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Why Relationship Advice Fails (And What to Do When It Does)

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The other day I was browsing through Barnes & Noble, and as I passed by the rows of books about love and sex I felt annoyed. Seeing those volumes brought to mind the biggest open secret in today's culture: Most relationship advice doesn't really help you and your partner improve -- or sustain -- your love life.

Most people know this to be true. And ironically, the never-ending stream -- books, magazine articles, workshops and now, websites and e-zines -- confirms it, because if any of them really did help, there wouldn't be so many of them. In fact, substantial research confirms that these programs and advice aren't very effective at all.

I think the reason is this: Most of the prescriptions for restoring emotional and sexual vitality focus on the wrong things. Most teach techniques -- actions and strategies for having better sex, for improving listening and communication or for successful negotiating around conflict. But if you want to deepen intimacy and build greater vitality in your whole relationship, you have to nourish its spiritual core. Acquiring new techniques won't do it. However, there are some practices that help you nourish your relationship's spiritual connection, as I describe below.

What Handicaps Most Relationships

Let me explain. By "spiritual," I'm referring to a less visible, less behavioral realm than most relationship advice and strategies deal with. Your relationship's spiritual core includes, for example, your sense of purpose and life goals as a couple, and how your values and ideals may change and evolve over the years, as separate individuals and as a couple. The relationship challenge is whether these and other spiritual dimensions are in synch. If they are, some relationship techniques may be helpful along your journey together. If they aren't in synch, none of them will.

In fact, when you don't service the spiritual core of your relationship, you're likely to end up, at best, improving what I call the "functional relationship" -- one that may work fairly well for dealing with the logistics of daily life, but in which intimacy keeps heading south the longer you're together. Couples within the functional relationship describe their interactions as increasingly transactional, devoid of energy and less fun. Moreover, if you're carrying with you unconscious conflicts, projections and expectations about your partner -- those that require a good therapist to help you resolve -- applying relationship improvement techniques may intensify those deeper conflicts and damage the relationship beyond repair.

And there's more: Even those couples whose relationships are not highly distorted by dysfunctional attachment patterns from childhood have trouble servicing their spiritual core. Two other problems, in addition the functional relationship, handicap them. One is the widespread struggle to deal with the so-called "work-life balance" problem. It gets a lot of media attention, and couples try hard to find the right kind of balance. But most don't realize that "work" and "life" can't ever be balanced because both are on the same side of the true scale, between your inner and outer life. The other problem is broader: We learn a model of love in our culture that's really an arrested version of adolescent excitement and infatuation.

That is, most adult men and women relate to each other in ways that are an extension of adolescent relationships -- replete with struggles over power and dominance; a tendency to idealize; an experience of passionate connection most strongly when you're unable to "possess" the object of your desire; feeling intense attraction towards someone new and unknown, but then finding that passion cools with familiarity.

This adolescent experience is the basis of what most people learn to think is the norm for adult love and sexual relationships, as well. Interestingly, some research shows that falling in love, in the way that most adults experience it, affects the same areas of the brain -- and triggers the same sensation of euphoria -- as taking cocaine. It's an addictive "high."

However, that results from a socially conditioned experience of love, based on what's normal for adolescents. Consequently, people assume that strong connection and vitality must necessarily decline with familiarity with your partner, over time -- just as it does for adolescents. But in fact, that's true only to the extent that you practice an adolescent version of love. In contrast, both research and clinical evidence show that couples are able to "make it last" when they build the spiritual core of their couplehood. For example, recent research has found specific brain mechanisms by which romantic love is sustained in some long-term relationships. One study using brain imaging found "very clear similarities between those who were in love long term and those who had just fallen madly in love," according to Arthur Aron, one of the lead authors of the study.

Growing Your Relationship's Spiritual Core

When you nourish the spiritual basis of your relationship, you inject positive energy into three interlocking dimensions -- your emotional, relational and sexual connection. I've referred to these three in another post as "radical transparency" with your partner regarding your thoughts, feelings, desires and fears; "sharing the stage," so to speak -- making decisions and choices in daily living that promote mutuality, rather than either of you trying to maneuver to gain the upper hand at the expense of the other; and "good vibrations" in how you relate physically and sexually. I'll be writing more about these three in future posts, but the point here is that nourishing the spiritual core of your relationship -- its soul -- is the underpinning of all three.

The main way you can do that is by learning to let go of self-interest in your relationship. That may sound contradictory, but loosening your grip on what you want to "get" for yourself is actually the key to growth and happiness as a couple. Letting go redirects your energies towards increasing vitality, connection and pleasure between the two of you, and away from the self-centered goal of just getting what you want from your partner. In short, you're more likely to "get the love you want" by not aiming for it.

Research and clinical observation confirm this. For example, studies by psychologist John Gottman and other marriage researchers have found that key predictors of a positive, resilient relationship include mutual support and a willingness to sacrifice. That means willingness to forgo personal interests and putting your partner's needs ahead of your own. Letting go of self-interest in these ways is directly linked to a long-lasting, happy relationship. Staying entrenched in your own ego won't do it.

There are many steps you can take to strengthen your relationship's spiritual core. Below are some that help you move beyond and through the tendencies we all have to dwell on our own needs, as well as our perceived slights, resentments, and so on -- those features of self-interest that are sure-fire killers for your relationship.

Show Your Partner What You Want By Giving It

  • Identify some positive qualities you'd like to experience more within your relationship -- say, openness, warmth, eroticism, respect. Envision them as being within your partner's capacity, even if you think they've become dormant or neglected.
  • Focus on how those qualities will strengthen the relationship between the two of you, not just on how much you want to "get" them from your partner. That helps shift your attention away from self-interest.
  • Then, begin to demonstrate those qualities yourself. "Prime the pump" by injecting them into your relationship. Act unilaterally; recognize that by showing the qualities you desire from your partner, you're also strengthening those qualities in yourself, which puts new energy into the relationship between the two of you.

Disengage From Your Conviction That You're "Right"

Another part of self-interest is the tendency to believe that your own point of view, your own "reality," is the true or correct one -- especially in situations of conflict. You can be pulled into reacting to your partner's emotional needs, demands or conflicts in ways that hurt the relationship because of your own issues, such as insecurity, longing for acceptance, or fear.

Research supports the value of disengaging from your self-interest in this way. One example: researchers at the University of Minnesota found that if you have an argument with your partner, and either one of you disengages from the emotional impact of the dispute upon you (that is, you don't let it overflow onto the relationship in other areas), then both partners feel more positively toward each other afterwards.

That is, recovering well from a dispute includes not letting its remnants spill over into other parts of the relationship. Those might include maintaining resentments and disappointments about your partner's "failure" to provide you with what you want ("I know he's going to be resentful if I tell him what I want, so why bother?"), or dwelling on negative emotions from the conviction that you're "right" and your partner is "wrong" regarding some issue of disagreement or difference ("I just can't talk to her about the finances because I know she just doesn't understand the whole picture").

The following exercise can help disengage you from that reactivity and respond, instead, in ways that bring you and your partner into greater synch, spiritually.

  • Envision a characteristic or behavior of yours that you know your partner dislikes. Imagine shifting your consciousness into your partner's perspective and mentality, even though you may disagree with that perspective or are convinced it's "wrong."
  • Immerse yourself in your partner's perceptions of you. Try to experience them fully. At the same time, hold on to your own views. Don't let either negate the other.
  • Then, try to understand your partner's feelings or attitudes as a reflection of who he or she is, based on all the forces and influences and choices that have shaped him or her. Don't judge.
  • Based on that, describe how and why your partner perceives you in the way he or she does.

Here, you're learning to separate who you are -- what you think, feel and believe -- from who your partner is, and to distinguish your own internal "reality" from that of your partner's. That fuels greater respect for each of you as separate, individual people, and it can deepen intimate understanding of each other -- an important part of your spiritual core.

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Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may email him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org.

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