Creating Loving Relationships that Thrive
“To be fully seen by somebody… and be loved anyhow—this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.”
~ Elizabeth Gilbert
At the conclusion of her bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert had fallen in love with Jose Nunes (called Felipe in the book), a Brazilian living in Indonesia. The divorced Gilbert, reluctant to have her heart broken again, had vowed never to remarry… yet ultimately changed her mind when U.S. immigration law presented her with multiple choices: marry so they could live together in this country, stay single and live as ex-pat partners or say goodbye to Nunes.
Gilbert chose a marital partnership that suits the shared life they want: honest and, after years of travel, settled in one place. She says, “For the first time in my life, living in a small town with a lovely husband in an old house with a big garden and several pets, I feel absolutely rooted in a way I have never experienced before and never would have imagined even desiring. But it is what we want—at least for now—and we’re relishing that stability.” Gilbert records the process of going from two global wanderers falling in love to a married couple sharing domestic chores in her follow-up memoir, Committed: A Love Story.
The spark that ignites such a partnership is love, which is “primarily about connection,” says Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., a positivity expert and author of Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. “It’s vital to our health and happiness, affecting our brains and bodies at the cellular level.
“We were born to love,” emphasizes Fredrickson, who also serves as a psychology professor and director of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The evidence comes from research that shows how our brain and nervous system are designed to enhance our chances of experiencing it.”
When we share positive emotions with another person, experience a synchrony between their biochemistry and behaviors and ours, plus exhibit mutual care, love can bloom, whether we stay happily single or decide to pursue a committed relationship. She calls this triple-action sequence “positivity resonance”. Love, she observes, is less a smooth, solid path than momentary experiences of connection.
Making Love Last
The more areas of connection we have with our partners, the more opportunities we have to positively resonate every day, adds Frederickson.
Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., a psychology professor at California’s Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, agrees. “Long-term relationships, like marriages, are partnerships in living,” according to Plante. “The vast majority of the time couples are together they’re not having hot sex, but are sharing a practical day-to-day life together.”
Shared activities aren’t always exciting or glamorous. Raising children, working, managing a home, cooking and cleaning, shopping, being with friends and family and the rest of regular daily living is where the rubber meets the road in relationship satisfaction, observes Plante. “If couples aren’t compatible in these areas, then the connection and attraction will inevitably atrophy, tensions emerge and too often, relationships fracture and fall apart.”
~Neil Clark Warren
Compatibility means different things to different people, and requirements can change as individuals in a romantic partnership change over time. Compatibility also means agreement that the relationship is worth the effort to nurture and sustain it.
Partnering Life’s Dance
Five couples in different stages of loving partnerships share how they make their special relationships work. The key to them all is shared values.
Doing everything together. For newlyweds Drs. Josh and Chelsea Axe, of Nashville, Tennessee, a mutual commitment to vigorous wellness and physical fitness keeps them together. Says Josh, “The healthy lifestyle I have chosen to live is so important that I need someone who is able to not just agree, but also partner with me.” Married in 2012, the two chiropractic physicians went on to co-found the BurstFIT interval training program and meld their professional, as well as personal, lives.
Chelsea notes, “There is truth to the phrase, ‘Couples that sweat together, stay together.’ When working out together, you share a specific energy you create while pushing yourself to your mental and physical limits. You have your partner right there doing it alongside you, knowing they’re supporting you; so when you each break through a mental or physical barrier in your workout, you step over together into a strength and confidence that carries over into your marriage. Being a part of each other’s goals and the struggles to reach them unifies us.”
Remarks Josh, “I feel like we can both be successful individually, but when we’re a team, the outcome is synergistic.”
Chelsea adds, “It’s never a mindset of ‘me.’ It’s always ‘us.’”
Balancing work and play. Barbara and Bob Unell, of Leawood, Kansas, dated as teenagers, went their separate ways in college and then found each other again in their early 20s. “We went on a blind date in 1968 and both belted out songs on the car radio,” recalls Barbara. “I thought he had a great sense of humor and was fun to be with. All these years later, it feels like we’re still dating. We’re crazy about each other.”
Both Barbara and Bob describe themselves as enthusiastic, playful, entrepreneurial, altruistic and geared toward creative projects, whether undertaken together or separately. “We’re both, ‘Let’s try this,’ sort of people,” says Barbara with a laugh.
When the Unells had twins, now grown, they realized there was no national publication addressing how to parent multiples, so they launched Twins magazine in 1984. Bob founded and managed an advertising agency while Barbara wrote bestselling parenting books, but the whole family traveled together on her speaking engagements. In response to becoming a breast cancer survivor, Barbara founded the nonprofit Back in the Swing in 2000 to support survivorship care at cancer centers. When they needed additional staff, Bob joined the team in 2009. One of the biggest things that Barbara has learned from Bob is, “You can make work fun.”
~ Meher Baba
“Although we come from different backgrounds, Bob and I know the power of mutual respect, trust and kindness,” reflects Barbara. “Part of our connection is that we have shared history and never take each other for granted.”
Making long-distance work. Lisa Ekus, who runs the full-service culinary talent agency The Lisa Ekus Group, in Hatfield, Massachusetts, had been married twice and already raised her two children when she met Atlanta Chef Virginia Willis. They got to know each other through culinary events and to their surprise, fell in love. Over the past six years they’ve evolved a relationship that works for them—keeping a deep personal connection, but maintaining separate residences.
Cookbook author Willis gardens, develops recipes and writes for her Food Network blog, “Down Home Comfort,” at Ekus’ New England compound in the summers; Ekus travels to the South during cold months. They also meet up as often as they can at conferences, food and wine festivals and other events during the rest of the year.
“We are both smart, professional women who love what we do, have strong ethics and a high level of self-expectation in how we work,” says Ekus. “We are also best friends and work together professionally. The respect we have for each other and our work is instrumental in our relationship.”
“We often joke about the North/ South, fast/slow cultural difference,” Ekus notes. “I’m more spontaneous; Virginia is more thoughtful in her responses. I tend to move fast and focus on checking off items, while Virginia is more about the journey and being in the moment. It often makes us each take stock and consider what we’re doing and saying.”
They make the geographic separation work despite its inherent long-distance complications via consistent communication, saying good morning and good night every day by phone and texting often. They hold regular agent/author meetings to make professional plans and personal calendar meetings at least weekly, recognizing and respecting what is important to each of them.
Bridging the age gap. Karen and Dick Eagle, from St. Louis, Missouri, are 16 years apart in age, but are close in the ways that count. Both are strongminded and still vie to get their own way even after 30 years of marriage. “We argue over the stupidest things, and then resolve our disagreements and realize how good we have it,” says Karen.
What first attracted them to each other—and keeps them together—is a love of playful fun and good times with friends. Karen remarks, “I knew Dick was ‘the one’ when he jumped flat-footed over a wingback chair at a friend’s house. That showed me that he was young at heart.”
Making ends meet. Eleven years ago, when family therapist Susan Franklin lost her husband, Michael, a university college professor, she felt bereft and overwhelmed. The pair had owned a country property near Cleveland, Ohio, where they boarded horses. Susan realized, “I couldn’t keep up with everything on my own,” and Jake Marshall, a musician friend of Michael’s, offered to help. Over time, Susan and Jake became close, and they now live together.
Although Jake is a great supporter in many ways, he’s not in a position to help financially. Susan depends on her late husband’s insurance and pension benefits, which she would lose if she remarries. “Jake is so laid back and easy to be with, I can relax,” says Susan. Michael, on the other hand, always seemed to fill a room. Jake helps Susan with chores around the property and she is always there cheering him on from the front row when he performs at local venues.
Neil Clark Warren, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the eHarmony relationship website, believes there are at least 29 personality dimensions—such as anger management skills, intelligence, feelings about children, energy and ambition—that comprise who we are and play a role in maintaining a relationship. Key personality dimensions include interests and activities, guiding principles and philosophies, expressions of emotional experience, tendencies toward togetherness and separateness, goals and familial and other relationships.
Warren suggests categorizing desired qualities in a mate into three lists: non-negotiables, qualities that are top priority and deal breakers; semi-negotiables that are important, yet flexible secondary priorities; and negotiables that are subject to tradeoffs for more important qualities.
Working out as a couple, sharing a creative project or making a gourmet meal together can do more than keep partners feeling connected. Shared activities also keep the positive experiences ongoing and resonating. “That special bond and the commitments people often build around it are the products of love, the results of the many smaller moments in which love infuses you,” maintains Fredrickson. Such moments not only accumulate, but can also be stored in memory and banked to feed a relationship during the tougher times.
“Love is something we should re-cultivate every day,” she says. A loving partnership is always a work in progress.
Judith Fertig is a freelance writer from Overland Park, KS.