An Essay on Love

I currently have two children in college, which is awesome, until they both want my brain at the same time. These days my mind is more consumed with finding an out of the box way to remove wallpaper that won’t test my last shred of sanity, fumbling through basic math equations related to construction, trying to remember which building materials I have on hand or on order, and trying to stay one logical step ahead regarding my current property renovation project. I’m no general contractor but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night so… I digress. 

My daughter, a journalism student, asked me to review an article she’s working on and for an interview regarding my interest and training in personality typology systems which strayed into my relationships and what led me down the path of personal growth and development in the first place.  Almost simultaneously, my son emailed asking if I would proof read and edit an essay he was assigned for one of his freshman classes. These requests have forced me to put on my English composition hat and get back into writing and reflecting mode. So, a glass (or three) of wine later, some ambient music, and two assignments reviewed, I find myself in this introspective mood and ready to tell a story. Fueled by wine and a new country music song I just discovered (see below) I finally feel ready to write the story about why my marriage failed that I’ve been needing to get off my chest for the past year and a half. Its a love story. Its a tragedy. Not all the characters have the happy ever after ending you might like. Its also a cliff hanger. 

Oh you’re still reading? Okay, lets get to it. 

According to psychologist Robert Sternberg’s theory of love there are three types of love that make up a triangle of what could be considered the ultimate, or consummate, love. The three components are; intimacy, passion, and decision or commitment. He later blended this theory with his theory of love as a story which actually makes a more complete picture. He calls this his Duplex Theory of Love.  I like this theory because it makes a lot of sense to me and I find it to be universal in that the older and more experienced we get the more we are able to look back on our lives and see where each of these components may have played a role in our romantic relationships. There are actually several psychological models and theories for love which are all somewhat similar yet helpful for painting the bigger picture of love. While I’m going to stick closer to the triangular theory for my story here, you can literally find a hundred more theories if you google the theory of love. Another excellent resource worth mentioning is on attachment styles. You can learn your style, and that of your partner, with the book Attached which you can find more about here. The book details the science of attachment in relationships and describes what your attachment needs may be depending on which attachment style (anxious, avoidant, or secure) you have. 

When you really dig into these theories you start to realize just how complex the equation for success in relationships/marriage is. Its not as simple as finding someone you are attracted to who isn’t a complete loser or psychopath and agreeing that you’re the respective “the one” for each other. I think most of the other components we weed through subconsciously but there are still some which requires us to take off our lust colored glasses in order to assess. Most people are able to do this with maturity, if not certainly experience.  We look to see if their obvious personality traits are compatible with ours, determine if the known baggage they bring into the deal is acceptable, if their background and upbringing are similar or agreeable, and if they are a “good person” but mostly we make this decision based on our chemical reaction to the person, or the passion component on the love triangle, and then we close our eyes, and jump in hoping for the best. Honestly, this works for a surprising number of people but it does require luck and a lot of determination and work. Actually, every relationship works with determination and work so those are universal requirements for success. This method obviously doesn’t work for everyone, and not everyone puts in the determination or work, and some just have all the parts of the equation wrong. So what are the factors we should use? What all goes into the equation for success in relationships? Those are good questions but I’ll save the answers for someone more qualified than me or at least until I feel more confident on the answers myself. Besides, this story isn’t about successful relationships, its about what goes wrong and why. 

I’m going to break down my story with the help of the triangular theory of love, the MBTI model on personality types, and use the lyrics to the song “That Way Again” by Lee Brice for examples. Stick with me, it will all make sense, I promise. 

Let’s take a closer look at Dr. Sternberg’s descriptions of each component in the love triangle theory: 

  • Usually the first component is passion. Passion refers to the drivers that lead to romance, physical attraction, and sex  in relationships. the passion component includes those sources of motivational and other forms of arousal that lead to the experience of passion in a loving relationship.  
  • Intimacy refers to feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships. It includes those feelings that make us experience warmth in a loving relationship. 
  • Decision/commitment refers, in the short-term, to the decision that one loves a the other, and in the long-term, to one’s commitment to maintain that love.  

I think we can all understand passion. That one doesn’t require much in the way of conscious action or decisiveness. It is a necessary component though so you can’t just decide that someone is the perfect partner and you’re going to be in love with them without ever feeling true attraction or passion for them. Intimacy is a biggie. Most people assume that intimacy means sex. We actually use the word “intimate” in place of sex when we’re trying to be discreet. Not to meantion how we like to refer to ladies’ unmentionables as “intimate apparel”. If you think of intimate as private then its closer in relation to this component in the love triangle. Intimacy is the ability to be vulnerable with your partner. Its in sharing something personal, private, special about yourselves that you can bond over. Those deep secrets that no one else knows. Its all those memory making moments and experiences in life where that person was there sharing it with you. Its actively living life together. Its including the other person and making them a priority. Building a close bond is what intimacy is all about. This can absolutely include sex when its the “making love” kind. You know what I’m talking about, its a little slower, a little more about meeting metaphysical needs rather than the immediate biophysical ones. Commitment is pretty easy to understand as well. Either you’re committed to putting in the hard work or you’re not. This component is about choosing. It’s choosing to put in the “work” everyone talks about in relationships.  Its about choosing to work on your own issues, baggage, and personal growth and development. Its about choosing to try to show up as the best version of yourself for you and your partner. Its the choice to see past the not so attractive qualities of the other person. Its about choosing patience and tolerance when they are not the best version of themselves, they are a burden, or their needs are inconvenient. It’s choosing hope and a positive outlook when everything stacks against you and the easy way is out. But what is the reason we continue to make those choices? To stay committed? 

  • Its the passion – that special little spark of excitement, attraction, and desirability. The promise for something to give us that addictive hit of chemicals and hormones we feel with passion. Its what keeps life from getting too stagnant and boring. It takes the monotony out of every day life and helps distract us from our troubles. 
  • Its the intimacy – that feeling that no one else could know you or would understand you the way this person does. The knowledge that this person is so entangled and entwined with your life and your memories that you can’t imagine them not being there. Its that feeling when you can’t imagine not sharing with them that moment when something big happens and they’re the first person you think of. Its imagining they weren’t available when something funny happens and the one person you know who will also find it funny is them. Its knowing if this person wasn’t in your intimate circle it would be much easier to make the choice to move on with out them. 

Its as simple as that. Each component fuels the next and as long as each one is met then the cycle will continue providing consummate love. The ideal love. What we think of when we hear about a couple celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. Its attainable, yet we fail as often as we succeed. Almost more so.  Why? Well, we are selfish creatures. We are lazy. We have to many available options for getting our needs met when our partner isn’t there to do it. Its too easy to find disillusioned people in the same boat who also just need a friend, an ear, and some understanding and empathy. Its also about making choices where all of the odds aren’t stacked against you so that achieving each component isn’t such a hard won fight. 

Lets look at the song lyrics to “That Way Again” to see how easy it is for a relationship to fail in real life. 

“He used to hold her hand, he used to hold her doorBut she don’t know what that feels like anymore”   – Remembered passion. Missing passion. 

Just last night he was sleeping and she kissed his face
He said I gotta work in the morning and he rolled away” – Rejected vulnerability. Rejected intimacy. Unable to re establish a bond or connectedness. 

“He used to love her like crazy, you couldn’t pull ’em apart
God, she felt so unbelievable in his arms
But now she’s catching her self looking down at her ring every now and then
She don’t want him to leave, she just wants him to be that way again” – Choosing to stay is hard. Is this still worth fighting for? 

“So this morning she had coffee with a brand new friend
She still had a half of a cup left when he asked her, “Can I see you again?”
That made her smile like she hadn’t smiled in years
And in just a second that smile turned into tears” – Needs are unmet. Passion is igniting with someone new. Commitment is challenged. 

“He used to love me like crazy, you couldn’t pull us apart
God, I felt so unbelievable in his arms
But now she’s catching herself looking down at her ring every now and then
She don’t want to leave, she just needs him to be that way again” 

“She left that little café, she headed straight to her car
She picked up her phone, he didn’t say hi, he just said
“Hey, when you getting home?”
She said, “You used to love me like crazy, you couldn’t pull us apart,
God, I felt so unbelievable in your arms,
But now I’m catching myself looking down at my ring every now and then.
I don’t want to leave you, I just need you to be that way again.
I don’t want to leave you, I just need you to be
That way again.” – Missed chance for connection. Loss of passion, loss of intimacy, tenuous choice for commitment made to reach out for one last chance. 

I can feel you asking what this all has to do with my divorce. I did use that as a hook didn’t I? Well here’s the truth of why I got divorced; it was because of all the reasons exploited in the song above as well as many other factors. It was due, in large part, to our differing personality types. Not that we were incompatible exactly, just that we didn’t know about those specific set of challenges we would have to overcome on top of everything else. We spoke different languages when it came to personality. He makes his decisions and perceives the world around him with such a different set of criteria or priorities than I do that it felt like a huge fundamental difference. Once I understood how we were wired with different cognitive functions so much more made sense to me. I understood him and his drivers and motives and I understood myself better too. I could look back and see how each action created the following negative reaction and how it built from there into such a broken mess that the whole triangle fell a part. Unfortunately, by that time the damage was done. We never had a solid foundation of intimacy. I don’t know if we ever would have if we’d understood ourselves and each other better but it couldn’t have hurt. The reality though was that we had unmet needs and perceived each other through glasses tinted with hurt and neglected needs. Unable to speak the language needed to make the other understand what those needs even were. There were issues with control, hurt feelings, rejected vulnerability, and no reciprocity of vulnerability, neglect, and lack of respect,  which led to neither of us showing up as the best version of ourselves. With each triangular component breakdown the cycle suffered more and more until it faltered completely. 

I won’t speak to his faults or part in the breakdown as that’s his story to tell but from my part I can say that I had a lot of learning and growing to do and I started out with some pretty unhealthy baggage. I also have a hard time with intimacy. So did he. Together, we seemed to skip that step and went right from passion to commitment and became two roommates who lived our own separate lives and passed each other in the hallway on occasion only to break the silence occasionally with a phone call regarding what was for dinner that night.

My part is hard to explain. Hard as in uncomfortable to admit and share. My personality type is driven by emotion that thrives on intimacy and close bonds with a select few. I make decisions with emotional intelligence based on emotional criteria. I actually need intimacy in order to function in a healthy way, it’s just building it that’s hard to do. I just need a super trusted and deep bond in order to allow myself the vulnerability necessary to be truly intimate in a relationship. This also requires reciprocity and interest. Intimacy is definetely not a one way street. I am a ridiculously tender hearted person which I think probably comes as a shock to many people who know me because, despite the fact I’m an emotion based person, I do not behave like an emotional person. I have cultivated a thick shell and usually have very tight control over my outward emotional responses. Except for maybe anger. I haven’t quite wrangled that one completely yet. But I can make an attempt to be vulnerable and then feel rejection with a level of stealth that would make the best spy envious. It could be something as simple as a rejection to a suggestion to listen to a song that is important to me because it imparts a message I want to relay or by poking innocent fun at a sheepish awkward/vulnerable comment I made. It can be inconspicuous to the other party but I will internalize the hell out of that interaction and then it takes every ounce of courage to poke my tender hearted little body out of my shell to try and connect again. This means I now need to be vulnerable about feeling rejected for my attempt at vulnerability. If I choose to keep quiet about this feeling of rejection then, over time, I just sort of pack up my toys and go home to play by myself. In other words I simply quit trying.  He never noticed which was just another form of rejection. 

We were content to lead separate lives, pursuing our own interests and passions separately, and I changed and built my life with others and in the process I witnessed my friends’ real life love stories play out. Stories that looked so much more like what I had envisioned a love story looking like. One I wanted for myself which is just breeding ground for envy, dissatisfaction, and resentment. I started to lash out with passive aggressive behavior which, you guessed it, only breeds a negative response from the other person and further drives that wedge just a little bit deeper. With every unknown, and later blatantly known, rejected attempt at vulnerability, and every missed chance to re-connect and build intimacy, my decision to quit choosing us got easier and easier. After years of this it was the only decision that made sense. 

So, there you have it. Sorry to disappoint if you were here hoping I’d reveal juicy gossip. It’s a simple matter of math; two points do not make a triangle and love without true intimacy is at least one point short of the equation necessary for a successful romantic relationship. It’s not the happy ending people like but it is a cliffhanger because there is always potential for both characters to find their happy endings yet in this life. I’m sharing because I’m hopeful that, if nothing else, some good can come from my failures and heartaches if my story reaches the right person and can help save a relationship for someone else.