I don't believe in soul mates. That doesn't mean I don't believe in true love or the idea that two people can find each other and be truly happy together for the rest of their lives. What I reject, rather, is the belief that there is only one person in the world for us, and unless we find that person, we are doomed to a lonely life of romantic misery. In fact, what I believe is just the opposite. There are actually a lot of people with whom we could experience a highly satisfying, deeply fulfilling relationship. When we limit our search to that "perfect" someone, we foster a mentality of perpetual "window shopping." Moreover, we're very likely to give up too easily on what could be the "perfect" imperfect relationship.
For centuries we've been fed fairy tales, telling us that love should be easy, or else it isn't love. Nowadays, we are even more encouraged to seek perfection with the advent of online dating, which allows us to send a specific set of criteria out into cyberspace, as a sorcerer might a love potion. Of course, dating websites can be a wonderful avenue by which to meet people with whom we share a real connection. However, according to a research article published by The Association for Psychological Science, this type of dating may also encourage what some experts refer to as "relationshopping." Authors of the study warn that this process of picking and choosing potential partners puts people at risk of objectifying those with whom they're supposedly seeking intimacy and closeness. There is a danger of being too quick to discard or shuffle through possible matches, creating a cycle of perpetual searching and chronic dissatisfaction.
Anyone who has ever been in love probably knows that what looks good on paper isn't necessarily what makes people happy in the long run. And it's even more confusing that what people are initially attracted to isn't always healthy long-term. But rather than demoralize us, these realities should motivate us to be even more open and willing to really get to know a person before we write them off.
Whether, it's during the first week of dating or the seventh year of marriage, all relationships will inevitably hit rough patches. These patches often send people running for the hills, rather than staying around to try to work it out. As psychologist and author Pat Love has said, "If I could make one change in how Western culture views relationships, I would change the perception that infatuation equals love." Love points out that the initial stages of a relationship often leave the brain flooded with "happy" molecules, a chemical reaction that heightens both emotional and physical attraction. Once these molecules subside, problems surface, leading to conflict and, sometimes, even break-ups.
Even though those initial "sparks" may lessen in intensity, new studies in neuroscience show that couples can stay in love long-term, with their brains firing some 20 years later in the same way as when they first met. The lesson from these findings is that long-lasting relationships won't be free of speed bumps, but when we anticipate imperfection and find healthy ways to hang in there, we can keep our passion, excitement and love alive.
Perhaps even more significant than the biological side of things is the fact that most people, to varying degrees, are afraid of intimacy, even if this fear is unconscious. These fears tend to surface more and more as affections deepen and relationships get more serious. Love makes life more meaningful, and therefore more fragile and frightening to lose. In addition, the affections of a partner can counter negative core beliefs we have about ourselves. These harsh self-perceptions may make our life miserable, but they have been with us for so long they are familiar and comfortable to us, which makes them feel scary to question. "True love," in the truest sense, contradicts our negative self-concept and this can actually spark a lot of anxiety, catapulting us into an identity crisis. This "fear of intimacy" is a concept elaborated on by my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, in his book Fear of Intimacy.
Because all relationships are likely to challenge us, the best relationship advice I can give is to find someone you really like and invest in that relationship. Stop looking for the perfect partner and start focusing on what you need to address within yourself in order to achieve a more ideal romance. A relationship is one of the best vehicles for developing yourself. It's hard to confront your fear of intimacy when you're not in an intimate relationship. There are many unexpected choices that could make you happy, but to make a relationship work means being willing to take the plunge with someone and then looking inward.
There are three key actions we can take when doing this. First, you can focus on your own feelings and behaviors. You can't feel another person's feelings; your own emotional responses are what you experience. Therefore, your loving feelings are arguably what make you feel the best about being in love. You can nourish your ability to love and care for another person by engaging in acts that are sensitive, kind and loving. Studies have found that partaking in personal interactions and sharing close experiences can actually breed more loving feelings. In other words, how you act toward a person influences how you feel toward that person. When you act in love, you feel in love.
To be clear, I'm not saying couples should pair up at random and pretend to love each other. What I'm suggesting is that once you connect with a person who you enjoy and respect, be willing to be vulnerable and to tune out that doubting voice that stands in your way of happiness. This brings me to the second step in creating a perfect imperfect relationship: stop listening to your inner critic. The "critical inner voice" is a term my father has used to describe that coach in people's heads that stands at the helm of self-sabotaging behaviors. This voice will tell you that you are unworthy of a nice relationship. It will critique your partner or potential partner and fuel pretty much any thought or behavior that will keep you "safe" (and often single) inside the status quo, a place where you are both unchallenged and unfulfilled.
This inner critic is shaped from past experiences, which is why challenging it means taking a third step in your self-development: Learn how you project your past onto your partner. People tend to recreate scenarios that are familiar. Everything from your early relationships with your caretakers to your caretakers' relationships with each other will formulate how you relate to your romantic partner. Whether by imitation or rebellion, you are influenced by what you're exposed to. Therefore, avoiding or breaking free from destructive relationship patterns means getting to know your own story. You have to be willing to look at your history to see both why you choose the partners you do and what you do to sabotage closeness with the people you've chosen. As you explore your past, you equip yourself with the knowledge and tools to differentiate from it. You can become who you want to be in a relationship and shape the relationship you want to be in.
Naturally, this journey isn't easy. Relationships are rarely easy, but they also shouldn't be drudgery. Instead, they should be looked at as an adventure, and like climbing a mountain or crossing an ocean, we shouldn't expect a perfectly smooth ride. We must remember that every couple is made up of two independent people with two sovereign minds. This means, at times, the two of you may see and experience the world very differently. Struggles will arise, and when they do, what matters most will be our ability to get through the hard times. Rather than turn back at the first obstacle, we can be resilient and resourceful. We can anticipate and face challenges with a combination of strength and vulnerability. Yet, to start this adventure, we must open our hearts and minds to another person. Naturally, some connections are stronger and some choices more ideal than others, but any love can grow when we are willing to explore our own limitations and grow our own capacity for closeness.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org