The Book of Love

The Book of Love. Sorry, that’s a misleading title. This blog is about several books, and while it’s certainly about love, it’s more a question about our understanding of love and whether we work at love or just expect it keep us all aglow.

What’s the subject of most songs? Love. Why? Love is a primary human emotion, and music taps into that magical feeling. Love songs can be sad, but mostly they make us feel good. We know love when we feel it, and heartbreak when it ends. So many relationships do not work or end badly. Why is that? Do we choose badly, fail to know what we want, unable to contribute in a meaning way to this partnership, grow apart, or simply unable to resolve differences? Any, or all of those, wait impatiently to derail relationships.

One would think we get wiser as we age and discover the secret to successful and happy relationships. Some people figure it out, others settle into tolerable arrangements, and many others keep passing through relationships that predictably unravel and fizzle out.

I came across a couple of best selling books about love, and thought they both made some fine points. These are not really self-help books as much as they are self-awareness guides.

Sidebar: Popular culture is all about dating and getting married. How to stay in a long-term relationship is not as sexy a topic. It takes work to maintain a long-term relationship, much of which is similar to building a successful new relationship. Work does not stop with the “I Do’s” or moving in together. Remember the ending of The Graduate when Ben and Elaine sitting on the bus after escaping the wedding? Their look was so unnerving; it screamed, “Holy shit, what do we do now?” The work begins.

The first book is by Jay Shetty, 8 Rules of Love (Simon & Schuster, 2023): How to find it, keep it, and let it go. This is not an advertisement for the book, although I found it quite insightful and provided much to think about. The eight rules are really steps in a journey, each step building on the previous ones. The steps are not a “how to” guide to picking your mate, rather they consist of a detailed check-list of self awareness, personal development, critical examination, partnership building, conflict resolution and forgiveness.

The main thing I found impressive and important in Shetty’s approach is that if we choose right, and do the work on ourselves, successful and happy relationships are more than possible. Love, while may feel like a fairytale at times, it’s no fairytale. It’s real-world hard work and honesty.

Want to change your interaction with the world? Change yourself first. Shetty’s approach is to get comfortable with yourself and ask some basic questions: who you are, what are your values and priorities, what you can offer someone else, and what qualities you need most from another person. We all think we know ourselves, but do we? I believe we fall back on habits, familiar responses and safety. To be truly vulnerable with another person, we must first be vulnerable with ourselves. To truly know yourself is scary, and it’s hard work. We usually go from one relationship to other, without reflection and processing why it didn’t work and seeing if you can grow from the experience. Or, we hibernate emotionally and avoid relationships, approaching emotional vulnerability with fear, but not the benefit of becoming ready for engaging a potential romantic partner. We frequently blame the other person and feel comfortable in being a victim. Fault is usually shared, but there is no excuse for being in an abusive or harmful relationship. Physical or emotionally abusive people rarely change and continue to manipulate their partners. That’s not love, that’s abuse. Get away from those people.

People are interesting living organisms, they grow, learn, experience and eventually die. Our lifetime is finite. We are capable of taking in data, analyzing it and learning. Each of us learns and adapts differently, reflected in our life choices, careers, health, self-actualization and ultimately, our happiness.

Have you ever attended a class or family reunion, seeing people you grew up with, but haven’t met up with in years? It’s amazing how much we all change, at least physically. As you talk with others, you realize how different lives and experiences have taken us. Some are married and still with their spouses, others are with spouse number whatever, and others are single for whatever reason. Such different experiences with love. Why does that happen to people who are of the same family or who grew up in a similar environment and educational system? Well, there are lots of factors, my point is that obviously, people change.

Change does not have to mean growth. Perhaps the greatest force in relationships is growth, or lack of it. The phrase, “we just grew apart” is so common in the breakup of relationships. Partners grow independently, and in the context of their relationship, with each other. Or at least, that should be a fundamental goal – to grow together, in support of each other.

Shetty’s book got me to thinking, the wheels started turning, the hamsters galloped to keep up, and a question formed inside my noggin.

Is love a fairytale? Popular American culture sure dangles the notion in front of young girls, the wedding industry for young women, and Hallmark for those who still hold onto the dream. Reality TV pushes the fantasy, along with some seriously broken people, from The Bachelor/Bachelorette, to the bottom-self MILF Manor.

Speaking of The Bachelor, former Bachelor Nick Viall has written Don’t Text Your Ex Happy Birthday (Harry N. Abrams, 2022). This is not really a dating advice book as it is a self-awareness book about yourself. I wasn’t looking for this book, it fell into my lap, and it turns out to be a darn good read.

Boundaries are the rules you set up for yourself about relationships. This might be the best piece of advice from Viall. “Set them, talk to your partner about them and enforce them.”

“This book is about being honest with yourself…Most of the things I talk about are really just about controlling the things you can control,” Viall says. This is the other key piece of advice. Start with yourself. No, it’s not all about, but it mostly is.

Many relationships fail because one or both people don’t really know themselves. Maybe that relationship should never have happened, or remained friends or just f@&$ buddies. Since our theme is reality TV shows, I was watching the series Married at First Sight. These couples are matched by professionals and first meet at the alter. Yep, the alter on their wedding day. An introvert in his middle 30s was matched with a 25 year old extrovert. While it might have looked good on paper, the young woman had little life and relationship perspective, and the marriage ended in less than two weeks. She had no concept of who she was in a serious relationship, and had no understanding of compromise, or the skill set to grow into a relationship.

There is an ongoing process of managing your ego states.

Why do people stay in bad relationships where one person gives and the other person takes? I’m guilty of being on both ends in different relationships. Are these imbalanced relationships? Yes and no. Logically, yes, these are emotionally imbalanced, but each person gets what they need, until they don’t. Viall talks about the role of the ego in driving relationships. He’s correct, and I would add that the ego, or ego states, can be influx. There’s a funny line of dialogue in the film EdTV, where the Woody Harrelson character says, “Men are the gas, and women are the brakes.” He’s just cheated on his girlfriend and and is trying to justify his infidelity.

Viall’s relationship knowledge boils down to a few important words: acceptance, respect, communication, independence and loyalty. “It’s about finding someone who accepts you as is, but also holds you accountable for your short-comings, but with grace, empathy, and patience,” he writes.

I’m not a psychologist, but I have plenty of free advice. Relationships can be complicated because it’s you, your other, and the two of you together. Know yourself. Communicate to know your other. Understand what the two of you are, apart and together, and what the relationship needs from each person.

Viall also said something I completely agree with: the sharing of insecurities and receiving help, rather than judgement. Similar to a cat or dog offering their bellies to you; there is vulnerability and trust, two essential things in any successful relationship between humans.

A key to understanding the relationship is to understand the value-added for each person from being together, but more importantly, what is created by being a couple. If I can borrow a phrase, the relationship should be greater than the sum of the parts, or in this case, the individuals. The 1 + 1 = 3 theorem of love. That’s from Mike’s book of love.

Love is big business, but so is divorce.

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