It’s Time We Abandon This Piece of Relationship Advice

I think back to all of the advice I’ve been given over the years about love and I can’t help but feel deceived. Wisdom is passed down to us in many forms and when it comes to love, it finds its way to us in bad clichés: love means never having to say you’re sorry, love will set you free, love is blind. I learned to accept that life is not fair and that it could be hard, but for most of my life I fervently refused to accept that love would be anything but idyllic when I finally found the right person. It frustrates me to think of how for many years I believed that when I met the right person that it would be easy. I can’t count the number of times someone gave me this advice or some variation of it. When you meet the one it will just feel right or you will be surprised how easy it all is. Looking back I can see that part of the reason I never questioned this advice — and rather clung to it with determination — is because I desperately wanted it to be true.
After a breakup that was most definitely not amicable or mutual, I would be comforted by the notion that the relationship failed because the person just wasn’t right for me. For many folks, they meet someone and it is easy for them, and I’m not questioning that. If love is easy for you that is wonderful but please know, it is not a universal experience for everyone. It breaks my heart that these sorts of truisms are being thrown around without acknowledgment that for some folks, being in a relationship may be more challenging than we can ever imagine. We are told that “love is all that you need,” and for those of us whose path is far from the rom-com, Nicholas Sparks, Instagram “couple goals” reality, this can put us in a pretty hopeless place.

We are all wired differently

Stan Tatkin does a brilliant job at breaking down the science of love in his book Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. Essentially, he explains that we are wired to love from a young age. For those of us with a secure attachment style, love can be easy because we learned early that we could count on our caregivers for security, safety, and love. For those of us with an insecure attachment style, our wiring is such that being in a relationship as an adult can bring up that which is deeply rooted in our childhoods. In Tatkin’s words:
“Fears and expectations that date back to earlier experiences of dependency, but that didn’t arise during courtship or dating, are activated as commitment to the relationship increases. As a result, partners start to anticipate the worst, not the best from their relationship.”
As someone with an anxious attachment style, I spent a lot of energy in my 20s trying to figure out how to love; questioning what was wrong with me and why I was incapable of something that was supposed to be easy. Learning I had an anxious attachment style that that most of the men I had dated had an avoidant one helped me to have more patience and empathy for myself and those I loved. It also helped me to realize that although love may be innately human, being in relationship is complicated and can look and feel very different for you than it does for someone else.

Falling in love vs. being in love

Falling in love is usually easy, I’ll admit that. This article breaks down Dr. Helen Fisher’s work, which breaks romantic love down into three categories: lust, attraction, and attachment. Attraction has been linked to the pathway in our brain that controls “reward” behaviour and is what leads to that first few weeks, or months if you are lucky, to be so extraordinary. During the attraction phase, we get an extra dose of dopamine and norepinephrine which make us excited, energized, and euphoric. I love falling in love. It feels good and I have to say better than any drug I have ever tried. I think the sentiment that love should be easy, or when you meet the right person it will “just feel right,” led me to think that with the right person, this honeymoon would never end. I could accept that, physiologically, the cocktail of hormones would cease, but I believed that with the right person the ease I felt in the beginning would stay. When it comes to long-term relationships, though, we need attachment. This is where it gets tricky because attachment is not exclusive to romantic relationships, attachment shows up in all of our relationships — including the ones with our parents. When the happy hormones fade away, we are left with attachment and if the only attachment blueprint we have ever known was an insecure one, this phase of pairing can be far from easy. It may require an uncomfortable rewiring process as we learn what a secure bond looks and feels like.

The therapist that finally changed my mind

In therapy, I learned that the dynamic of my relationships was something that my therapist had seen many times before. No, I was not defective and I did not lack some character strength those who found love easy possessed. It wasn’t until I showed up to couples therapy, in the midst of a bitter fight with my partner, that I finally admitted the depths of the nature of the conflict I’d been experiencing in my relationships for years. To hear that we weren’t the only ones helped free me from the shame that led me to hide these parts of my life from most people (especially the ones telling me it was supposed to be easy). I just had a different experience as a child and like so many folks, this meant that finding a relationship that felt safe might not be as simple as finding the right person. My therapist warned that it would take a lot of work; an anxious and avoidant pairing presents itself with a constant stream of potential triggers. She was right — it has taken a lot of work — and it wouldn’t be possible without the acceptance that it was okay to have to work at it.
I still read articles that state some of the signs of toxic relationships or perhaps in a more positive light, signs that you have met the one. I have told myself I won’t believe the reality of others is indicative of my own, but it still makes me question myself. Am I missing something? Is there a person out there for me with whom it will truly be easy? That may be, but I can say with certainly hearing that “when I meet the right person it will be easy” doesn’t give me hope and it certainly doesn’t help. For some of us, loving another person in a way that is safe, secure, and gentle, is something that needs to be learned. I’ve found a lot more comfort in the belief that love is hard and that there is no person with whom it will be perfect. I’ve accepted that learning how to love is not something natural but rather something that may take me a lifetime. It may sound cynical, but it has served me far more than buying into a fairytale that was never going to be mine.
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