Not Just on Valentine’s Day


Not Just on Valentine’s Day

A pair of thirty somethings, contemplating marriage, asked me to provide advice about romantic love and marriage. Perhaps my advice can help you.

The wedding bands of my beloved in laws,  Art and Beverly Weiman Sontz.

First, what is romantic love? Research reveals that for most of us, it’s what happens when lust combines with friendship.

Though romantic love is joyous, I believe such love depends on solving problems. These problems are usually created by peers (especially in school), the media, work, supervisors, and, sadly, sometimes family.

So when two people are in romantic love I assume that many problems had accumulated over time and that each person came to share with the other descriptions of their joys, fears, aspirations, and the ups and downs of their daily lives. I assume that each also carefully observed the other’s behaviors and contexts. Consequently, each became the world’s expert about the other and helped solve many of the other’s problems.

But if romantic love depends on solving problems then each solution reduces the basis for joy. Moreover, partners will help each other solve problems as problems arise. So there will be joy, but not as at the beginning when many problems were being solved.

Fortunately, for most of us, romantic love evolves into companionate love. Research reveals that this love is often characterized by mutual enjoyment, trust, respect, commitment, understanding, acceptance, and spontaneity. Moreover, each person is often the world’s champion and advocate for the other. Companionate love is well illustrated by the love between very close best friends.

So how do you keep companionate love going?

1. Assume determinism. Although the origins of behavior are mysterious, assume your partner’s behavior is determined by genetics as well as past and current circumstances. So if your partner’s behavior displeases, don’t blame your partner!

2. Be constructional. When your partner’s behavior displeases don’t complain. Instead build new pleasing behaviors or strengthen old ones that compete with the displeasing behavior. For example, don’t complain “You never wash the dishes!” Instead, patiently wait for your partner to approximate washing the dishes or actually wash them. Then offer whatever might please your partner.

3. Respect each other. The highest form of respect is to please without your partner asking.

4. Listen to and observe each other daily. How else can you remain the world’s expert and help your partner solve problems? Of course, some problems cannot be solved.  For these problems being a good, understanding listener may be most helpful.

5. Regarding the past, unless it is positive don’t repeatedly bring it up. It’s punishing to hear someone repeatedly describe behavior that cannot be undone and is best forgotten or at least not discussed.

6. Be accepting. Not every displeasing behavior is worth modifying. Suppose your partner develops strong attachments. This is great when it comes to your partner’s cherishing you but not so great when your partner fills closets with stacks of cherished objects. So be careful. Your attempting to modify your partner’s behavior may fail because it is part of a more general disposition, a disposition that may be quite important to your partner.

Finally don’t underestimate the importance of sex. A review of contracts negotiated by couples in distressed marriages revealed the wives to most often complain that their husbands infrequently listened, and the husbands to most often complain that their wives infrequently provided sex. On average, the contracts specified that some six hours of listening earned one sexual episode! You can do better!

Of course, my advice may not work for all couples. But if you judge it valuable then fill in the particulars and behave accordingly, not just on Valentine’s Day.

A detailed analysis of romantic love can be found here:

Dermer, M. L. (2006). Towards understanding the meaning of affectionate verbal behavior; Towards creating romantic loving. The Behavior Analyst Today, 7, 452-480.  Article
Marshall Lev Dermer is an Associate Professor Emeritus of the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. E-mail to: dermer@uwm.eduWebsite