At least once a week, a client asks, “I know that love isn’t all butterflies and fireworks, but what should it feel like? Since I’ve never seen a healthy relationship and I’ve never been in one, I have no idea what it should be like.”
I usually balk at the word “should”, but I know what they’re getting at. They want me to offer some kind of template or description of a healthy relationship so that they know if they’re on the right track. How sad it is that most people are bereft of this model! How tragic, really, that because our culture doesn’t offer these templates we’re left groping around in the dark, grasping at some idea of “healthy” and most often left feeling like we must be doing something wrong or that our relationship is wrong in some way. As Alain do Botton writes in The Course of Love: A novel:
“The ordinary challenging relationship remains a strangely and unhelpfully neglected topic. It’s the extremes that repeatedly grab the spotlight – the entirely blissful partnerships or the murderous catastrophes – and so it is hard to know what we should make of, and how lonely we should feel about, such things as immature rages, late-night threats of divorce, sullen silences, slammed doors, and everyday acts of thoughtlessness and cruelty.
“Ideally, art would give us the answers that other people don’t. This might even be one of the main points of literature: to tell us what society at large is too prudish to explore. The important books should be those that leave us wondering, with relief and gratitude, how the author could possibly have known so much about our lives.
“But too often a realistic sense of what an endurable relationship is ends up weakened by silence, societal or artistic. We hence imagine that things are far worse for us than they are for other couples. Not only are we unhappy, we misunderstand how freakish and rare our particular form of unhappiness might be. We end up believing that our struggles are indications of having made some unusual and fundamental error, rather than evidence that our marriage is essentially going entirely according to plan.” p. 58
In essence, we’re meant to struggle. We’re meant to walk through the labyrinth of relationship anxiety, doubt, uncertainty, and disconnect. We’re meant to feel lonely or bored at times. We’re meant to lose sexual desire. We’re meant to struggle with attraction of all kinds. If we knew this was normal, we would get down to the business of tending to the hurt places inside of us that are calling out for attention instead of mistakenly pinning our pain on the societal conclusion that “you’ve made the wrong choice of partner.”
So if all the above is true, how do we know what’s healthy? How do we know what love should feel like? Let’s start by saying that as much as we have to be cautious of the word “should”, we also need to hold the word “feeling” carefully. Because feelings, like thoughts, fluctuate, they’re not reliable yardsticks by which we can measure the health of our intimate relationships. Sadly, it’s the only yardstick our culture offers, so when people are blown to my virtual doorstep by the tornado of relationship anxiety, it’s often because they’ve lost “that feeling”, or never had it to begin with. If we can’t based relationship health on the feeling of being in love, what do we base it on?
We base it on connection and core values, by which I mean:
- Connection: You like your partner as a human being. You feel emotionally safe and supported, and know that your partner is your secure base and a safe haven. This won’t happen all the time, of course, especially when you’re in conflict or you lose each other in some way. But for the most part, underlying all long-term relationships is a solid basis of friendship. There is the abiding sense that you put each other first, that your partner makes you a priority and that you do the same. Again, this won’t happen in all situations or all the time, but overall you both know that you come first.
- Core values: You share common vision and values regarding having children, lifestyle, religion (you don’t have to have the same religion but you’ve come to a common agreement about the role religion will play in your life, especially regarding raising children), work ethic (again, this doesn’t have to be exactly the same but it has to work for both of you), and money. You also share a willingness to work on your relationship and own your imperfections. Being able to say “I’m sorry” goes a long way.
- There are no red flags, by which I mean addictions (drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, lying) or abuse (betrayal, emotional abuse, physical abuse). Keep in mind that many red flags can be worked on if both partners are willing to do the hard work of healing.
The above list might sound simplistic or too easy, but if you’re honest with yourself you’ll realize how rare it is to find all of these attributes in one person. All too often, people walk away from loving, healthy, well-matched relationships because it “just doesn’t feel right” only to discover that this mercurial sense of “not feeling right”shows up in some form in all relationships with available partners (it’s a different story when you shift from being the distancer to the pursuer for it’s the pursuer who often carries the sense of certainty and the feelings of being in love). When you know how rare a good partnership is, it helps to shift from the grass is always greener syndrome mindset that there must be someone better out there who will lift me out of the pain of being human to a mindset of responsibility (it’s not someone else’s job to make me feel alive or to rescue me from my pain) and gratitude. Then you can focus your energy on the person who needs your love and attention so that you can cultivate you own sense of aliveness and well-being: you.
So what should love feel like? It should feel, beneath the anxiety and below the intrusive thoughts, like a bowl of oatmeal: warm, comforting, and tender. At the end of the day (or the beginning), that’s all we really want.