A previous post, Toddlers in Love, pointed out that many people in committed relationships go through a period of high emotional reactivity, which makes them feel like they can't be themselves around each other. This common phase of relationship development is due to the Grand Contradiction of human nature - opposing drives to be autonomous yet connected. The current post is about balancing these competing drives.
Characteristics of adults in love
Adults admit that they don't know how to make a modern committed relationship work. (There's no way we could know - biology has not prepared us, tradition is hopelessly outdated, and pop-psychology gives little more than platitudes.) Once we let go of the illusion that we know how to make love work, we're relieved of the ego burden of defending our preconceptions of what relationships should be. Then we are free to use our innate motivation to learn, applied specifically to learning how to love the unique persons we come to love.
Adults know how to switch out of the toddler brain. The human brain must do three operations when confronted with a bad situation; the first is in the toddler brain (in advanced development by age two), while the second two are in the adult brain (in advanced development around age 28). First we must feel (acknowledge) the signal of possible trouble. In the adult brain, we must assess how bad things are and how much damage has occurred. But then we must shift quickly into the repair-improvement mode - we have to figure out how to make things better. Toddlers in love stay stuck in a feedback loop of bad feeling-assessment-bad feeling. Adults in love develop the skill to move easily into improvement-repair mode.
Adults in love respect individuality and honor differences. We recognize that our partners have different temperaments, vulnerabilities, and emotional histories that will cause them to give different emotional meaning to behaviors and events. Research on adult (i.e. happy) relationships shows that they engage in more disagreements than toddler (i.e. unhappy) relationships. The big difference is that they do not devalue each other when they disagree. Adults appreciate that disagreements can enrich relationships by adding dynamism (interaction of differing perspectives) and depth. Disagreements and divergent perspectives, when respectful, keep relationships fascinating.
Adults never confuse value with agreement. There are two hard things to do in life. But if you can't do them, you're not likely to have a successful intimate relationship. The first is holding onto self-value when you don't like your partner's behavior. (In other words, you don't feel devalued by it.) The second is holding onto value for your partner when you don't like his/her behavior. The worst it can get in adult love is: "I'm disappointed, but I love you."
Adults balance their drives to be autonomous and connected. Acting on our deepest values makes us feel authentically adult and keeps us focused on what is most important. Fidelity to your deepest values is the key to balancing the opposing drives for autonomy and connection. It allows you to become the partner you most want to be.
Adults in love understand that their only chance of getting the partner they most want to have is to be the partner they most want to be.