This is the fourth and final sample of my new book (title still undecided.)
The honeymoon feeling is supposed to last forever. From perfume ads to the plot line of Disney movies, the idea that passionate, romantic love is the defining emotion in relationships is constantly reinforced. We’re told our partners should basically be like crack cocaine- we will have an insatiable desire to want them. They become the center of our universe. We crave and worship their bodies. We’re on a euphoric high fueled by the presence of our lover, and the buzz will last forever.
Why this is problematic: If we were in this state perpetually, it would quite literally kill us. It’s exceedingly taxing physiologically. Moreover, the initial honeymoon feelings always fade and are replaced with a warm, more intimate connection. I like to think of it as nature’s way of continuing the species- the euphoric high gets us to have lots of sex (thus conceive babies); the warm oxytocin-fueled connectedness that follows keeps us together long enough for the kids to become relatively self-sufficient.
Our partner is our everything. Two or three generations ago, couples had much different expectations of romantic relationships. The person you married served a limited number of roles: Co-parent, sex partner, and domestic teammate. Times have changed. We now expect our partner to be our best friend. We expect the to take care of our physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs. The problem with excessive expectations is failure. By expecting so much from our mates, we’re setting them up to disappoint us.
A good example would be conversation. When we first meet our partner, we can talk for hours about anything and everything. Why? It’s all a mystery. Eventually we run out of things to discuss, or at least we get to the point where we can predict what our partner is going to say. Contemplating the vastness of the universe ultimately devolves into deciding if it’s time to buy more ketchup.
Relationships are forever. We have this weird idea that every relationship is destined to last forever, which translates to “until one of us bites the big one.” Like many items on this list, it’s a romantic ideal that’s glorified throughout our culture. The apparent security that our partner will never leave our side because of permanent attachment inevitably causes us to take each other for granted. We’re not always willing to give 100% effort to assure the relationship is strong. We cut corners. We save time. After all, they’ll be there tomorrow, right?
This “forever” belief also prevents us from fully living in the present. We sometimes get so focused on the future, we don’t appreciate the present. What if we lived our lives as if today were the last day we’d ever see our significant other?
We expect our partner to be able to read our minds and fulfill our needs. This is related to our partner being our everything. We want a partner that knows us so thoroughly, they have the ability to predict and meet our needs without having been told. For many, that ability is the very definition of love. If our partner paid attention to us and knew us as well as we expect, unsolicited need-meeting behavior is a powerful sign of their love for us. When our partner fails to meet our needs, we take it as a personal affront. We think “Why doesn't he buy me flowers anymore?” instead of “I want flowers; I will ask him to stop by the florist.”
We must talk about everything. Talking has become the catch-all solution to anything and everything. Getting bullied on the playground? Talk it out. Someone cuts you off in traffic? Talk it out. Grandma has a raging gambling addiction? Talk it out. Your spouse refuses to put their socks in the clothes hamper? Talk it out.
Talking as a means of resolving conflict and other issues is valuable, at least occasionally. The problem arises when we insist on talking about everything. When we insist on discussing the minutiae of life, we cheapen the process and develop “discussion fatigue.” In regards to our significant others, over-sharing removes a lot of the mystery, which tends to kill passion. I’ll discuss this dynamic later in the book.
We know everything about our partner. From the time we first meet our significant other, we begin building a profile. We catalog their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. We note their fears; we remember the stories of their past. We know how they react at dinner parties or when there’s at unexpected knock at the door. We learn their pooping schedule. We know their pet peeves, their turn-ons, and their all-time top five movies. We know where they’re ticklish; we know their flossing habits. After enough time, we begin to feel as though we know everything about our partner.
Yet we don’t.
All of us choose what we allow others to see. No matter how open a person claims to be, there’s always a lot more of the iceberg underwater. The net result- we begin making assumptions about our partner based on incomplete information. We begin thinking we can predict their thoughts, feelings, and actions without regard for the motives, desires, and beliefs they choose to keep hidden. This creates a dangerous situation where we see them as a character we create versus a dynamic individual prone to change. Once we've built a sufficient profile, we stop searching for new information. This is a major reason couples grow apart without realizing slow, incremental changes in each other.
We own our partner. Most of us have a weird sense of possessiveness over our mate. “Ownership” isn't especially politically-correct, but it accurately explains the phenomenon. Instead of saying we “own” our mate, we codify our language with phrases such as:
- “Your heart belongs to me.”
- “I’m yours.”
- “Be mine.”
- “You’re the only one for me.”
This language seems innocent enough but it reinforces the idea of possessiveness to the point where it’s considered perfectly normal.
Intimacy leads to passion. I've already mentioned this idea, but it is worth repeating. This idea is so pervasive, it’s assumed to be true. Yet it’s not. The closeness of intimacy requires openness and sharing. Passion requires distance and mystery. As such, they are mutually-exclusive.
If we believe intimacy is a prerequisite for passion, we engage in behaviors that bring us closer together which never produces the desired effect. The harder we try, the less effective our attempts become. Eventually we give up and that leads to all sorts of negative outcomes.
We become one. People in long-term romantic relationships tend to alter their behaviors, beliefs, and thoughts due to each others’ influence. We've all known the those people that loved heavy metal until they met their “soulmate”, then suddenly started loving bluegrass. This process is inevitable and serves a useful purpose- it bonds us by building intimacy. It makes us feel connected and safe. However, this process also smothers passion. Maintaining individuality is important.
We can control our impulses. We like to believe we have a lot of control over our decisions, but do we really? There’s a concept in psychology known as the restraint bias, which explains that we’re not as good at resisting as we think we are. This is significant because we may place ourselves in bad positions.
The scenario usually plays out like this: A couple reaches a point where one person is unhappy or bored, so they innocently seek out others for some sort of social interaction. They’re confident they can keep everything above the board, so they put themselves in a situation that requires restraint. Of course, they cannot restrain themselves, which results in bad decisions. Joe, my former coworker that made a hobby out of picking up married women, understood this idea perfectly. Part of his “game” was setting up situations where he knew the women would think they could restrain themselves, but ultimately would not.
These ten beliefs, taken together or separate, dramatically influence the course of our relationships. The longer the relationship, the greater the impact. Because most of these beliefs either develop naturally or are reinforced by society, we’re not always aware of their presence. . Becoming aware helps, but the better solution involves redefining our relationships by developing new principles.
Before we develop new principles, let’s take a look at another couple. Ben and Ariana and Jordan and Andrea experienced the same basic problem- one member was no longer sexually attracted to the other which resulted in severely mismatched sex drives. Sometimes the old relationship story manifests itself in different ways. One of the most common is the development of the “martyr complex.” Terrence and Rozella have fallen into this common trap.
Terrence was a junior executive for a regional corporation and worked long hours. His income allowed Rozella to stay home a raise their young child. After a few years, the workload and stress of his corporate job limited Terrence’s energy to devote to his wife. The passion between them waned to the point where it was nonexistent. Earlier in their relationship, Rozella had never been especially good at communicating her needs, so she developed a pattern of doing nice things for him in the hopes he would return the favor. Sometimes he would, but more often than not her needs would go unmet.
Her solution was to try harder. She would try doing more things for him, but he never seemed to respond. When their child was born, Rozella threw herself into parenting as a way to cope with the lack of attention from Terrence. Rozella started to take pride in her ability to ignore her own needs to take care of her husband and child. Other people noticed her willingness to always go above and beyond; to take on every task imaginable. She never said no. She appeared to be a superhero wife and mother. And she loved the attention.
Unfortunately, Terrence rarely reciprocated and took care of her needs. Rozella would go through periods of withdrawal and anger. Terrence didn't understand how or why she did this. He couldn't make the connection that Rozella was resentful that he wasn't willing to sacrifice his own needs and take care of her as she did on a daily basis.
Rozella was exhibiting textbook martyr behaviors, which are defined as the tendency to seek out suffering in the name of love or duty. People suffering from the martyr complex make unnecessary sacrifices at the expense of their own needs. Over the short term, this behavior appears to be helpful. In fact, our society rewards this relationship behavior.
Over the long term, martyrs typically experience negative symptoms including psychological and physiological stress, resentment that others aren't making the sacrifices they're making, and displaced anger at the people they serve. If they're in a relationship, it's not uncommon to ignore the partner and/or play the role of a victim, which is exactly what Rozella does.
Here are a few situations where the martyr complex rears its ugly head:
- New parents that take on most or all of the parenting duties.
- Long-term caretakers of the gravely ill.
- "Momma's boys."
- Employees that throw themselves into their job.
- People that do not know how to verbalize their own needs.
This is a very partial list; martyr behaviors are extremely common in our society today.
The problem with martyrs is they intentionally induce self-suffering by ignoring their own needs to meet the needs of others. Just like breathing, eating, or sex, we have a finite amount of time we can go without addressing our own needs. To make matters worse, the martyr will induce guilt with anyone that isn't willing to make their irrational masochistic sacrifices. They demand recognition for their martyr role and hold everyone else to the same unrealistic standard.
Normal, healthy people address their needs first, then address the needs of those around them. This is the only way you can maintain mental and physical longevity, especially in long-term romantic relationships.
Shelly and I have a simple method to combat the martyr tendency, which uses a few tactics I discuss later in the book. Since we're both prone to postpone our own needs to "power through" and get stuff done (usually related to caring for our kids), we call each other out. If the kids are especially annoying and I'm stressed, I need to get away from them. As soon as Shelly sees this, she calls me out with an assertive "Don't be a martyr. Go take a break." command. Sometimes I return the favor.
It's a brilliant system. It keeps us personally sharp because we rarely experience the burnout and other negative emotions associated with the martyr complex. Resentment is rarely an issue because we communicate with each other. We keep each other from becoming martyrs.
We also extend this idea to our relationship by avoiding the behaviors that can develop into martyrdom. Many people put their kids first above anything and everything else. We don't unless there’s an emergency. We put our relationship first. Kids come next.
This idea has some wonderful benefits. First, we're far better parents when we can be a cohesive team which is built from the intimacy we develop when spending time together as a romantic couple. Second, it assures we'll always be good role models for our kids by demonstrating good relationship behavior. Third, it gives us an opportunity to express our own needs when out on a date. It’s much easier to communicate without being surrounded by screaming, needy kids.
If we're planning a date night, we go even if our kids cry and beg us to stay. We need our alone time and we realize we’d fall into the martyr trap by putting our kids' "needs" before our own if we didn't go on the date. The lesson- always be on the lookout for martyr behavior. If your significant other is playing the martyr role, talk to them. If you're doing it, change. You'll appreciate the results. The lessons later in the book will help overcome the martyr complex.