravitate toward that which makes us feel good and gratifies our immediate needs, and have difficulty staying with that which is painful and anxiety-provoking—especially relationships.

Science is just beginning to understand the brain's reactions to sex, love, and attachment. In Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, anthropologist Helen Fisher, along with research colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and SUNY Stony Brook, studied the brain circuitry and chemistry of romantic love through fMRI brain scanning. As a result of their findings, they proposed that humans exhibit three "primary mating drives": the sex drive, or lust, mediated by androgens and estrogens; attraction or romantic love facilitated by dopamine and norepinephrine; and attachment seemingly sustained by vasopressin and oxytocin.

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When it comes to sex/lust, the trap is to get addicted to the immediate gratification of pleasure, to mistake that for real emotional connection, and to misinterpret what occurs in the intimacy of physical involvement with the intimacy of a relationship developed over time. People often try to convince themselves that they're "in love" because a basic need is being temporarily satisfied. They tend to want to reinforce this gratifying relationship and have a hard time examining it for what it really is. Perhaps if they could, they would eventually seek out partners that are ultimately more beneficial to their healthy development. Someone they could really be in love with for a lifetime. Don't get me wrong. Of course, sex and lust are essential components of a healthy relationship.

But total intimacy-knowing someone through and through, especially over the course of many years-requires a sustainable merging of minds and feelings over time. Bottom line—if a relationship is worth keeping, it deserves the necessary respect and effort it takes to make it thrive.

Beyond attraction and love, which are the obvious essentials for a healthy, long-term relationship, there's the need to develop attachment to your partner—the cement that holds a relationship together over a lifetime. You need to find ways to really like the person you're committed to being with. So here are some basic behaviors/habits of a successful, committed, and loving relationship.

Stay interested in each other's lives. You were interested in finding out about each other when you first met. You asked questions and you listened. The ability to listen and curiosity about your partner is key to sustaining your relationship. Don't assume that you don't have to spend the time listening to your partner because you know everything about them. People change during the course of a relationship.

Make a concerted effort to spend time together. No matter how busy or harried you are, "check in" with each other every day. It may be a one minute phone call to just say "hello," "I love you," "what are you up to." Plan time together alone—without the kids, and definitely unplugged.

Concentrate on the positive. Remember and appreciate all of the things you liked about your partner from the very beginning. Choose to view your unfolding life together as a journey, an adventure if you will. Sometimes life runs smoothly and things are great, but sometimes it's really rough. Having a positive attitude makes life's uncertainties and "the unknown" something to look forward to rather than something to dread.

Be respectful of your partner's point of view. Being critical or judgmental about your partner, picking on them or badgering them unnecessarily, is totally counterproductive. In fact, this kind of behavior often drives a wedge between partners and creates an atmosphere of mistrust, defensiveness, guardedness, and often out-and-out hostility.

Resolve conflicts and differences quickly. Nip a problem in the bud. For less important concerns, the old adage applies, "Never go to bed angry." Waiting too long to confront an important issue or problem may result in a missed opportunity. In other words, things may have gone too far to be resolved and/or for the relationship to be salvaged. Sometimes people move on and forget to tell you.

Reaffirm your shared core values. Similar values, ideals, and beliefs help draw individuals together initially. Keep an open channel for discussing these very important foundational "building blocks" of your relationship, especially when it comes to raising children, managing finances, relationship to extended family, religious and/or spiritual interests, pursuing common goals and dreams, etc.

Cultivate friendship. Many people are friends first before they become lovers, and beyond. Keep your friendship strong by being unconditionally loving, being willing and open to sharing life's experiences, and by supporting and encouraging each other through the good times and the bad.

You can feel lust anytime. You can have sex with anyone, anytime. These are basic instincts. Being in love is a much more complex affair, often enormously satisfying and fulfilling, but sometimes very difficult and trying. Truly liking someone means taking the time to understand, appreciate, and accept a significant other for who and what they are. Like means respecting, honoring, and refining the love you already have.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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