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“Romantic love – seeking it, glorifying it, dishing it – is a human obsession. My English barmaid mother called it a ‘funny five minutes’ never to be trusted and basically dangerous for women. The feminist author Marilyn Yalom saw a mysterious but ‘intoxicating mixture of sex and sentiment’. Until the turn of the century, one definition seemed to be as good as any another. This despite the fact that, in the past 50 years, love has become the basis for long-term adult commitment, which is now an emotional rather than an economic enterprise. (Most women today put a man’s ability to explore his feelings ahead of his ability to ‘provide’.) The basic building block of family stability – love – is recognised as a source of happiness and life satisfaction, a key to physical health and resilience, and a primary life goal. This mystery you fall into is critical but all too often fleeting: popular consensus holds love as a sexual force with a best-before date.
For someone like me, who practised the most difficult kind of psychotherapy with distressed couples seeking to mend their relationship, all this was problematic. As a young doctoral student trying to be helpful in the face of all shapes and sizes of relationship distress, the one thing that rapidly became clear was that no one, no poet, philosopher or psychologist, had cracked the code of the drama that played out in my office every day, leaving me as overwhelmed and distressed as my clients.
Then, in the early 1980s on the west coast of Canada, armed with positive communication exercises and insights into how a partner might project his or her past issues with parents onto a partner, I eagerly welcomed a couple into my office. It didn’t go well. Amy exploded in frustration, yelling at Tim and detailing all the times he had let her down and dashed her hopes. ‘I would be better off if I’d never met you!’ she screamed.
‘No one can live with someone as judgmental as you are,’ Tim responded. ‘So I just stop trying – I just go to my silent cave and wait till you wind down.’
Amy shot back: ‘What is winding down is this damned relationship.’ This battle continued unabated for another 40 minutes. I could not get a word in, and quickly lost any sense that I could impact this toxic battle, let alone help Amy and Tim build any kind of lasting truce.”
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