Editor's note: This article was originally published on Lori Cluff Schade's blog. It has been modified and republished here with permission.
I believe in the concept of keeping romance alive in marriage (apologies to those who think marriage has nothing to do with romance — in my marriage, it does). However, I'm something of a romance curmudgeon when it comes to the silver screen.
Recently, my husband and I were trying to find a movie to attend, and decided to go see Nicholas Sparks' new movie. I'm always somewhat resistant to Sparks' movies because they so often seem schmaltzy and formulaic, and filled with delusions of destiny.
As I exited the theater, my husband asked me if I liked the movie, and I told him I felt annoyed ...
If we define true love, by the very real dopamine-induced twitterpation experienced early in a romantic connection which inevitably diminishes over time as relationships become more predictable and secure, then it might be easy to feel like our long-term relationships aren't "true" at all, and we are missing out. This is more dangerous when that feeling is used as a measuring stick for what is genuine. There is a very real physiological response in a new, exciting relationship, or in a secret affair, and people regularly mistakenly believe this feeling means that the relationship is somehow more legitimate than the long-term one which may seem prosaic in comparison. Over time, the long-term partner can even be viewed as the enemy, preventing "real happiness."
There have been actual reports of people ending their marriages after watching some of Sparks' movies, because they felt so disillusioned in their comparatively boring committed relationships.
I began wondering what I, as a couples therapist, would include in a really good true love romance, were I to write one (which I am certain will never happen) … one in which the partners have set up a life together, complete with children. Just for fun, I used "romance," as an acronym.
A really good romance should include:
R for reality
As in real life. Like when your entire family begins vomiting in the middle of the night, and you and your husband both have somewhere to go the following morning, and you stay up all night cleaning up truckloads of vomit, and scrubbing the carpet, and you are cranky, and stinky … oh, and the mortgage was due yesterday and well, you get it.
As in unemployment. As in chronic or devastating mental or physical illness. As in your preschoolers deciding while you are nursing a baby that it would be a good idea to mix the rice, flour and sugar bins together, put some of the mixture in the dishwasher, and then top it off with just the right amount of maple syrup for good measure, and you found out 15 minutes before you are supposed to have your baby at the doctor.
As in your kids discovering that if you stomp on Christmas lights while they are still screwed into the string, on your garage floor, it makes a really cool popping, crunchity sound, so they must stomp on ALL of them, on ALL of the strings — even the ones stored in the Christmas boxes on the shelf — rendering them useless and leaving miniscule shards of glass strewn about which, like the demon glitter, will find their way into your house months after evading the Shop-Vac … I could go on …
M for Memory
Memory is always being constructed, and has everything to do with the narrative we tell ourselves. People who want to stay married tell their marriage story with the positive things at the forefront. Like, do I want to remember the time my husband and I had one car and he left me standing in the freezing cold because he forgot to come get me, pre-cell phone days, or do I want to remember the time I had been out of town and walked into my room and there were dozens of floral bouquets everywhere? Be careful of entertaining narratives that someone else was your true love. Brains remember things better (or worse) than they were. Memories are also notoriously inaccurate and more fluid than most people want to admit.
A for Attitude
Whether you focus on the positive or negative elements of your relationship is completely within your control. I can focus on the fact that my husband can step over a clean basket of clothes that needs to be brought up stairs and folded, for a seemingly indefinite amount of time (since I gave up on the experiment after five days) instead of picking it up and folding it himself, or I can focus on the fact that my husband never complained about a wife who asked him to please bring that basket of clothes up the stairs and fold it after it sat there for five days.
N for Negotiation
Negotiation is ongoing and necessary for romance to work out. Like when your husband wants to go to a Nicholas Sparks movie, but you really want to go see that action film (patience, dear reader … I threw that in to see if my husband is really reading my posts like he says).
This is the most important variable in long-term relationship durability, and is necessary with any romance. C is also for "children," who benefit from having parents who they can tell are in love, or who can distract you from your couple relationship because they are dependent on you for their survival. They are also guaranteed to make you both laugh and cry.
E for Effort
A good romance requires work, plain and simple, and it's not always rainbows and unicorns. Once, when I had small children, I was feeling resentful because my husband was traveling for business, and I didn't like the way I was feeling about him, mostly because I was envious that he was able to go to the bathroom by himself. I tried to think of what I could do for him, and I remembered the pile of shirts that needed missing buttons replaced, which I had successfully hidden underneath my more interesting sewing projects so that he would forget about them. I got them out and put buttons on eight shirts and surprised him with them when he got home. Seeing how appreciative he was made me happy. Romantic indeed.
Please, enjoy romance, but get your education about romance outside of Hollywood.
Lori Cluff Schade, Ph.D., is a licensed, practicing marriage and family therapist and supervisor and adjunct faculty member. Her research has been covered in national media outlets and addressed in television and radio interviews. More importantly, she is a mother of seven and owner of a metaphorical gray picket fence.