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…love yourself first. These “truisms” aren’t the real ingredients of rewarding relationships.
By Andrew Sobel
We’ve all witnessed these “romantic” scenes:
Scene One: An obviously new couple is dining at a nice restaurant. Both dressed to the nines (she in red), they have gone to great lengths to make the evening special. But if you look closely, you see that the man is regaling the woman with endless stories about his job (stories that cast him as the one smart person in an office full of bumbling idiots). The woman listens politely but is never able to get a word in edgewise.
Scene Two: A more seasoned couple, both looking like they rushed to the restaurant from work, are seated at their table. Once a few pleasantries and small gifts are exchanged, they both take out smartphones. When their meal finally arrives and they have no choice but to stop scrolling through their email, the conversation turns into a detailed logistical planning session, covering who will pick up the kids from school the following week and what business trips are on the agenda.
Ah, Valentine’s Day! Due to its manufactured “specialness” we try hard to be on our best behavior (never mind that once the obligatory gifts have been exchanged we’re back to our old February 13 habits). But this holiday shines a light on what we think great relationships are about—and how far off the mark we really are.
There are so many misconceptions around romance, and they’re on full display on Valentine’s Day. Flowers and gifts and fancy meals are nice, but they can’t make up for a lack of deep connection and thoughtful focus on your partner.
What’s more, our self-centered modern culture creates behaviors that are at odds with true romance.
Popular concepts of authenticity and the need to “be yourself” can ruin, not rejuvenate, a romantic relationship. Just as an airplane has to be designed to follow the laws of physics, there are fundamental relationship laws that you need to follow if you want your relationships to thrive.
In my new book, along with coauthor Jerold Panas, Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships sets out the laws that determine the success or failure of your most critical relationships. The book provides powerful insights into how to connect and build deep, trusting relationships. To help put the laws to work, we have also written a 90-page Power Relationships Personal Planning Guide that contains dozens of summaries and application worksheets. (It’s available only at www.andrewsobel.com and it’s free for anyone who buys the book.)
Valentine’s Day, however forced and cliché it may seem, is the perfect time to rethink your notions of love. Here, I offer a few relationship laws that will help you connect with someone new—or reconnect with that special person in your life. And if you don’t have a special someone at the moment, I assure you that these laws can impact your relationships with anyone who’s important in your life—a parent, a child, or even your boss at work.
Love Lie #1: “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.”
Love Law: 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, by themselves do not 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 that bothered you initially actually make you very complementary.
Love Lie #2: “Cleverness and charm are essential to attract others.”
Love Law: 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 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.
So 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.
Love Lie #3: “It’s all about your needs. As such, you should make them clearly known to your partner and ensure you’re with someone who will meet them.”
Love Law: 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 20 or 30 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.
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 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.
Love Lie #4: “You must believe in and affirm yourself.”
Love Law: 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 U.S. 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—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.” It’s a powerful gift to believe in your partner and express that belief—consistently and repeatedly.
Love Lie #5: “Don’t try and change your partner.”
Love Law: 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.
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! We grow and mature, in part, 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.
The key is in how you provide this objectivity. 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. Remember, though, a Valentine’s Day dinner is not the place to do it! And be sure you’re willing to hold yourself to the same standards you ask others to meet.
Love 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.”
Love Law: Contentment, joy, and success in life come from having a handful of deep, trusting 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.” These are real risks—however, they are problems in great measure because our culture tells us lies about what makes us happy and what we should expect from a long-term relationship.
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 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, and so forth. It’s the setup that’s the problem—the assumption that the “excitement” in year 20 of a marriage must match the heat of 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. However, you can start laying the groundwork.
Go to that romantic dinner or prepare a quiet evening at home. But whatever you do, place the focus on your partner. And then let these laws guide you in how you manage the relationship from Valentine’s Day forward. If you’re just starting out, look more deeply than at 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 like a movie trailer, which shows only the exciting, dramatic moments! There will be plot twists and unexpected obstacles, but when you put in the work to build a strong relationship with your partner, you can experience great joy for many years to come.
About the Authors:
Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas are coauthors of Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships (Wiley, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-58568-9, $25.00) and the accompanying workbook, Power Relationships Personal Planning Guide (available at www.andrewsobel.com).
Andrew is the leading authority on client relationships and the skills and strategies required to earn enduring client loyalty. He is also the coauthor, with Jerold, of the bestselling Power Questions (Wiley) as well as seven other acclaimed books on building clients for life. He has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, and USA Today. His clients include senior executives at leading companies such as Citigroup, Ernst & Young, Cognizant, and Booz Allen Hamilton.