If “love makes the world go ‘round” and our marriage vow is “till death do us part,” why is it that even the 50 percent of couples who remain legally married often feel psychologically divorced? And why do couples who have children often feel they are in what I call a “minimum-security-prison marriage”?
Here’s the love trap: Falling in love is biologically natural; sustaining love is biologically unnatural. The Achilles’ heel of all human beings is our inability to handle personal criticism from a loved one, especially when given badly (and all criticism from a loved one is perceived as given badly!). We are biologically programmed to “kill the criticizer [potential enemy] before the criticizer kills us.”
The secret to feeling loved is feeling understood: No one says, “I want a divorce, my partner understands me.” Our biologically natural defensiveness leads to our partner feeling misunderstood and walking on eggshells. Soon the love fades. Raising children and dealing with money magnifies the problems even as those problems become the reason we stay together. Enter the minimum-security-prison marriage.
To restore love, I train couples in “the art and discipline of love.” This starts with three parts: first, the art and discipline of appreciating their partner; second, knowing how to create and sustain a “conflict-free zone” for 166 hours a week; third, creating a “caring and sharing time” during the remaining two hours.
Appreciations. Being appreciated fills our reservoir of love. Or restores the love after it has been depleted by the 3 C’s: Criticism; Complaining, and Controlling. The secret sauces of appreciating are being both specific and curious. Rather than say, “I appreciate your making dinner,” saying, “I loved the way you got the turkey’s skin so crisp and the dressing so moist. How did you do that?” That’s the art. The discipline is committing to sharing appreciations at, say, every Monday and Thursday’s dinner.
Conflict-free zone. Each couple learns the art and discipline of sustaining a 166-hour per week conflict-free zone by, for example, journaling what annoys them until they can bring it up safely during “caring-and-sharing time.”
Caring-and-Sharing Time. Since the natural response to personal criticism is defensiveness, I train couples to alter their natural defensiveness prior to listening to criticism. The goal is for the receiver of criticism to feel safe by knowing that providing a safe environment for his or her partner’s concerns will guarantee them a deeper love. Only someone who feels safe receiving criticism can make their partner feel safe giving it.
Is it true, then, that “love makes the world go ‘round?” Falling in love creates the world. But our failure to know the art and discipline of sustaining love leads to divorces that often lead to dad-deprived boys, that can, in turn, destroy the world love creates. These dad-deprived boys hurt. For example. when I did the research for "The Boy Crisis," I discovered that boys in all 63 of the largest developed nations, where there is more permission for divorce and dad-deprivation, are doing worse than girls in every academic subject; and boys in their 20s are committing suicide at almost six times the rate of girls. If the boy crisis resides where fathers do not reside, it is usually where the skills to sustain love also did not reside.
How does not being able to sustain love destroy the world that love creates? Boys who hurt, hurt us. ISIS recruits are mostly dad-deprived boys. Mass shooters are more than 90 percent, dad-deprived boys. And more than 90 percent of our male prison population is dad-deprived.
The art and discipline of love is not just about couples. It is about replacing bullying with empathy. It is about parents and children feeling heard. About Arabs and Israelis feeling heard. And, if we can indulge the ultimate fantasy, about Republicans and Democrats creating a safe environment to hear each other’s zeitgeist.
This Valentine’s Day, may you have just a few more tools to transform your love from vow to reality. Tools to create love’s next evolutionary shift: from falling in love to sustaining love. May your love make your world go ‘round, even as your love goes ‘round the world.