Tools for Couples Happiness — 15 September 2003
Make love last with the five-to-one method

“To Love and to Cherish… ’til death do us part,” say our wedding vows.

Is it not a little presumptuous for us to dare take this kind of an oath? How can we promise to stay loving forever? Could we really, honestly make a promise of this magnitude and be able to keep it? Yes, we can! Loving your partner throughout a long-term relationship is an achievable undertaking.

This marriage vow speaks of a commitment To Love, not to Be In Love, or to consistently Like our spouses.

Liking is a spontaneous response to a stimulus: a person, apiece of art, music, flower or object. If one does not find a painting pleasing, no explanations of its artistic merits could convert the viewer into an admirer. We can, however sometimes alter our tastes with time and exposure, but our inclination to liking something is personal and fairly well ingrained.

Being in love, is a temporary state of infatuation, which usually lasts between six months to two years. During this time we thrill ourselves by idolizing our loved ones and by imbuing them solely with positive traits. They are the unique and “perfect ” partners we have always dreamed about.

While liking is mostly innate, and being in love is a romantic idealization of another being, loving is a choice. It is a commitment to positive thoughts and actions toward a spouse, and this type of a promise can be made and adhered to. It is not to say that the implementation of this vow is easy. The capacity to love is an inborn potential of most humans. However, the contract with ourselves to stay loving, even in the face of life’s challenges and unmet personal needs, is an exceptionally demanding task. It requires a logical, calm and determined adherence to our decision, making this conduct a priority, and keeping it ever present in our awareness. When we are faced with disappointments, resentments and being let down, it is easy to fall prey to our emotions and neglect our prior decisions.

In my psychology practice, I hear spouses say; “things have changed between us”, “I am no longer in love with you”, and “I don’t know how to recoup what we had initially”. Those words are uttered in pain, regret and deep sincerity. Those couples yearn for the love they used to share.

They want to change their feelings but do not know how to do so. They feel victimized by the changes they experience and feel helpless in knowing how to alter these undesirable emotions.

Feelings can not be changed through the desire to feel differently. Feelings are automatic by-products of thoughts. If you want to change a feeling, you must first change the thought that preceded that emotion; only then, the feeling will be altered. A thought of a sad event
produces sad feelings; a thought of a wonderful occurrence produces joy. Feelings, in turn guide our behavior. If the thought is “he really does not care about me”, the feeling that follows may be hurt, anger or abandonment. To feel deep love, we must produce the thoughts that lead to tenderness and then act upon them.

View your marital commitment as a permanent and mostly blessed state. We don’t divorce our children, even when their character or conduct is insufferable at times. Knowing within your heart that your commitment is strong, unwavering and solid will ease your way to resolving conflicts in a more mature way. People, who view exiting the relationship as a viable option, hinder their chances for a stable connection. The sense of permanency in a relationship is a required, necessary condition to a thriving union.

Reaffirm your initial choice of your mate as the best choice for you. Use examples of recent experiences to substantiate this belief. When you see how caring your wife is toward her ailing relative, say to yourself: ” I chose well. My wife is a very kind and loving being”. When he acts tenderly toward the children, allow yourself to record these acts as manifestations of the sensitivity he possesses. Think well of your spouse and it will become your reassuring reality. Tell your partner how much she matters to you, or how he enhances your life, and talk about how much you value each other. Program your mind to emphasize your partner’s positive attributes and rehearse them in your mind often. The feelings of warmth and kindness will lead you to loving behaviors. If you say:” John is a kind and devoted husband”, it will be natural to greet him lovingly at the door with a welcoming hug.

Treat your partner to the behaviors you wish to receive. If you want more attention, give more attention. If you desire more romance, court him. If you need more fun and joy, be more playful. This is the preferred conduct over the often chosen route of nagging and criticizing. Dr. John Gottman, the researcher of marital relationships, found in his twenty-five years of studying couples, that the four most destructive elements to marital bliss are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Gottman also discovered that the most effective tool for love and permanency is a high ratio (5:1) of positive to negative exchanges. For every negative comment, nonverbal gesture of disapproval, rejection, etc. five positive exchanges are needed to keep the couple balanced. If the ratio of warmth to chill fails to meet this criterion, the couple’s survival as a unit is at risk.

Imagine that your partner’s sense of self worth is a precious, fragile, delicate object held by you in your palm. Would you squeeze it hard? Hit it? Crush it? or handle it with extreme care and tenderness. If you keep this image alive in your mind, you will always know how to act lovingly. Knowing that what you say and do strongly impacts your partner’s sense of wellness, can only strengthen your choice of being more consistently loving.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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