Why Relationships Fail & The Truth About Love

07/25/2011 12:58 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

I'm not your typical shrink and that's why I am qualified to tell you why relationships are failing at the rate they are. I am an adulterer who happens to be a licensed clinician and willing to tell you the truth about why I had an affair and my marriage failed. I could speak from decades of training and experience but that would bore you and lack integrity. Instead, I choose to speak from a pure, albeit difficult place in hopes that it will offer something more meaningful -- the truth about why so many relationships fail.

It's been an interesting few months. My wife and I wrote Surprised by Love, a tell-all book about the affair, our divorce and eventual remarriage, and it seems to have hit a nerve. We receive dozens of emails every week from people who have read the book, are now inspired to repair a damaged relationship and most are terribly confused. The "confusion" is both all too common as well as the very source of the problem: Our relationships fail not because of problems within them, but because we do not know how to love.

Here is a great example of the confusion and an illustration of why our relationships fail. Harry is 46 years old and has been married to Bridgett for going on twenty years. They have three children, are viewed as pillars of the community, "fell in love" and were crazy about each other since college, and he just left the marriage to find "fulfillment" with his "soul mate" in an affair with another soccer mom from the neighborhood, an acquaintance of Bridgett.

Successful, smart and sophisticated? You bet. Love dumb? You decide.

After contacting me for a private consultation here's what he said:
"Your book changed my mind about what I thought was possible with Bridgett...there's just one problem - I keep waiting to see if I'm going to get those warm, loving feelings of connection and excitement again to see if I will commit to this and give it all I've got", to which I said, "Perhaps we need to start with learning more about what it means to love your wife because you don't know how... your attempts at 'falling in love' is what has you chasing a fantasy which will fail, and failing at real love with Bridgett"

Let's get right to it shall we? Real love is never about "falling" into anything, has nothing to do with "finding a soul mate", and actually has less to do with "getting" anything in particular you deem either necessary or deserving of. Actually, this approach to love is why relationships fail. This modern aberration of love is based on fantasy, fiction and flight kind of like Never-Never Land where flying boys and girls flitter through life searching for the right experience (emotions, or what we commonly refer to as "love") with the right person (encounter, or what we commonly refer to as a "soul mate") confusing that person (soul mate) with an experience (feeling alive, connected, important, special or whatever) and now claim it as their right to have leaving marriages, children and lives in its illusory wake.

So, here's the problem: Relationships fail because we don't know what love is or what is required to actually love someone. Most see the main problem of love as that of "being loved", that is finding the "right" person, missing completely the real problem, namely, our capacity to love another which is no small task, not just find the person who will love us as we deem necessary - have you seen how much advertising spend goes into on-line dating? I rest my case! With all the energy given to looking, smelling, feeling and appearing our best, relationships get crushed under the relentless expectations (demands) we place on them, thus we are always disappointed on the look out for greener pastures when things get tough and real love is required.

What most of us call "love" is not love; it is a self-absorbed conditional quid pro quo where you invest something only if a return of some sort is realized on a self-determined time line. Harry actually lamented to me that he was losing money each month that "this thing" (his not finding those loving feelings) was "unresolved" as if just showing up and getting rid of the affair partner which he did at my beckoning was going to snap his marriage back into fantasy fighting shape again. Here, "love" is actually a relational bartering system justified by our self-obsession with presumed entitlement to get needs met we "have a right to", as if a relationship were some egalitarian utopia rather than the mysterious and demanding encounter it is where you really can only expect in proportion to what you contribute, an idea foreign to most who claim to "love".

And for all of you "love rights enthusiasts", before you kill me off here, I'm not advocating for you to be door mats and give unconditionally to an emotionally absent, neglectful Neanderthal a notch up the evolutionary scale from grunting. What I am saying emphatically is that most people don't have a clue about how to love someone and the source of that problem begins and ends with you learning how, not in finding the "right" partner to light you up.
Relationship challenges are often opportunities for you to grow, not just your partner.

You see, we "fall in love" with a personality (a fantasy of who we want someone to be "for us"), but we live with a character (the actual person you hooked up with and sometimes even marry) and the two are quite different. The "love" that gets people together, most often, isn't. Really, it's a shallow, often unconscious vetting of perceived match between "what I need/deserve" and "what they offer" in a utilitarian kind of way although we tell ourselves different. Then, the real work of love begins, a vocation most are less competent at than pointing blame at partner "problems" (code for "why can't they just be more like I want them to be") missing the truth that the real problem is we are clueless about how to love.

Ok, what's the solution? Change your strategy. Real love is not about finding the "right person", it's about becoming the "right person" capable of love. Soul mates are never found, they are created, by designing the conditions inside your relationship for soul mates to happen - by showing up, being fully engaged and present, emotionally available, vulnerable and open to being known and taking risks and contributing to what is important to your partner, not just standing for what you think you are entitled to. Change your question. From what's missing in my partner, to "what's it like to be with me".
Instead of asking your partner to change, consider asking, "who must you become to have what you say you want in your relationship?" Just a thought...

For Julie and I, real love was a discovery we bumped into when we failed the most profoundly. Quite by surprise, we discovered the best parts of who we were in our failed marriage. Instead of blame we chose grace. Rather than vindictiveness we chose to love each other from compassion for how we hurt one another. Instead of being self-righteous and "right" about our story of the other, we became curious about how who we had been in the old marriage had contributed to its failure. Only then, rather than hiding in resentment, were we able to choose love as a pathway to a new future. Beneath the ashes of our burnt lives and within the debris of divorce, the seed of a deeper, more mature love never before experienced was birthed. In so doing, rather than a legacy of divorce, together we created a legacy of love.