Falling in love is transformational. Everything seems more alive — colors are more intense; people are kinder, happier; life is easier; problems evaporate. Valentine’s Day provides a chance to revisit that idyllic time of first love, perhaps setting expectations for romance, both for those just getting to know each other, and for some in longer relationships. Yet this day isn’t only for adults. Young children also hope that by exchanging secret valentines amongst their schoolmates, they might secure new friendships. Adolescents may seize the opportunity to disclose feelings toward a potential love interest.

Beyond these romantic notions, there’s little preparation for the reality of long-term relationships — involving responsibility, shared commitment, mutual respect, support, and fidelity. Personal beliefs, family history, and previous relationships shape our love expectations. Our commitment to making it work depends a great deal on these factors. Should we expect romance to sustain us, we’re usually disappointed when that changes. The challenges of everyday life and hard work — paying bills, struggles and losses, sick children — are all the substance of meaningful, “till-death-do-us-part” relationships. Romance may initially set the stage; however, consistent, intentional effort must follow.

We plant gardens, nurturing with water and sunshine; we decorate our living environments, creating pleasing aesthetics. This attentive care comes naturally, providing pleasure and satisfaction. Yet, although our closest relationships deserve this much attention and more, they often suffer chronic neglect. Our tendency is to trust that love, expressed by many different “languages,” sustains the relationship, taking for granted that our lack of tender care won’t be noticed, or won’t inflict damage. This lack of consideration ultimately ensures a less intimate relationship, in which we grow bored, disconnected, angry. However, communicating respectfully, addressing the emotional roots of relational problems, with a strong commitment to resolving conflicts, are just a few of the critical tools needed for genuine connection. Communication is a continual balancing act, juggling the conflicting needs for intimacy and independence. After all, this is an investment in ourselves and in our most important relationships.

Many couples struggle to make sense of how their relationship is brought to its knees. Sometimes the breakdown stems from infidelity, abandonment, or a health crisis, with the unsuspecting party forced to build a new life, while healing deep wounds. This may be a good time for reflection, consideration of what/how one would “do it differently” the next time. Beyond this painful period, there lies an opportunity to address personal changes with communication and/or perspective. With insight, there’s more experience of what an intimate partnership involves, with different expectations. Thus, how do two people weave the fabric of a meaningful, mutually respectful, joyful life together? First, learning how to successfully resolve conflicts by truly listening, hearing and understanding each other is essential. The hardest work in sustaining a healthy partnership/marriage is often the most meaningful work: sharing values of integrity, loyalty, kindness, compassion, mutual respect, honesty. When the going gets tough, there will be low points before any high points.

Have we abandoned the kitchen table conversations, bringing real connection that comes only from face-to-face presence? Screen time — iPads, iPhones, Facebook — easily consumes hours, while documenting details of our lives. We then miss what’s right in front of us, instead recording what we’re doing, asking and giving advice, posting photos, etc., seeking validation. Shutting out our intimate partner is not only unfair, it’s disrespectful and damaging. Most couples having chronic conflict are locked into a dance of protecting core, unhealed wounds or trauma from the past. Their power struggles manifest much the same as parent-child or sibling battles. Each partner feels betrayed, emotionally abandoned, not heard or supported. Being right or winning becomes the focus, because “giving in” would be accepting that “I’m not good enough, not lovable.” The emotional stakes are high, with each needing to win, rendering the other powerless. When partners behave negatively, or aren’t supportive, it’s time to “check in.” He/she is likely struggling with an underlying issue blocking him/her from being present. We may believe the behavior is intentional, but it provides a clue that it’s time to dig deeper and connect with him/her by listening, with an open heart, to what is painful, difficult, or sad.

Valentine’s Day comes and goes, yet helps remind us that our commitment to the everyday work of love will determine what follows. Focusing less on the romance, a strong relational commitment will sustain us long after the flowers are gone.

“So it’s not gonna be easy. It’s going to be really hard; we’re gonna have to work at this every day, but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever, every day. You and me ... every day.” — Nicholas Sparks, “The Notebook”

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