In the old days, miners carried canaries down into their mine shafts. If the canary lived, the mine was safe. If the canary died, the miners knew they were in trouble because of toxic gases. When it comes to relationships, romance tends to be the canary in the mine. When there are serious relationship problems, romance and mutual fun tends to die.
When couples patch their relationships together in therapy, one of the first dilemmas that couples face is how to get the romance back into their lives. They look back nostalgically at the beginning of their relationship, a bit sad at the impossibility of capturing the magic of their first meeting. While this sort of thinking can provide my clients with important clues about what made them excited and happy at the beginning of the relationship, these memories rarely help the couple recapture the magic.
According to Helen Fisher, a prominent anthropologist, romance is the civilization of sex. Viewed from a cultural perspective, this is probably true. This is probably why relationship books rarely go into much depth regarding the nature of romance. Typically, what you see is a lot of talk about the need for romance in a marriage and then a discussion of seduction and foreplay. As most couples will tell you, sex is not romance. However, most couples are hard pressed to tell you exactly what romance is.
As I mentioned before, nostalgically thinking about the way the couple behaved at the beginning of the relationship can offer important clues about the nature of romance.
Couples will generally report that at the beginning of their relationship, when romance was alive, they experienced:
1) The excitement of discovering someone new that you love.
2) A mutual feeling of being special or primary in the other person’s life.
3) A mutual feeling of being understood in a way that was different or more special than in other relationships.
4) A bond that transcended normal relationships.
5) Sexual excitement and novelty.
One or both partners in a troubled relationship will complain that they can’t possibly “recreate the romantic feelings they had when their relationship was new”. However, older, successful couples will actually report an improvement in the value of their relationship with their partner and an improvement in their sex lives over the years. This is because they acquire the trust that allows them to teach each other and learn new things about what gives pleasure to their partner in their daily lives. Couples who are not willing to learn what actually gives their partner pleasure and accommodate them tend to get stuck in their inability to be responsive to the other partner’s emotional requests. It is this lack of trust and the willingness to become vulnerable in expressing one’s needs or moving beyond one’s comfort level to accommodate a partner that keeps the couple stuck. Think of it in these terms. Healthy couples who are romantic are able to find novelty in their own relationships.
As I mentioned before, sex is just one ingredient of the feeling of romance. And certainly, in a healthy relationship, sex is an important element. Often, couples will become sexually bored and resentful because they are unwilling to communicate their desire for exploring new sexual territory. Often, sexual experimentation within the context of a committed relationship will indeed provide the excitement and novelty that both partners seek. However, there is a common dilemma that occurs when the romance has drained out of a couple’s life. If one or both partners feel resentful or hurt, proposing sexual exploration will provoke feelings of bitterness or vulnerability, making sexual exploration too hard a challenge for the couple. All too often, before this aspect of the relationship can be recovered, trust and respect have to be re-established.
So what is romance? If you look at the remaining four perceptions that describe the feeling of romance, we see that romance is the ability for both partners to reciprocally communicate their feelings of being mutually bonded and special to each other. If you are looking for the magic formula for romance, here it is. Simply say these words to cast your spell: “Darling, you’re the most important thing in my life. Nothing else comes close. I don’t care what else happens, we’re going to get through this together.” Then act congruently with this.
I will address how this is done in a future post.
Fisher, Helen (1982). The Sex Contract: The Evolution of Human Behavior. NY, NY: W. Morrow.
Fisher, Helen (2004). Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love. NY, NY: Henry Holt & Co.