Popular culture embraces romantic notions about “falling in love,” or of love striking when least expected as if it were something outside of human control, like a lightning storm or an earthquake. One minute a person faces life without a romantic partner and in the next, they're joyously propelled into the welcoming arms of another.
A person can want so badly to be swept away by this sort of magic that they miss what should be deal-breaking inadequacies in their objects of desire. Some work tirelessly to make their partners what they want them to be. Some string this out for years, even marrying someone, before they fully realize that they are attached to someone who only brings them heartache. Finding love is wonderful, but it is important not to be swept away by passively entering relationships that hold little prospect of ever meeting your emotional needs.
Give up fantasy in favor of goal-based love, because true romance needs a well-focused agenda.
Take the case of Eliza. She comes to therapy troubled over the end of her three-year relationship with Sam. As she talks about the events that transpired when she first met Sam, she paints a picture of a difficult courtship; for the first 11 months, she never felt as if she was in a "real" relationship. Sam was unwilling to fully commit. They never met one another’s families. Their courtship was mostly after dark. They rarely went on one-on-one outings or dates together. This was immensely frustrating to Eliza at the time, but she found comfort by telling herself that Sam had "a lot of baggage," and that it was in her best interest to not push too hard to progress beyond "hanging out" mode.
Around the one-year mark, something changed. Sam managed to be somewhat more open in his affection for Eliza, and began dating her in a more direct manner. In their second year together, he introduced her to his family. Eliza felt as though all of her hard work had finally paid off—in a way, that made landing Sam feel even more special. She saw it, briefly, as an achievement—briefly because these were only temporary improvements. As time wore on, she saw that the issues there from Day One were never fully overcome. She was always the one steering the ship—drawing him out of his shell, initiating plans and difficult conversations, working to get to know his family, and making every effort possible to keep Sam connected to her.
By the time she entered therapy, Eliza was burned out—an empty vessel—sorely in need of real love and care.
Take an Active Approach
Far too frequently, people know something to be "off" early on in a relationship but then talk themselves out of ending the union. Some allow themselves to believe in the fantasy that being "in love" is such a special state of mind that it will eventually cure any relationship ills. Others tell themselves, “It will never go anywhere anyway"; "We don’t want the same things, but it is good enough for now"; or, "I am not ready for a real relationship," only to find, years later, that the relationship did linger, and in fact, acquired a sense of permanence or even marriage—and that those initial red flags have become major sources of unhappiness.
As with anything in life, you need a goal to get where you want to go with love. We have the capacity to fall in love with many different types of people—some healthier than others. It is up to you to protect your capacity to love from attaching to people who cannot ultimately fulfill you, or from people who bring out the worst in you.
A 5-Point Relationship Agenda
1. Believe with every fiber in your body that you deserve a "real" relationship.
Tell your friends, your family, and whoever cares this is what you are after. If this is what you want, you will attract others who are on a similar level of emotional maturity. Stay committed to the goal.
2. Know yourself.
Take a clear, hard look at who you really are and the kinds of people who bring out the best and the worst in you. As I describe in my book, Having Sex Wanting Intimacy-Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relstionships, the more you know and accept yourself, they more likely you are to attract healthy partners who value the real you. Do not obfuscate the facts of what you need from others to be happy and what you need to work on to be a good partner to your future love interest. Practice clearly stating what you are like as a person and partner, and what your strengths and weaknesses are in loving others. There will come a time when you will need to communicate this to the new people you date and you will want to find those who can do the same about themselves.
3. Believe in the honeymoon period.
Do not accept love if it is faulty from the start. Like a bruised apple, a relationship that starts off with disrespect, unkindness, or emotional avoidance is only going to become more unpleasant. You should feel generally at ease early on. If you are always on the spot, anxious, wondering, worrying and ruminating, take this as data about how this person is impacting you. Ignoring this important information about how you feel in the presence of a new love interest sets you up for defeat in the long-term. Some relationships endure for years even though the negative signs were on display at the beginning.
4. Observe the pattern of the relationship.
Generally a couple's relationship pattern is set early on and has the potential to dominate for all of their years together. Reflect on the patterns you notice in your relationships: Are you always the one doing the work? Does she avoid emotional intimacy? Is he asking more of you than you can give? If you notice a troubling pattern within you or your partner (or both), talk about it. This is when we learn the most about the health of our relationships and their potential for growth. Can you get somewhere with the issues you are noticing and can you see (even hear) the issues your partner may be noticing? When you attempt to discuss your relationship, does your love interest avoid you, become defensive, or look at you like you have three heads? This matters and means he or she may not be ready for a real relationship.
5. Deliberately date and openly tell your dates that you are looking for a ‘real’ relationship.
Dating is important: It is the only way to know what it would actually be like to be a particular person’s partner. Of course, dating creates pressure and tension and can initially feel awkward, so many opt for "hanging out" or "meeting up." If you remove all of the tension, though, you have started a relationship with someone who believes you have no expectations other than casual fun. At some point, however, you may want more. It is very difficult for couples who start their relationship at the low rung of “hanging out” to evolve all the way up the ladder to real commitment. Starting with the hard work of a real date first will allow you to make a better assessment of who your partner really is and what he or she is actually looking for in terms of commitment. (Learn more here.)
Knowing what you want and believing you can get it is the first step. The second is exposing yourself to situations in which you actually have a high likelihood of meeting prospects that match what you seek. If this has been a challenge for you in the past, rethink passively falling into relationships and start taking an active approach to getting what you want.
That is the agenda for goal-based love.
Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber. Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships.