Valentine’s Day Lies—and Six Relationship Rules That Make Romance Work
By Andrew Sobel
Our contemporary culture promotes many trite, misleading, and self-absorbed ideas about what makes for successful romantic relationships. “Just be yourself”, “Find someone who won’t try to change you”, and the old chestnut, “You must love yourself first.” But these truisms don’t point to the real ingredients of rewarding relationships. Popular concepts like the need to “be yourself” can actually ruin, not rejuvenate, a romantic relationship.
Valentine’s Day, however forced and cliché it may seem, is the perfect time to rethink your notions of love. I’ve picked out six lies—or at the very least, misleading ideas—that are often proffered as relationship wisdom. In their place I offer six Valentine’s Day Rules. Some of these apply to new relationships, while others are especially relevant if you have a long-term partner.
Lie #1: “Cleverness and charm are essential to attract others.”
Valentine’s Day Rule: Great relationships start with great conversations, not one person showing the other how much they know.
This may come as a surprise to many, but your date—or whoever you’re with over dinner—actually wants to have a conversation, not listen to you talk about yourself for two hours. A great conversation helps you learn more about the other person. It establishes commonalities, which drive rapport. It improves your understanding of the things in life or at work that are important to both of you.
The next time you’re engaged in a conversation, think about whether you’re talking at the other person and trying to impress them with your facile wit and easy answers, or whether you’re drawing them into a conversation that leaves them wanting more, not less.
Lie #2: “Focus on your own needs, and make them clearly known to your partner. Ensure you’re with someone who will meet them.”
Valentine’s Day Rule: Know the other person’s goals and dreams and help him or her accomplish them.
Contemporary therapists emphasize making your needs known to your partner. That’s fine up to a point—you certainly don’t want to be a doormat. But relationship building really starts when you understand the other person’s needs, priorities, and dreams—and then you help them meet them or accomplish them.
I’ve read well-known advice columns where marriage counselors recommend you simply move on from a marriage when “your needs” are no longer being met, which is ridiculous. That’s the epitome of self-absorption. Ask anyone who’s been successfully married for twenty or thirty years—they will tell you that if you base your happiness on having a partner who will meet all your needs, you will invariably end up bitterly disappointed and probably divorced. Our personal needs are actually never-ending, and no single person can satisfy them!
Do you really understand what’s on your partner’s agenda for this year? Have you spent a leisurely evening asking them about their dreams and aspirations? Have you thought about how you can help him or her accomplish their most important priorities? If you aren’t considering the points these questions raise, then you can’t be a good partner. And when you aren’t being a good partner, you shouldn’t expect someone else to put you on a pedestal.
Lie #3: “You must believe in and affirm yourself.”
Valentine’s Day Rule: The greatest gift is to believe in your partner.
Ever since the 1960s, it’s been a truism that you cannot love others if you don’t love yourself. That may be true on a theoretical level, but the fact remains that the most powerful gift you can give your partner is your unequivocal belief in them.
Ask any successful entrepreneur who’s had to claw their way to success against great odds—they will often point to a spouse or parent who deeply and consistently believed in them. Is it any accident that many US Presidents—including Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—were effectively raised by mothers who deeply believed in them?
When the young Beatles faced stiff odds at getting a recording contract—they were turned down by almost every record company in the UK—they had one person who resolutely and totally believed in them: their manager, Brian Epstein, who told anyone who would listen that they would be “bigger than Elvis” (and they were!). It’s a powerful gift to believe in your partner and express that belief—consistently and repeatedly.
Lie #4: “There’s something magical about first impressions—you can tell very quickly if the chemistry is there and whether or not the other person is for you.”
Valentine’s Day Rule: Don’t be put off by an awkward start—some of the best relationships will not appear at all promising on day one.
The things that attract us to someone initially are often quite superficial and rooted in outdated evolutionary needs. These factors, like physical attraction or the other person’s income level or job title, do not necessarily—by themselves—bode well for long-term compatibility and spousal loyalty. Furthermore, if we don’t feel we “click” with someone immediately, we move on. Understanding whether real compatibility exists requires a deeper knowledge than just one or two dates.
The truth is many great relationships have an awkward start. As you dig deeper and begin finding things you have in common—a similar upbringing, similar likes and dislikes, shared values and beliefs, and so on—you can find that your mutual affection grows. Your compatibility can also grow when you discover that some of those differences which bothered you initially actually make you very complementary.
Lie #5: “Don’t try and change your partner.”
Valentine’s Day Rule: To grow and reach their fullest potential, people need both truth and love.
Complete acceptance of another person’s behavior is not love. It’s abdication of your responsibility as a loving partner. Interestingly, a new study shows that constantly praising children can actually make them anxious and afraid, not confident! In fact, any parent can tell you that if children have no limits, no constraints, and are constantly told how special they are, they become spoiled and self-absorbed.
That’s why I always laugh when I read about the celebrity whose spouse announces, “He can do whatever he wants and be whoever he wants to be in our marriage”—it’s a formula for encouraging immature, adolescent behavior. And we all know how long most Hollywood marriages last…
The fact is, two people in a long-term relationship know each other better than anyone else in the world. They are in a unique position to provide the insights and honesty that can help each other become their best selves. Who is actually going to tell you when you’ve stepped over a line or acted selfishly? Your colleagues at work and your friends won’t do it. We grow and mature because we get feedback from the world around us. And when you’re older, one of the few people who will give you that unvarnished perspective is your spouse or significant other.
But…be very careful how you do this. Constantly telling your spouse how to behave doesn’t cut it. You have to first be seen as the person who utterly believes in them and loves them unconditionally. Only then will the other person pay attention if, once in a while, you hold them accountable in a very gentle, loving way. Of course, it’s certainly not a one way street. Besides being willing to provide caring feedback you also must be open to hearing it from your partner. And remember, how would you feel if the standards you were judged by were ultimately exactly those you had held others to? Are you ready for that?
Lie #6: “If you’re married to the same person for many years, the big problem you have to overcome is the lack of excitement and variety.”
Valentine’s Day Rule: Contentment, joy, and success in life come from having a handful of deep, trusted relationships.
A recent article in a national newspaper bemoaned the difficulty of maintaining a long-term marriage, mentioning the possibility of “deadening routines, cyclical arguments and repetitive conversations” and the difficulty of maintaining “excitement and passion.” OK, these are real risks. They are problems, however, in great measure because our culture tells us lies about what makes us happy and what we should expect from romance.
The infatuation of the first 18 months of a romance is highly stimulating, and we now know it activates a very particular part of our brains. But that serotonin surge always ends, replaced by a calmer, deeper satisfaction that we have to embrace. The problem is that our society subtly bombards us with other images and messages—e.g.: “hot” sex is like oxygen and we’ll die without it; when you’re 65 you need to look like you’re 45 or something’s wrong; successful people who work so hard deserve to let off steam occasionally; and so forth.
It’s the setup that’s the problem—the unrealistic assumption that the ‘excitement’ in year twenty of a marriage must match the heat of the infatuation you experienced in your early courtship. Set that aside and you can enjoy a vibrant, interesting, and deeply loving relationship after many years together.
In the same way that February 14 can’t make up for 364 other days of relationship laziness and self-centeredness (though some people seem to think it can!), you won’t be able to completely shift your relationship over one candlelit dinner. But you can start laying the groundwork. You can start with some simple but powerful questions—for example:
- “What are you doing now that you are you most excited about?”
- “What are your dreams?” (Be sure to shut up after asking this question!)
- “So, what do you think about…” (it could be almost anything)
- “What can I do to help you this week?”
- “What’s something you’ve always wanted to do, but you just somehow never got around to doing?” (a vacation, a hobby, a skill, etc.)
- Or even: “Tell me how you’re doing? How are your spirits these days?”
So consider these Valentine’s Day Rules on February 14th. If you’re just starting out, look more deeply than just physical appearances or salary. Take a sincere interest in the other person and invest time to learn about who they are and what they care about. And don’t expect the movie of your life together to be exactly like the movie trailer, which only shows the exciting, dramatic moments!
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