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Working on Your Relationship During Courtship? Really?

How couples “exert” themselves for their partner before getting married.

Source: Ivanko80/Shutterstock

When something is easy for you, not much effort is required to achieve it. But also, when you’re highly motivated to do something, accomplishing it may feel much less difficult than if it feels burdensome, or you’re seriously conflicted about doing it.

So, how does all this relate to courtship?

Let’s first assume that you and your partner are in love. And that you both fervently want your romance to culminate in marriage. Each of you is powerfully inspired to endear yourself to the other, so that your prospective partner will make a lifetime commitment to you. And so your behavior will be as agreeable, as accommodating, and as accepting as possible.

After all, when you really, really want something, you’ll go full-out to get it. And paradoxically, your efforts will seem almost effortless. It’s something like feverishly running around the baseball diamond to make it home before getting tagged out: You may be panting, yet you’re fully energized by your coveted goal.

Moreover, even if you’re not particularly intuitive, you’ll still be at your intuitive best in figuring out what your partner most wants and needs from you. And you’ll take “painless pains” to deliver it. If your overriding objective is to win the object of your love and affection, you’ll put forth your very best effort. And if your beloved, too, is afflicted with the “warm fuzzies,” that wondrous state of shared delight will prompt both of you to offer one another a level of fondness and caring neither of you may have ever experienced before. In short, your mutual exertions are tied to hopes and expectations that are sky high.

Consider the song made famous by Billie Holiday:

I'm gonna love you like nobody's loved you
Come rain or come shine
High as a mountain and deep as a river
Come rain or come shine

And the second stanza addresses the other party similarly:

You're gonna love me like nobody's loved me....

The reason this supreme pledge can feel so idyllic is that it’s received as unconditional — as a boundless love surpassing whatever more or less conditional love you probably experienced growing up. And the essence of this love (versus mere lust) is all about caring. When each of you feels so wondrously cared about, made such an indispensable priority by your anticipated mate, you can’t help but be swept away by feelings that, almost literally, blow you over (as in, “head over heels”).

Here, bulleted below, are some things that couples typically don't do while endeavoring — or “working” — to sustain their romantic high:

  • Criticize or judge one another
  • Ignore or put down the other’s viewpoint
  • Say unkind or sarcastic things to their partner
  • Take for granted what their partner offers them, rarely thanking or acknowledging them
  • Try to control how much their partner spends, or what they spend it on
  • Try to inhibit or restrain the other’s sexual expression
  • Show little recognition of, or respect for, their partner’s boundaries
  • Be unforgiving of their partner when they make a mistake — but rather, exploit this slip or blunder to guilt, shame, or declare superiority over them
  • Put forth little effort to introduce novelty, adventure, childlike play, and fun into the relationship
  • Endeavor to accept, or at least accommodate, those undesired aspects of their partner that are unlikely to change
  • Show little self-control, tact, or diplomacy in letting their partner know when their behavior is irritating to them
  • Diminish the frequency of their romantic (but nonsexual) displays of physical affection
  • Compete with one another — and keep score
  • Show little or no interest in what’s important to their partner if it doesn’t interest them personally
  • Withhold or limit their empathy and compassion when their partner is feeling hurt or distressed
  • Deny or begrudge their partner the independence and autonomy they may require
  • Do things that compromise the other’s sense of comfort and relational security
  • Focus on their own needs, regularly assigning them precedence over those of their partner

As awkward as it may seem to “frame” all these courtship characterizations negatively, I’ve done so, because the behavior of many post-courtship, married couples can be described this way. So if, in fact, you’re married, review this list and check the items that fit — and that didn’t fit during the romantic phase of your relationship. (And if you’re still in the courtship phase, and many of these descriptors nonetheless apply, that could be a warning sign you need to heed.)

What comes so naturally to most couples during romance is far more difficult to achieve once you’ve both professed eternal commitment toward each other and begun — however unconsciously, and in multiple ways — to prod your partner to subordinate their needs to your own. And this is the disenchantment phase for couples commonly referred as “the power struggle” (e.g., see Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want, 20th Anniversary Ed. 2007).

So to recapitulate: Couples do need to work on their relationship during courtship. But frankly, they need to work so much harder once they’ve already won the other’s allegiance. In their efforts to ingratiate and endear themselves to their beloved, they put far more energy into understanding their partner’s differences and sympathetically accepting them. But, regrettably, all too often this pre-marital behavior contrasts significantly with how they act once they’ve succeeded in securing the other’s devotion.

What’s the final irony here? Simply that to return to something much closer to what, intuitively, you offered each other during courtship, after making a commitment your efforts must be much more conscious.

And if you look again at the 18 points above, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what working on your post-romantic relationship might look like. It’s about strategically revisiting your romantic past to optimize the chances of a more romantic future.

© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.