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Love Is a Classroom

This post originally appeared in the Loving Bravely blog on Psychology Today:

Romantic relationships grow us. They change us. Romantic relationships provide us with a powerful crucible for personal transformation. When we “catch feelings,” we become vulnerable. For better and for worse, the words and actions of our intimate partner carry a kind of weight and meaning that is profound. An intimate relationship invites us to trust. Indeed, it requires us to trust. This puts us in touch with all of the other trusting relationships we have experienced to this point, meaning that we may be put face-to-face with aspects of ourselves that have been buried out of our awareness, long-ignored, or completely forgotten. This is the very nature of love—a reality that is exhilarating and frightening all at the very same time.

The truth is that there is nothing simple or straightforward about romantic love. When we act as if we can take it or leave it, when we play like we can keep it easy breezy, we do ourselves (and our partners) a great disservice. In order to thrive in a romantic relationship, we must be willing to engage—body, heart, mind, and soul—treating love like the sacred journey it is. We have to be willing to be students of love, allowing it to move us and grow us and teach us and heal us. Love is a classroom, and on the syllabus are potent lessons about trust, vulnerability, forgiveness, grace, and dependence. Take a look at this quote that captures for me the kind of investment that is needed in order for love to take root and grow. I love this quote so much that it appears on the very first page of my upcoming book:

“If he desired to know about automobiles, he would, without question, study diligently about automobiles. If his wife desired to be a gourmet cook, she’d certainly study the art of cooking, perhaps even attending a cooking class. Yet, it never seems as obvious to him that if he wants to live in love, he must spend at least as much time as the auto mechanic or the gourmet in studying love.” —Leo Buscaglia

So, what does it take to commit to the study of love? Here are four ways that you can create your own love classroom:

Surrender the Fairy Tale: When people say, “If love takes work, something must be wrong,” I want to climb the walls! Of course love takes work. Put two people, even two really compatible people, under the same roof, add a couple of jobs, kids, and some in-laws, and the fairy tale just got a whole lot trickier. Happily ever after means searching—again and again– for the beauty amid the mess.

Stay Humble: Romantic relationships teach us that we can be right or we can be happy. Being a student of love means being willing to look, with humility, for the lesson. Housed within every moment of frustration or disappointment is a lesson. Are you willing to look for it? What is the kernels of truth in your partner’s perspective? I will never forget when a 95 year old man shared with me the secret to the success of his 60+ year marriage. “A happy marriage,” he said, “is made up of two good forgivers.”

Read a Book: I often assign reading to couples who are doing therapy with me. The fields of marriage and family therapy and relationship science are rich and diverse with excellent book ranging from the scholarly to the spiritual. There is something for every couple! Reading a book together provides you with not just an expanded knowledge base. It also gives a jumping off point for deeper dialog about who you are to each other and what you each want and need. (I’ll review some of my faves in an upcoming post!)

Ask for Help: It is my life’s work to reduce the stigma around couple therapy. We know that the divorce rate hovers around 50%, yet couples all too often wait until the 11th hour to ask for help. Couple therapy works! It really does. Research shows that about 70% of couples see significant improvements. Being a student of love means being willing to say, “You matter so much to me. I think we need some direction and guidance and support. Our love needs some TLC.” Couples benefit when they seek therapy early and often!

You don’t need to be nerd to live as a student of love. Relationships grow and change because we grow and change. Commit to learning again and again what it takes to be successful.

Read more Loving Bravely on Psychology Today.