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Love That Works: a Philosophy for Lasting Relationships

The cultural myth of the perfect partner or soul mate is a distraction that keeps us from the real work of love.
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There is not another country or culture in the world that craves long term relationships yet fails at them at such a pace as the United States. Living in a world driven by commercial messages about entitled happiness and freedom of choice, our relationships often bear the continuous burden of the misguided belief, that like the stuff we accumulate, our relationships too are disposable and interchangeable if they do not meet our needs. By expecting our relationships to make us happy and meet our needs, instead of recognizing their capacity to teach us how to love more, we refuse the daily, messy work of relating -- learning how to communicate, negotiate and master shared difficulties and challenges.

This misunderstanding impacts our ability to commit as well. True happiness comes as a result of the sustained emotional investment in other people. Although there may be many a day when honoring our commitment and values for our relationships contradicts the momentary feelings of frustration and disappointment in those relationships, we agree to a love that works by not measuring our relationship on a daily barometer. Building a commitment into a love that works comes from developing the ability to remember that you really love someone, even if you aren't feeling it.

Yet giving up the momentary experience of happiness in our long term commitments can be taken too far. It is easy to get completely mired in facing the many challenges of building a life together, and forget that relationships are built on shared experiences of pleasure and fun. By injecting playful intimacy and novel problem solving experiences you actually strengthen the bond that allows you to deal with the challenges that life inevitably generates. Recognizing that the discovery of the other is a lifelong process that can be fun and entertaining, not only keeps a spark ignited in the bedroom, but immunizes the commitment from always taking the relationship too seriously.

Ultimately, our loving relationships are the most gentle and effective education we engage in to become the person we want to be. Rather than focusing on finding the right partner, commitment works best when we approach it as a method of personal growth.

The late psychologist Caryl Rusbult coined the notion of the "Michelangelo effect" in describing how committed, loving relationships have the power to sculpt us into the people we want to be. Michelangelo used to say that the figures he created were asleep within the stones, waiting to be discovered. This is what love that works on us over time can do by both reflecting and eliciting the values that we commit to creating with our partners.

As the work of love changes you and helps you grow into the person you want to be, the relationship creates a commitment of its own. You come to believe that your relationship is better than anything else available and without effort creates a willingness to problem solve and interact, rather than react and withdraw. The work becomes its own incentive and you recognize that your own well being is linked to the health of both your partner and the relationship.

The cultural myth of the perfect partner or soul mate is a distraction that keeps us from the real work of love. This weekly column is dedicated to finding the many ways that love will sculpt you and your life into a work of art -- one that is worthy of you and the one your love.

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