Getting the Love You Want

After 44 years of marriage, my parents, now in their 70s, recently got divorced. I’d assumed that at this stage they’d be taking cruises and gardening together, not saying goodbye. I didn’t see it coming and, honestly, I don’t think they did, either.

The shock left me with a number of questions—specifically, what does it take to make a relationship last? How can we maintain that ever-elusive thing called love?

Harville Hendrix’s book Getting the Love You Want, published in 1988, is considered one of the seminal works on relationships and has helped thousands of troubled couples. When I saw that Harville and his wife, Helen LaKelly Hunt, were coming to Kripalu, I decided to call him in search of some answers.

I’ll start with the big one: What’s the key to finding and maintaining true love?

According to Harville, it’s eliminating “all negativity” from your daily interactions with your significant other. Yes, that’s way easier said than done. What happens when you get angry, feel betrayed, or are just having a bad day? Harville and Helen recommend that, instead of blaming your partner when you’re dissatisfied, you focus that energy on deepening your understanding of him or her and working toward a solution. They think of negativity as a disease from which problems arise, just like inflammation in the body.

They also have some strong feelings about why we pick our partners and spouses. Ever noticed that many of the people you end up with have similar traits? According to Harville, our unconscious is constantly sizing up each potential mate in search of the ones that represent some composite of our parents (or primary caretakers). “If you fell in love, it means your unconscious chose this because she or he met your unresolved needs left from childhood,” Harville explains.

So now that you’ve found each other, how do you stay together? In this “age of temporaries,” Harville says you have to make a commitment to keeping your connection alive, which, he adds, “is a real challenge in today’s marriage ecosystem, because we have this mentality that, if something doesn’t work, you get rid of it.”

“Both in therapy and in workshops like the ones we do at Kripalu, we ask each person in a couple why they are here,” Harville says. “About half raise their hand and say they were dragged.”

Typically, the person who signs the couple up and is most proactive in seeking help is also the one who wants their partner to change—but may not be willing to look at their own role in the relationship. Bottom line: Both people need to change for a relationship to work.

When a connection is ruptured, both halves of the couple usually feel anxious and isolated, but they may show those feelings in very different ways. Typically in a relationship, there’s one person who’s more contained while the other is more expressive (both are traits learned in childhood). When a conflict arises, the expressive person revs up while the more introverted person retreats into their shell. The important thing to recognize is that these styles don’t reflect how much the person cares about the relationship: Introverts may look more passive from the outside, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t as deeply committed as the person who always wants to talk about it.

What’s the solution? Harville says both people have to start regulating their behavior to come closer to the other. Each needs to learn how to listen, not criticize, and understand that ultimately the partnership is more important than either individual’s needs. Harville says that the next time you approach your partner with a difficulty, try starting with “How can I make this better?” instead of focusing on what isn’t working, and you’ll likely see very different results.

Above all else, Harville says, “we seek connections—with parts of ourselves that we have repressed, with other people, and with the larger universe.” The illusion of separateness is what brings most couples into therapy. What we need to remember is that it’s just that: an illusion.

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Jennifer Mattson is a writer, speaker, and journalist. She leads writing workshops throughout the country and reports on mindfulness, yoga, wellness, healthy living, books, arts, and culture.

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