Building Relationship Muscles
Oct 28, 2013 02:06PM
By Jonathan Baxter
While most people would acknowledge that relationships require time and energy to thrive, they may not know how, exactly, to go about that process. “You have to work at a marriage,” is a typical, almost trite, refrain, but the ultimate instruction manual for couples has yet to be written.
Fortunately, Barbara Fredrickson’s new book, Love 2.0, presents some useful ideas about loving relationships. Fredrickson narrows the definition of love from a vague concept to a specific emotional experience, alongside happiness, sadness or anger. Seen in this light, love is something that can be felt at any given moment, coming and going like other emotions. There is no way to be “in love” with someone any more than there is a way to be “in happiness” or “in anger” because love is an emotion, not a label.
Understanding love as an emotion opens up the possibility of creating more love, because a person’s emotional state can be influenced, practiced and cultivated. Couples can therefore consciously work to create moments of love together. Thinking of love as an emotion rather than a concept helps people step away from ambiguous labels and consciously nurture loving feelings.
Love moments are free and readily available, but cultivating them with a partner takes practice and skill. The work involves repeatedly bringing mindful attention to one’s reactions in relationship. It involves challenging assumptions that typically lead to anger and defensiveness, letting go and practicing acceptance. It also requires encouraging and creating moments of true partnership and shared experience. Physical fitness is built in the gym, while relationship muscles are built in the relationship.
Happily, this work comes with rewards. For many, the love moments themselves, including instances of shared experience, affection and togetherness, will be reward enough. This is especially true when these moments appear in situations that formerly resulted in reactive anger, fear and emotional isolation. There is also growing evidence that relationships based in love moments are good for physical health. Beyond the good feeling of it all, the cumulative effect of these efforts is a stronger bond of connectedness that makes relationships more resilient.
The pursuit of progress defines much of the American experience, but that ambition has traditionally been focused on such areas as financial gain, professional growth and physical development. Today, it is becoming clear that our most intimate relationships can also be trained and developed through practice and attention. The key lies in letting go of love as a concept and, instead, learning how to create moments of love that can be felt and enjoyed.
Jonathan Baxter, MA, LMHC, is a psychotherapist, couples counselor and consultant based in Lexington, and a member of the adjunct faculty in Counseling Psychology at Lesley University. For more information, visit JonathanBaxter.com or call 617-306-0264.