A previous post, Toddlers in Love, pointed out that many people in committed relationships go through a period of high emotional reactivity, which makes them feel like they can’t be themselves around each other. This common phase of relationship development is due to the Grand Contradiction of human nature – opposing drives to be autonomous yet connected. The current post is about balancing these competing drives.
Characteristics of adults in love
Adults admit that they don’t know how to make a modern committed relationship work. (There’s no way we could know – biology has not prepared us, tradition is hopelessly outdated, and pop-psychology gives little more than platitudes.) Once we let go of the illusion that we know how to make love work, we’re relieved of the ego burden of defending our preconceptions of what relationships should be. Then we are free to use our innate motivation to learn, applied specifically to learning how to love the unique persons we come to love.
- Adults know how to switch out of the toddler brain. The human brain must do three operations when confronted with a bad situation; the first is in the toddler brain (in advanced development by age two), while the second two are in the adult brain (in advanced development around age 28). First we must feel (acknowledge) the signal of possible trouble. In the adult brain, we must assess how bad things are and how much damage has occurred. But then we must shift quickly into the repair-improvement mode – we have to figure out how to make things better. Toddlers in love stay stuck in a feedback loop of bad feeling-assessment-bad feeling. Adults in love develop the skill to move easily into improvement-repair mode.
- Adults in love respect individuality and honor differences. We recognize that our partners have different temperaments, vulnerabilities, and emotional histories that will cause them to give different emotional meaning to behaviors and events. Research on adult (i.e. happy) relationships shows that they engage in more disagreements than toddler (i.e. unhappy) relationships. The big difference is that they do not devalue each other when they disagree. Adults appreciate that disagreements can enrich relationships by adding dynamism (interaction of differing perspectives) and depth. Disagreements and divergent perspectives, when respectful, keep relationships fascinating.
Adults never confuse value with agreement. There are two hard things to do in life. But if you can’t do them, you’re not likely to have a successful intimate relationship. The first is holding onto self-value when you don’t like your partner’s behavior. (In other words, you don’t feel devalued by it.) The second is holding onto value for your partner when you don’t like his/her behavior. The worst it can get in adult love is: “I’m disappointed, but I love you.”
- Adults balance their drives to be autonomous and connected. Acting on our deepest values makes us feel authentically adult and keeps us focused on what is most important. Fidelity to your deepest values is the key to balancing the opposing drives for autonomy and connection. It allows you to become the partner you most want to be.
- Adults in love understand that their only chance of getting the partner they most want to have is to be the partner they most want to be.
We were made to love and be loved. Loving ourselves and others is in our genetic code. It’s nothing other than the purpose of our lives—but knowing that doesn’t make it easy to do. We may find it a challenge to love ourselves. We may have a hard time letting love in from others. We’re often afraid of getting hurt. It is also sometimes scary for us to share love with those around us—and love that isn’t shared leaves us feeling flat and unfulfilled.
David Richo provides the tools here for learning how to love in evolved adult ways—beginning with getting past the barriers that keep us from loving ourselves, then showing how we can learn to open to love others.
The first challenge is that we have a hard time letting love in: recognizing it, accepting it from others. We’re afraid of it, of getting hurt. The second, related problem is that we’re unable to share love with those around us–and love that isn’t shared isn’t truly love. The first step to learning to love and be loved, according to Richo’s model, is to identify the different levels of love so that you can hit each one separately. He breaks it down to three:
- • Level One: Positive Connection. As simple as being courteous, respectful, helpful, and honest, and decent in all our dealings. Pretty basic, but it makes the world a better place, and it’s the essential foundation for growing in love.
- • Level Two: Caring and Personal Connection. Intimacy and commitment to friends, family, partners, lovers. Commitment to others.
- • Level Three: Unconditional and Universal. Transcending the love of individuals to the love of all beings; self-sacrificing. The love expressed in the Sermon on the Mount and the Bodhicharyavatara. This level of love isn’t for a heroic few, it’s everyone’s calling.
He then shows us how to incorporate these varieties of love into our lives. It’s a relief to know that even just aspiring to incorporate them really changes things. He also provides exercises and guided meditations for identifying and getting through the things that keep you from getting and giving love at each of these three levels.
Through the lens of these types of love, Richo covers topics such as: how to still be yourself while loving another; how to embrace your dark side; what to do when the one who loves you dies; need versus fear; clinging; healthy sexuality, including fantasies and how to experience pleasure without guilt; how to break distructive patterns in your relationships; and how to have safe conversations with your loved one.
Richo provides wisdom from Buddhism, psychology, and a range of spiritual traditions, along with a wealth of practices both for avoiding the pitfalls that can occur in love relationships and for enhancing the way love shows up in our lives. He then leads us on to love’s inevitable outcome: developing a heart that loves universally and indiscriminately. This transcendent and unconditional love isn’t just for a heroic few, Richo shows, it’s everyone’s magnificent calling.
When we grow up, we look to romantic relationships to provide us with that same love, School of Life says. We want a partner to love us unconditionally, and are often surprised or unsuccessful when romantic relationships involve a lot of give and take.
“For any relationship to work, we need to move firmly out of the child and into the parental position,” the narrator points out. “We need to become someone who can sometimes subordinate their own demands to the needs of another.”
Psychiatrist Marcia Sirota wrote about loving like an adult in a blog for The Huffington Post.
“People in adult relationships aren’t constantly frustrated with their partner, complaining about them or passive-aggressively leaking anger at them,” she wrote. “Adults are willing to work on a relationship that they feel is worth saving, but they’re able to walk away when it’s clear that it no longer make sense to stay together.”