What’s the Key Imperative for Lasting Love?

This post by  Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. originally appeared in Psychology Today on May 29, 2015

"Couples Quotes," Fashion Ekstrax, used with permission

In the idyllic state of romantic love—and without a whole lot of rational thought—you typically attempt to secure the object of your passion by putting their wants and needs ahead of your own. It’s as though you’re saying to yourself: “So I can make you mine, I’ll make fulfilling your desires even more important than my own.”

And whether or not you’re aware of it, the “deal” you’re making to maximize the odds that the one who’s endeared themselves to you will return this endearment involves a considerable amount of manipulation. That is, your efforts could hardly be described as disinterested. As generous in spirit as your “giving” relational stance might appear, it yet includes a crucial contingency clause. Hopeful about enamoring yourself to your beloved, you’re essentially proposing a this-for-that, give-to-get, exchange. So even though to an outside observer your behavior might seem selfless or self-sacrificing, it’s actually an intuitive, and quite clever, way of “captivating” someone whose value you’re assessing as, well, invaluable.

The problem deeply embedded in all this is that whenever your love is fully reciprocated and you’re confident about the relationship’s permanence, you move beyond the courting phase to the commitment phase. And why should this presumably forward movement be so problematic? Simply because this is the time when you—and very likely your partner as well—righteously feel that what’s now called for is to be “compensated” for your earlier unselfish orientation. That is, it now feels as though your partner owes you something, that they should start making your needs, wants and wishes their first priority.

There’s a name for this, with which you’re doubtless familiar. It’s called the power struggle. And regrettably, it’s a stage in relational development that’s pretty much universal. Yet it’s a stage that (however arduously) can be “worked through”—though, it should be added, it can also last indefinitely, regardless of whether the couple actually stays together.

What I’d call mature love—the most “durable” kind of love, a fondness and affection that’s virtually guaranteed to triumph over all sorts of adversity—is the most enlightened stage of an intimate relationship. And your love can evolve into this final stage only if you and your partner succeed in developing the insights and skills to move beyond your earlier power struggle.

In contrast to competing with one another for the gratification of individual needs, this is a union where you and your partner have transcended your former “me-first” contrivances, so that your caring no longer has demanding strings attached to it. It’s become sincerely and authentically nurturant, honest, and real. At this stage, your partner’s wants and needs genuinely matter to you quite as much as your own. And, more than anything else, this much more “advanced” commitment is what truly enables the two of you to feel (almost moment-to-moment) each other’s love.

The relationship has grown into a two-sided, give-and-take “safe haven,” where earlier tensions between you have diffused or dissolved. In the best possible sense, you can comfortably count on each other and take one another for granted. Your partner’s empathic understanding, support, and compassion can now be “assumed.” These qualities could even be said to now define the relationship.

And this is a love that has little to do with giving your partner lavish gifts. Or over-the-top compliments. Or regularly deferring to their wishes or will. Nor does it have anything to do with taking undue responsibility for them (as in a kind of subservient codependency). No, it’s an affirmation of committed couplehood: a cherished “union” where your wants and needs are valued as much as your partner’s. Your desires—and your partner’s—are now “unified” or “tied together” in ways that at your relationship’s beginning would have been unimaginable.

Existing in such unison—distinct from any other, less intimate, relationship you may have had in the past—you’ve finally learned to think as a “we.” Without being enmeshed with or overly dependent upon each other, your very identity (as part of this mutually created “we”) has evolved into something new. In many ways, it now centers on your devotion to meeting your partner’s needs (as they, not you, define them) and willingly addressing these needs as though they were your own. In such a relationally enlightened state, pleasing your partner is no longer that dissimilar from pleasing yourself.

No longer do you see yourself as an autonomous “I,” which (despite your illusions) dominated your deliberations and decisions during courtship. And it’s exactly this transformation in how you regard yourself—as part of something bigger and in some ways more “vital” than your (ego-centered) self—that fosters the ever-strengthening security of your marital bond. Which, in consequence, has become more democratic and egalitarian.

You’re just not the same person you were prior to marriage. Nor, ideally, is your partner. For now, in the context of your intimate, mutually trusting “synthesis,” you stand confidently together as one. Yet your dependency on each other is basically healthy in that, precisely because both of you are fully, reliably “there” for one another, your need to lean on each other for support is greatly reduced. For now such support has already been established, or firmly “structured” into, the relationship. So you can comfortably be yourself—and a much stronger, self-reliant self at that. You know that whatever comes up, your partner will be in your corner . . . and you yourself are happy to be in theirs. Intermittent feelings of loneliness, which may have “afflicted” you earlier, are now a thing of the past.

And yes, there will always be certain divisions between you. But if you’ve come to see your partner’s needs as on a par with your own, these difference and disagreements will no longer put a wrench in your relationship. For you’ve learned the art of effecting workable concessions and compromises. You both show a readiness to adapt to—or cooperate with—each other’s preferences because you know your partner shares this willingness and grasps the “imperative” of such mutual accommodation.

"It's All About Love," Flickr, used with permission

If your union has made it to this final, most contented and fulfilling, stage, you’ve moved far beyond the non-reality-based dichotomy of “selfish vs. selfless.” Your relationship has now redefined, enlarged, or “stretched” your very self. Inevitable discrepancies in your and your partner’s needs now seem relatively minor. For in many respects their wants and wishes have become your own . . . and vice versa. More than anything else, this is what I’d refer to as the wondrous potential that exists when two people can live harmoniously as one. And paradoxically, they may each simultaneously become more of who they are individually, for their personal growth is no longer stifled by relational conflict.

In such an evolved union, you’ll find that compromise—the essence of all successful long-term relationships—comes more and more naturally. And it comes with an open heart. For your paramount desire is to maintain the hard-earned harmony that’s created such a mature, lasting, satisfying and fulfilling love in the first place.

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