Love is all you need? From myth to reality
A partnership or a marriage is one of the most challenging relationships into which we can enter. Yet, this unique relationship has been challenged by 21st century concepts of what such a union can mean. Our perceptions are influenced by a myriad of sources - from the media, from ‘chick-lit’ and ‘chick-flicks’, and from a shift in cultural and societal thinking, particularly in Western society.
Historically, the modern concept of marriage is relatively new. Until the early years of the 20th century, many marriages were based on a union between two families, in which convenience played a role. Within the moneyed and aristocratic classes, marriage was often a means by which land and wealth could be merged to safeguard a dynasty, to extend land and property, and to preserve wealth for future generations. For those lower down the social pecking order, a lack of social and geographical mobility meant the choice of partner could be fairly limited, and in many ways - limiting. Marriage usually meant someone from within a certain locality and within a limited social spectrum.
Did love play a part? Of course, but not always. To some degree, it was expected that love and affection would grow with familiarity and understanding, and with a common purpose in mind. A fast-paced and ever-changing modern world, female emancipation, a shift in working patterns, (giving rise to more social mobility), now means that the basis of a marriage is more multifaceted than in earlier times. Yet we still hold onto the concept that love is all you need … or is it?
Couples choose counselling because they recognise they have issues for which they need guidance. It may even be that they feel their relationship is in crisis. The root causes of dissatisfaction within a relationship are rarely susceptible to immediate explanation. However, two important factors often emerge - a lack of time spent together, and a breakdown in communication. Chicken or egg ? Does a lack of ‘quality time’ together lead to a breakdown in communication, or vice versa? Either way, as a result of this relational void, conflict emerges, and often estrangement and animosity. At that point the relationship is at risk of becoming less about connection, and more about competition. Simply described, no longer does this relationship comprise an entirely healthy unit, but rather two individuals who do not ‘touch’ each other - emotionally, physically, or intellectually: perhaps in all of those ways. Why?
To both parties the modern fairytale implies a promise that when we marry we will have all our needs met by the relationship; that we will always know what our ‘other half’ is thinking/needing/wanting: and then we will live happily ever after. It is seldom fully understood that to retain the stability of the foundations and scaffolding that support a relationship, it is sometimes necessary to do some hard work – long-term maintenance.
Couples often spend many thousands of pounds on the wedding. Maybe the emphasis on that great occasion distracts attention from the long-term commitment within that union. Beyond the ceremonial frills how much thought has been given to the basics of coexistence that are essential to keep the show on the road.
Life happens! Children arrive, careers take off (or not), and financial pressures become challenging. Magazines imply we can ‘have it all’, airbrushing out the pithier and less attractive sides of marriage. Love and affection can be stretched thin by the demands imposed by modern family life. Amidst this confection of challenges and demands, questions should be asked: do we invest the time needed, do we prioritise our partner, do we communicate effectively what it is we need - and check out often enough what our partner needs? Do we negotiate and contract with each other to maintain a healthy relationship? Do we recognise that to be effective in a union, we need first to be effective as an individual?
My ‘soul mate’, my ‘better half’ and other relational sound bites, can give rise to the idea that we cannot be whole until we are fulfilled by another, at which time we will magically find our idealised marital nirvana. Such a blissful, heaven-sent meeting might occur occasionally, but the reality for many who hold that Hollywood dream dear, is that disillusion may follow close on the heels of the heady days of ‘mad love’.
Experience shows, three elements are needed to consolidate a healthy, flourishing, loving and fulfilling relationship. Open and honest communication, shared goals and values, and intimacy. Simplistic? No, those elements are essential cornerstones to a partnership that will have to navigate its way through the many challenges life springs upon us. We might fairly describe those elements as a three-legged-stool: a stool that needs all three of its legs to remain safe, and stable. Time in counselling can help couples to understand when they are ‘missing a leg’.
A missing leg leaves a space in which the identity of a marriage can be lost, submerged beneath an atmosphere of hopelessness, confusion and acrimony - the by-products of a lack of investment in talking together and being together.
It may be inevitable that there are areas where it is difficult to agree common ground - when couples just ‘agree to disagree’. This can be an accepted part of a grounded and grown-up partnership. These differences need not necessarily create conflict but be an accepted understanding: that a partnership is made up of two individuals, with personal frameworks through which they see the world.
When differences are not mutually accepted, to the point where they cause serious problems, a period of counselling can support couples as they work to identify the patterns of relating that may have lead to a marital impasse. Perhaps most importantly, a counselling environment can be used to support couples as they learn to incorporate skills and understanding, helping them move into a new way of being together.
Love is all you need…? Well, perhaps not ALL you need, but wonderful, and well worth a bit of additional help, sometimes.
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