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We All Have A Theory of Love

We all develop a theory of love based on our early experiences. Often these theories are quite inaccurate. Some believe if they acquire wealth and status they will be loved. Others believe if they are pleasing and compliant they will win the love of those they desire. Still others think if they are aggressive they can talk people into loving them, being relentless in the pursuit of love.  Some believe if we acquire love. Ironically none of these approaches work but we hold on to what we consciously or unconsciously have learned and we seldom realize the futility of our beliefs. The irony is that even if we did not like the way we saw love expressed these behaviors create a familiarity with certain types of people that profoundly influences who we choose to love.                                                                                                                

Where Did It Start?

If you were born in a family where your mother doted on your father you come to believe that this pattern is a form of love. If you were born into a family where one of your parents was always over-doing and desperately trying to please you may come to believe that this tendency brings love. The pattern you witnessed thousands of times before you reached adulthood became embedded in your psyche and dominates the way you try to maintain intimacy. We are extremely impressionable early in life. All human beings want to be loved so whatever relationship patterns you experience gets recorded in our young minds as the way to obtain affection. These patterns are very difficult to change without awareness and the courage to try new behaviors.

 Ralph’s Story

Ralph grew up as the youngest of five children, his father was aggressive and often frightening when he would take one of his tantrums. Ralph was close to his docile mother but always wished she would stand up to his father and make the atmosphere in the house calmer. Ralph’s dad wasn’t a bad person but he was a critical person. He nevertheless was his father’s favorite, probably because he tried the hardest of his siblings to please his dad. He would tolerate his father’s negative mood just to be with him as he derived some sense of connection by doing what his dad asked of him with energy and compliance.

  Ralph married someone very similar in temperament to his dad and he adopted a pleasing role with her. Eventually he developed an anxiety disorder as he couldn’t stand the lack of reciprocity in the marriage and ultimately they agreed to divorce. He remained a very involved father with his son, trying very hard to not repeat the sins of his father.

 Familiarity Breeds Repetition

Ralph has worked extremely hard to overcome the patterns he developed in his family, especially the non-productive, inaccurate theory of love he possessed. Being in a group therapy situation where all members are examining the unsuccessful theories they have constructed gave Ralph the sense that he was not alone. He discovered that many good, compassionate people have lost their way due to misguided attempts to find love. He realizes now that we all tend to gravitate to what is familiar even though it has caused us pain. It is human nature to be attracted to what we have experienced in our own families even though it is not a rational choice. Love is constructed through emotional learning not reason. We need to essentially unlearn what we recorded early in life.                                                     We also need to be keenly aware of our state of mind when we meet potential partners, it is especially important to factor in the variables that may cloud our vision. If you were recently divorced, experienced a death in your family, lost your job, or maybe you were diagnosed with a chronic illness, all these situations make you vulnerable and short sited. Of course the greatest contributor to poor relationships is our distorted theory of love.

  The Steps to Real Love

1)    Know your state of mind.

2)    Understand the behaviors you learned in your own family about love.

3)    Be dedicated to unlearning the patterns you know are misguided.

4)    Have the courage to try new, constructive behaviors, such as being assertive if you are typically submissive, becoming less intense if you typically overreact, etc.

5)    Expand your capacity for empathy; it’s necessary to enter the world of your partner to maintain closeness.

6)    Pay attention to your feelings and when you feel discomfort in the relationship express assertively and directly.

7)    Never be deceitful, dishonesty destroys the spirit of intimacy

8)    Don’t expect your partner to make up for your childhood hurts, that growth can only come from your own efforts.

9)    Spend more time learning about your partner’s character than about their resume.

10)                        

Work hard at discovering the inaccuracies of your theory of love and commit to understanding and implementing each step above.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

Is Sex Necessary to Sustain Intimacy

In my last group therapy session members were discussing their levels of happiness in relation to all aspects of their lives.  This particular group ranges in age from mid-forties to mid -fifties. One of the women who was recently divorced said her major frustration in life is not having a sexual partner. “I haven’t had sex in more than a year, she kiddingly made light of the situation but we could all tell she was genuinely frustrated. As members began to open up she was surprised to hear that some married members do not have sex regularly. Two of our male members said they basically live in celibate marriages. Her reaction, “I don’t think I could stay married, why do you stay in such a negative situation”. Ironically the two men who currently have celibate marriages have been married the longest. One indicates that he has gained a new understanding of his situation over time. “My wife struggled with her weight all her life, as the years went on she felt more and more unattractive despite my telling her she looked good, I still love her but I have never been able to change her mind. Then menopause came early and the lights went out completely.  I admit I have been angry with her for a long time but through couples sessions I realize that it is not personal, it is something she is working on and I finally have come to believe it is not about me. I have hope for the future because I know we love each other and we’re both trying”.

                                    Sexual Desire is Complicated

    In my practice the story above is a very common, particularly as people age. There are a multitude of reasons as to why people become distant sexually. Unresolved conflict, ill health, poor fitness, depression, anxiety about body image, alcohol or drug use, sexual abuse and of course hormonal changes are all influential factors. In addition a person’s history with affection within one’s own family is a very important factor.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            One of our group members is a person we all admire tremendously. He is not a driven or self absorbed person, his character is outstanding and his devotion to people in his community is quite impressive. He was divorced several years ago and his second marriage has been the best relationship of his life. However his wife has never had strong sexual desires and as she has aged her desire for sex has diminished greatly. Ron has periodically talked of his longing for her and how rejected he sometimes feels. He has periodically brought up the subject with her and he ultimately feels uncomfortable as his wife usually ends up feeling terrible. She loves him deeply and realizes she is disappointing him in significant ways. Ron knows his life loves him. They communicate well except for this very touchy subject, and have both been very committed to their children from both of their previous marriages. In our last group session he was asked how he copes with such infrequent sexual contact. “I don’t know really, I try to focus on the other aspects of our relationship. My wife is a very affectionate person, we cuddle on the couch and in bed so it’s not like I can’t feel her interest. I think of how wonderful she has been to my family, my dying father, my daughter over the years and I love how committed she is to the students in her class. I should talk to her more about our sexual relationship but I just don’t like hurting her. All in all I cope by knowing she is the best thing that ever happened to me. Do I wish we could make love occasionally? Of course but for now I have to look at the whole picture”.

                                        What is the Answer?

Sexuality in the early stages of a relationship is easy, takes very little skill and is usually filled with idealized projections of who the other persona is and how they will change our lives. As time goes on reality sets in and those who use sex for functional reasons often become disenchanted quickly. Sexual intimacy for them is not about loving it is about satisfying needs to lift self worth.  They seldom remain engaged long enough to truly love the essence of another person. They move on to another fantasized person who will temporarily serve as an anti-depressant.

         What about those individuals who come to truly love their partner. What do you do when sexual intimacy is lacking and emotional distance is growing? How do you decide to go on if you know intimacy may not be a major part of the relationship? These are extremely complicated questions for sure and they will take time and patience to answer accurately. It is most important to ask yourself if you are allowing for intimacy to develop. Examine your own behavior first and with the help of your partner try to be honest and open as to what you bring to the relationship that may hinder intimacy. For instance,  many people underestimate the need for relationships to be fostered and not taken for granted. If you don’t water the plant it withers, love is no different. After you have worked out your part with clarity you are in a better position to access the level of genuine love in your relationship. If it is truly absent it will be easier to make decisions. For instance my two patients above love their wives and thus they have decided to remain committed and will continue to work on the possibilities.

                                      Empathy creates Intimacy

   In order to maintain intimacy in any quality long term relationship we have to go beyond physical attraction to encompass the heart and soul of the person we have committed our lives to. Empathy leads us from the initial superficial connection to a deep, heartfelt relationship that involves knowing and loving the whole person. When we love and accept our partner’s imperfections we also find ourselves more acceptant of our own limitations and shortcomings.

     It is foolish to assume your sexual relationship will remain the same as when you first met. Many people long for the return to the initial infatuation phase.  It is far more fulfilling when we actually experience the depth of love that goes beyond imagination to a reality that is supportive, dependable and expansive. Ultimate intimacy is when two souls join together as one. As we have seen this may or may not include sexual intimacy. In any event when you establish this kind of depth you are in a much better position to judge the relevance and importance of sexuality to you and your partner. In my experience when couples love deeply and empathically they find a way to re-engage affectionately and often reach a satisfactory level of sexual intimacy.

                                          Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

                                 Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

The Estrangement of the American Couple

 

American couples are increasingly growing distant in a society driven by image, fears of ageing and the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world.  According to the World Health Organization we have one of the highest rates of depression, stress, anxiety, addictions, diabetes and obesity in the civilized world. Our children reportedly have the highest rates of childhood diabetes and obesity, and the depression rates for children are two and a half times what they were a few years ago. Eating disorders and substance abuse are common not atypical in today’s schools. Each week we spend 22 hours less with our children than parents 20 years ago; we are essentially becoming ESTRANGED from our children.                                             

                              Money Can’t Buy Love

We are spending more than ever before, with the national savings rate at the lowest point since the Great Depression. Studies have proven that compulsive spending and financial insecurity causes estrangement in our marriages. Our competitive nature drives us to spend what we don’t have in order to be on par with our neighbors and associates. We are in a contest we don’t enjoy, can’t win and can’t seem to stop.

                           Stop Aging to Secure Love                                                   

We lead the world in money spent on cosmetic procedures; we spent $14 billion on these procedures in 2006 with one billion being financed. One third of the people having these procedures had a household income of less than $30,000. The obsessive pursuit of beauty causes additive behavior which has also been proven to cause estrangement from those closest to us. Our society is increasingly fostering unhealthy relationships that are based on appearance rather than encouraging the process of learning how to establish and maintain genuine love.

                                Loving a Fantasy

             The pornographic industry has grown exponentially as it offers, along with sex chat rooms, a quick fix to the chronic problem of emotional distance in long term relationships. Americans spent $13 billion on pornography in 2006, every second we spend $3,075 on pornographic sites .Spouses who pursue porn on a regular basis ultimately feel estranged from their partners as no one can compete with the idealization of porn figures. These idealized images foster perfectionism and a false sense of what love and intimate sexuality really mean.

                         We’ve lost that Loving Feeling

          Couples from all walks of life tell me on a daily basis how they long for the “in love” feeling they had in the early years of their courtships. Estrangement has been defined as a state of indifference where there had formerly been love, affection and friendliness. Many couples have come to believe that sexual relations dwindle simply because of years spent together. The facts point more in the direction of couples losing intimacy by buying into a fast paced culture, a culture of estrangement that stresses beauty, money and an anti-ageing formula of success. We are becoming a society that lacks relational integrity- the capacity to place relationships with family, friends and community above the need for image and status.

                             Performance Addiction

          ESTRANGMENT is, in part, the result of the cultural forces outlined above that have been absorbed into the psyches of many individuals. These forces have been identified by other theorists but not in terms of how they deteriorate levels of intimacy in our long term relationships. They leave many with a feeling of indifference to those they once “fell in love with“. Americans long for closeness they lost long ago. Unfortunately we are looking in all the wrong places. Many have fallen prey to what I call Performance Addiction-the belief that perfecting appearance and achieving status will secure love and respect. This irrational belief system is hardwired early in life and reinforced by cultural expectations. Performance addicts tend to value achievement over character and status over relationships.   

                        The Path to True, Lasting Love 

     Performance addicts believe they can perfect their way to happiness. They must return to the “scene of the crime” when they first started believing that performance would be the answer to their longings for love. Awareness of this original story is necessary so that old dysfunctional beliefs can be replaced by learning new behaviors that  foster authentic intimacy. This transformation takes time, patience and dedication.

        True happiness, love and respect come when people have developed high relationship skills, especially the capacity for empathy. Recovery from the estranged state only comes when we learn in our hearts and in our heads that relationships are in fact the key to gaining what has been missing all along.  True love and sexual intimacy is based on uncritical affection, not on the constant comparing and contrasting yourself and your spouse to others, the hallmark of a performance addict.                                                                      

Once we identify the means to regain lost love we can restore a feeling of hope in our ongoing relationship.  I have witnessed many poignant stories unfold as couples re-gain intimacy and restore balance to their lives and families. These individuals have learned how to know and love a real person rather than chasing misguided cultural myths. Rather than remaining estranged, they have learned how to maintain relationship integrity in the most complicated time in our history. Our current climate is emotionally disturbing; the methods we have adopted for salvation have increased alienation. Interpersonal closeness is the only reliable tool to establish a resilient personality in the face of difficulty. Rather than being driven by the cultural forces and early conditioning that have driven us apart we need to establish the relational path to regaining love and a sense of optimism going forward.

                       Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.d., Ph.D

                     Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High-Achieving Life.