How do you get ready for the love of your life?
If you are single, and the love of your life is ahead of you, what do you need to do to help love blossom when it arrives? How do you prepare for the moment love enters your life? When the love of your life comes, will it sweep you off your feet? Will it last a lifetime? Should you believe in love? Should you believe love? Will love betray you? These are important questions. Love does not give guarantees. But psychology can improve your chances of romantic success–with mathematical precision.
Psychotherapy might be an art, but psychology is a science. The research evidence is overwhelming that psychotherapy, both couples and individual therapy, increases relationship satisfaction and stability. Research also shows that when couples don’t seek help, divorce can be predicted from objective behavioral facts with very high probability–in some studies, as high as 95%! So, what can psychology teach us about preparing for relationship success?
Single people get a lot of advice about how to find love and what to do while looking. Some of the advice given by rabbis and pastors who do relationship counseling is that, while waiting for love or searching for love, a single person should strive to become a better person. Religion offers a tried-and-true playbook on how to do that. But, here, I wanted to ask and answer a question that is both more focused and a more global:
“What does it mean—from the standpoint of psychology—to become a better person if you’re single, and you want not just to find love, but also to be happily married, and to have kids who thrive?”
I am asking this more comprehensive question that covers an entire lifetime arc of relationships. Why would you focus on only finding love? You also want to protect love so it can blossom. And love is not only a goal in itself. It is also a signpost to other things that make a happy and satisfying life, such as marriage and children.
The Currency of Relationships is Repair.
Love and marriage are relationships. Relationships have three stages: Charm, Disappointment, and Repair.
Stage One—Charm—is not easy, but everyone who exchanged vows in the chapel succeeded at the Charm stage. For better or for worse, in the Charm stage, you are not truly married. You are involved with a fantasy figure, not with the real person, who has all the flaws of real people. You are in denial about who your mate is, and—in the Charm stage—this denial isn’t a problem for you yet. You are living together in delicious sin with a marriage certificate. But this is not marriage. Marriage is something greater and truer.
Stage Two—Disappointment—this stage is easy to achieve. Everyone has felt the wobble of disappointing their mate, as well as the sting of being disappointed. Usually, this happens fairly early in the relationship, and some people run at that point. Others stay and accumulate disappointments as if they were collecting rocks to carry in a backpack. Nothing ever gets resolved. New disappointments, hurts, and grudges add to the crushing burden on their backs. For some, this stage, after years of disappointment, ends in divorce. Others carry their burden in quiet misery. Still others express their pain with infidelity, addiction, unbridled rage, or depression. Whether your experience of marriage is a cold war or a hot war, if you are in the Disappointment stage, the winds of this war blow out the fire of romance, and you and your spouse retreat from couplehood. The sad irony, however, is that although the misery has started, and the misery is real, the real marriage has not started yet. Spouses who are stuck at the Disappointment stage are strangers sharing a marriage certificate and a life of disappointment. The real marriage is less bitter.
With Stage Three—Repair—the marriage begins. Repair is the stage where the spouses show themselves and see each other differently from the way it had been in the past. In the Repair stage, spouses recognize one another not for the Angel that they see in the Charm stage and not for the Devil that they see in the Disappointment stage but for the real human being they married, and this may not always be a pretty picture. In the Repair stage, spouses also show themselves not as the Angel that people present in the Charm stage and not as the Devil that people act out in the Disappointment stage, but for the real person with character flaws who has something to apologize for and something to forgive. The frustrating thing about the Repair stage is that it is hard. The valuable thing about the Repair stage is that the relationship in this stage is not just better than in the Disappointment stage, but it is also better than in the Charm stage—because what’s real is better than the most beautiful fantasy. The bittersweet thing about the Repair stage is that, unless you get there, your marriage has not started.
A marriage that is viable, a marriage that is strong is all about repair. To keep your marriage vibrant and strong you have to be good at repair. And to be good at something, you have to practice. So, if you are single and want to fall in love, be happily married, and raise kids who thrive, then learn how to repair relationships and practice on the people you love—or used to love. Practice with your parents if you have a difficult relationship with them, practice on your kids (underage or adult) if you don’t seem to have a common language with them. Practice with your Ex if you are co-parenting. Practice at work because you spend a third of your life there.
The currency of relationships is repair. Without repair, your relationships will end in disappointment. To prepare for the love of your life, practice repair. Practice practice, practice . . .