LASTING ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP (PART I)*
Edith Packer, J.D., Ph.D.**
*Copyright © 1989 by Edith Packer, J.D., Ph.D. All rights reserved. No part
of this essay may be copied or reproduced in any form without prior written permission of
**Edith Packer is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Laguna
This essay was originally delivered as a lecture on September 17 and October 29, 1988
as part of the 1988 Seminar Program of The Jefferson School of Philosophy, Economics, and
Psychology presented in Los Angeles and New York City.
Good Morning, Ladies and
Human beings have a need to be perceived as valuable by those they value. Such
reciprocal valuing leads to various degrees of love. And the highest form of love, between
two soulmates who are also lovers, is romantic love.
An ideal romantic relationship is a thoroughly unique type of relationship. Unlike any
other, it involves in its full expression the reciprocal response of the total being of
one individual to the total being of another individual. It is an emotional, intellectual,
and sexual union, a total union of two souls who recognized each other as mates and who
became committed to each other in order to share their innermost values, hopes, and
desires. When such a union exists, it becomes an oasis in which the two soulmates can
reveal to each other the deepest and most intimate aspects of their being. It becomes a
private place where mutual encouragement and support permit each of them to recharge in
order to cope with the sometimes difficult demands of life. It becomes a union in which
one lives more fully for oneself by also living for another. A place for sharing sexual
pleasure without fear and with complete trust. And, while it can sometimes mean pain,
sorrow, anger, and despair, temporarily inflicted by the partner, it is a union in which
each can become more complete--a union which makes life even more worth living.
We know that most couples start their relationship with hope of such a union. Flushed
with anticipation of a happy journey together through life, many nevertheless end with
What are some of the causes of such frequently occurring romantic unhappiness? Can it
be avoided, and are there ways which can help individuals achieve a more lasting and
happier romantic relationship?
This, ladies and gentlemen, is my topic for today.
I want to point out at the outset the difficulties and challenges each couple faces in
forming a romantic relationship. Very few grasp the enormity of the task ahead of them.
After the initial phase of the romantic relationship, which is often fueled by a physical
attraction based on unwarranted subconscious projection of values but little actual
knowledge of each other, the partners have the following assignment: They are to continue
to pursue their individual values in life; to get to know each other well; to sustain the
highest romantic interest in each other; to continue to enjoy each other physically; to
make life together exciting, based on continuous admiration for each other, while coping
with the daily demands and stresses of life. Furthermore, they are charged with
accomplishing all this by working out methods of bridging the differences between two
individuals with different backgrounds, psychologies, goals, and expectations and thereby
creating the basis for a smoothly flowing, friction-free interaction.
Few of us are prepared for the task.
The first matter I want to deal with is a relationship between two people, married or
otherwise, which cannot actually be considered romantic because the differences are so
great that the parties are mismatched. In therapy, that is what I try to determine as soon
as possible, because no matter how hard the couple is willing to try, when the differences
are fundamental, romantic happiness is not possible, and the relationship is doomed in
most cases. Even if such a couple stays together, one or both of the parties remains
unhappy. When fundamental differences exist, no compromise is possible because the
respective needs of the two individuals cannot be fulfilled.
In my experience, a couple usually turns out to be mismatched as a result of the
mistakes one or both individuals made in selecting each other as romantic partners.
These are individuals who were never right for each other.
Mistakes in selection can occur for a variety of reasons. Among the most important are:
1) The individuals did not know or had not identified their core evaluations--namely,
their basic and personal evaluations about life, self, and others--and/or they did not
know their specific romantic values--values they respond to with attraction (such as a way
of coming at life, a particular style--essentially the total package that one is attracted
to). 2) One or both, at the time of the commitment, mistakenly believed they held a
particular romantic value, but later found they did not, indeed, that they valued the
opposite. 3) One or both individuals may have known their romantic values but misapplied
them. 4) The selection was made to satisfy the neurotic need of one or both of the
partners. In addition, in most cases an important contributing factor to such mistakes in
selection is that the two individuals committed to each other very early in the
relationship. Had they waited, they would have gotten to know each other better. As a
result, they might have discovered that they had fundamental differences, and might have
Most romantic alliances begin with intense mutual attraction. Such attraction usually
occurs with little knowledge of the person one is attracted to. On the surface, it is
difficult to say why one person can feel such a strong personal and sexual attraction
toward someone he or she doesn't know. Indeed, it is almost impossible to trace directly
the thousands of romantic value judgments which each individual makes during his or her
lifetime and which culminate in such an attraction. But what we do know is that sexual
attraction comes from subconscious content. Each individual forms subconscious
associations which lead him or her to assume that the presence of certain physical
characteristics in another person automatically means the presence of certain values he or
she desires. For example, a certain look, a smile, or a way of moving may be interpreted
as a certain kind of sense of life, the look of an ambitious person, the presence of
extreme intelligence, etc. In the light of such subconscious associations and the intense
attraction they cause, it is easy to assume that one has found the soulmate one has been
seeking all along. The attraction itself seems to be the proof.
Having subconsciously endowed in this way the object of their attraction with desired
attitudes, values, character, and personality traits, the lovers proceed to idealize each
other and thus to act ahead of their actual knowledge of one other. In addition, they
usually become sexually involved in this early phase--which means that they become
intimate without a sufficient basis for intimacy. Then, as they get to know each other
better, they often develop a vested interest in maintaining their subconscious
projections. They continue to see similarities in their values where few or none exist.
They observe traits selectively so that they see only good ones, and give glamorized
interpretations to actions or traits of the partner that they don't approve of.
In this period, most individuals also do some role playing. Fearful of revealing too
much about themselves, they are careful to put their best foot forward. Often, secretly or
subconsciously not feeling lovable, they try to hide anything that might endanger the
romance in case the partner disapproves. The result of this combination of factors is the
selection of a partner based on wishful thinking and fantasy, rather than on real
knowledge of one another. Yet true love requires real knowledge of one another--knowledge
acquired by clear thinking over an extended period of time.
Such clear thinking, required for correct selection, must be
based on self-knowledge and on the ability to judge others: on knowing and identifying
clearly one's personal values in all areas of life including specifically romantic values,
and on seeing clearly the values of the other. Each person has a hierarchy of personal
needs and values. The hierarchy varies from individual to individual. But the more clearly
a person can identify his romantic needs (what he must have) and his wants (what he would
like to have but which is not essential), and provided such values are rational, the more
likely he will know at the outset what type of person he likes, who is a good romantic
candidate for him, whom he could be friends with, and whom he can respond to sexually.
For example, if a woman clearly recognizes that she needs to find a man who is highly
intelligent, then in spite of any strong attraction to a man that she might feel on the
basis of subconscious projection, she will consciously look for that quality and if she
does not find it, will not yield to the attraction. Thus she will not develop a vested
interest in maintaining the subconscious projection, and the attraction will soon
diminish. She will know that this is not a romantic partner for her. Her conscious
knowledge will win out over the subconscious projection.
In addition, selection of a partner is helped by a person's sexual maturity, which also
varies from person to person. What an individual views as sexual develops subconsciously
early in life, at a time when character values may not yet be an overriding consideration.
Hopefully, as a result of maturation and a healthy psychological development, the
integration of the two--the character values and sexual values--takes place before serious
romantic attachments are formed. By maturation and healthy psychological development, I
mean the development of a strong sense of personal identity, based on a foundation of
rational core evaluations and a clear identification and development of one's values in
the four important areas of life--namely, work, romantic relationships, family and
friends, and leisure. The greater the individual's knowledge and development of his
values, the stronger is his sense of identity and the easier it is for him to make his
specifically sexual choices consistent with his wider personal values. As a result, the
individual has a better chance of being sexually attracted to the person most right for
him or her.
The matching of the hierarchy of personal and specifically romantic values is the basis
for mutual admiration and respect for the partner. (I am speaking, of course, of healthy
values.) Such admiration and respect can occur only as a consequence of each of the
partners embodying the romantic and personal values the other holds. Thus, I want to
emphasize that admiration and respect are one of the major requirements for romantic
Obviously, individuals do not have to match on every value they hold. But the values
found at the top of the hierarchy must match. Thus if the core evaluations of the partners
are completely different from each other, the couple is mismatched. If one of the partners
hates life and is alienated by the other's love of life, the differences are
irreconcilable. If one values character, and the other is a liar and a cheat, no
admiration is possible. If one values ambition and the other hates to work, no admiration
is possible. And, of course, if one is sexually attracted to the other, but the attraction
is not reciprocated, no basis for a romantic alliance is present.
Unfortunately, knowledge of one's needs and values and the ability to judge other
people usually have not developed by the late 'teens and early 'twenties, the age when
individuals usually form serious romantic alliances. Hence, mistakes in selection occur
more often than not. In my opinion, the cause of the great majority of divorces or
breakups is traceable to this root--to the fact that the two individuals were not right
for each other to begin with.
Let me give you some examples in which the differences are fundamental. Mr. White, when
he married his wife, thought that he was attracted to her because, among other things, she
was a competent professional. Three years after their child was born, Mrs. White wants to
return to the practice of law. They come to therapy because he is violently opposed to it.
In therapy, Mr. White faces the fact that he really wants a traditional wife--one who will
stay home permanently, not one who wants both to bring up a child and pursue a career at
the same time. He is as strongly opposed to her pursuing a career in these circumstances
as she is in favor of it. Thus, unless one of them genuinely changes his or her mind, the
couple's fundamental values cannot be reconciled.
Or consider the case of Mr. and Mrs. Green who, when they got married, were both
Protestant fundamentalists. After three years of marriage, she became an atheist. They
want to have children and come to therapy thinking that they have only the minor problem
of how to bring up the children. Obviously, their real problem is that while they may not
have been mismatched when they got married, they are now.
Another example is that of Mr. and Mrs. Owen, who come to therapy because Mr. Owen has
been impotent for the last year and a half of their three year marriage. They got married
four months after they met. They did not know each other very well, nor did they know
their own values. And they also selected each other basically in order to satisfy their
respective neurotic needs. Mrs. Owen had been married twice before, and both of her
husbands had left her because each fell in love with another woman. When Mr. Owen appeared
on the scene--tall, handsome, seemingly successful in business, and willing to marry
her--she was only too eager to agree. Mr. Owen, who in fact was not successful in business
and usually left a trail of debts after he failed in one business after another, admired
Mrs. Owen's competence as an advertising executive. He perceived her as sweet and
compliant and ready to help him out. They both role played. He pretended to like
everything she liked and to have many friends. She pretended to herself to be in love with
him. It turned out he did not like to engage in any activity other than watching
television and was a virtual recluse. "He is a liar and a weakling, and I cannot
respect him," she says. "She is a castrating bitch," he says, because she
denigrates him and calls him a failure. He subconsciously retaliates by being impotent and
then cheats on her to prove his masculinity.
Clearly, Mr. and Mrs. Owen are mismatched. She married him to prove that she was
feminine on the basis of the fact that a tall, handsome, and seemingly successful man was
willing to adore her. He married her because his role playing evoked admiration from an
attractive, sociable, and successful woman. He thought she would take care of his business
and of him. He thought her admiration would give him the self-esteem he did not have.
(Parenthetically, the Owens came to me with what they thought was a sexual problem. But in
fact the sexual problem was a symptom of the wider problem they were having. Their problem
in connection with sex was that you cannot give and receive sexual pleasure when there is
mutual anger, disrespect, and contempt. Their anger toward each other was not the result
of pain inflicted by a partner whom they admired. What they resented was that they did not
have their respective neurotic needs satisfied.)
I want to make it clear that individuals can achieve romantic happiness even though
they may have psychological problems. But if the main motivation for the selection is, for
example, a need to be protected from life or a desire to pursue infantile needs in order
to resolve psychological conflicts from childhood, then the relationship is doomed.
Miss Gold is my last example on this point. She came to therapy because she thought
romantic happiness was out of her reach, though she had had numerous relationships of
short duration. She laments that "all good men are either married or dead." It
turns out that she knows what she wants. She wants "strength" and
"independence" in the man, so she can look up to him. Unfortunately, she
translates these values into looking for men who play the macho role, which is what she
views as strength. And independence to her is expressed by a man who does wild and
irrational things because he feels like it. Being "off beat," a "free
spirit" who does not want to limit his choices by settling down to one occupation,
moving from one place to another as the spirit moves him, without responsibilities--that
to her is independence. Luckily, she discovers within a short time that such men do not
want to be limited to one woman either and that their character is dishonorable. She is
fortunate: she may be able to avoid making the mistake of becoming seriously involved with
such a man.
Now, in contrast to such cases, if it can be assumed that no major mistakes occurred in
the selection, that the partners' fundamental values are similar, that they respect and
admire each other, are sexually attracted to each other, and have made a commitment to
each other, then at least the basic requirements for a romantic relationship are present.
But we all know that this does not ensure success in a romantic relationship. In my
opinion, what is needed, in addition, is knowledge of an objective way of proceeding
toward each other in order to sustain the romantic aspects of the union in the phase after
the commitment has been made.
Each couple conducts their romantic relationship on the basis of certain terms and
procedures. For a successful relationship, the terms and procedures should be explicit,
objective, and rational, and agreed upon by the partners. If the terms are not identified
clearly, or if they are non-objective or irrational, disappointment and hurt will
Let me describe some major terms and procedures on which a successful relationship
One of the most important terms the couple must agree upon is to treat each other as
romantic allies and soulmates and to communicate their emotions to each other honestly.
This is necessary in order to achieve trust, closeness, and intimacy.
A romantic relationship is fundamentally a reciprocal emotional relationship between
the partners, who besides being lovers are also best friends--or really better than best
friends, even closer and more intimate.
Through their emotions toward each other, each couple creates an easily identifiable
emotional climate. One type of emotional climate is present when a couple projects tension
and hostility toward one another. You can tell that there is some kind of warfare going on
even when they seem to be lovingly teasing each other. In fact, they are ripping each
other's weaknesses apart.
Another type of emotional climate is present when the couple exudes alienation and
separation from each other. These are people who live what I call "parallel
lives." They each pursue their individual values in life, divide the duties and
responsibilities connected with the home, each performing his or her individual
assignments, but are not involved with each other emotionally. They do not share their
respective emotions. He plays golf and she works for the PTA, and they often take separate
vacations. What is clear is that they do not enjoy each other.
A very different type is a positive and appropriate emotional climate, which
unfortunately is rare. In this case, the partners project enjoyment of each other. They
project that in an important sense they are one--that if he got hurt, she would be hurt,
and vice versa, and that if one of them succeeds, the other succeeds. You know that each
is the most important person in the world to the other.
A positive emotional climate is the result first of all of the couple behaving toward
each other as irreplaceable soulmates. To be soulmates with someone means not only loving
and valuing your soulmate, but also trusting your soulmate's love for you. It means
trusting him or her to perceive you correctly, to know who you are--to know your flaws and
deficiencies, but basically to perceive you as worthy of respect and admiration. Thus, to
be soulmates in this sense means not to have secrets from each other; it means not to
pretend. There is no way to achieve and maintain intimacy unless both partners permit
themselves to be fully real, which includes revealing weaknesses if they are there. What
good is it to pretend to possess a trait or a strength you don't possess in order that
your partner love you? If your partner does love you because of that trait, he does not
love the person you really are.
The acceptance of the partner as he or she is, is an essential requirement for being
soulmates. Obviously, the respect and admiration will not be given as a response to the
shortcomings of the partner. Nor does it mean that the parties have to accept their
respective deficiencies and problems as an unalterable given. On the contrary, the respect
will be given for being able to admit such deficiencies, with the understanding that each
will assume the responsibility of working hard to correct and overcome his or her own
problems, and will at the same time encourage the other to do the same. Thus, if you want
to be close and intimate, you must trust your partner's love for you as you are. You must
also be willing to risk being vulnerable, or being hurt and sometimes communicating
something which will hurt your partner. There is no other way to be intimate.
(Parenthetically, I want to caution you that this does not mean that a person should enter
a relationship on the basis of a hope for future improvement. For example, it is obviously
not advisable to enter into a romantic relationship with someone of bad character--for
example, a habitual liar--who promises to correct the problem in the future.)
Let me give you some specific emotions and thoughts that need to be communicated
between the partners if they are to become better acquainted with each other's inner life
and thus increase the trust and intimacy between them. By knowing the specific emotions
which need to be communicated, they can get to know each other's needs and expectations
better, and thus be better able to satisfy those needs and expectations.
First of all, each partner has to continue to share his day-to-day thoughts and
feelings, and in particular his thoughts and feelings concerning how his life is
progressing. Obviously, this includes not only positives, such as desires and plans for
the future, but also concerns, fears, and self-doubts. I don't mean that there has to be a
running commentary on every single positive or negative thought; but anything that helps
the partners to know each other's emotional state needs to be shared. Each has to
communicate his or her needs and desires within the relationship. For example, if one
partner needs more time to be alone or needs daily loving physical contact or more
frequent sex--such things need to be communicated. A person cannot expect that the partner
know what his or her needs are in every instance. It is futile to expect that because a
person loves you he will intuitively always know what you expect and then be able to
provide it spontaneously.
Second, each partner has to share and communicate his thoughts
and emotions about the other. The stress here is on expressing positive interest
concerning anything the partner thinks, feels, and does--to continuously stress with words
and action the importance of the partner in one's life, and to express the joy in having
each other and in sharing life together. Both partners have to make an effort to be
romantic. All this means is that each has to be creative in inventing circumstances which
stress the romance, such as dinner with candlelight, surprise gifts, etc. But again, it is
important not to conceal negatives. Each partner must tell the other when his or her needs
or expectations have not been met, although with complete benevolence and courtesy, and
with appropriate timing.
Third and most importantly, the couple must be aware of and talk about what is taking
place in the relationship and how it is progressing. Most of the damage in romantic
relationships occurs when for various reasons one of the partners conceals hurts and
unhappinesses concerning the way he or she is being treated in the relationship. Such
negative emotions do not disappear. They wait, ready to spring up, at the least
provocation. By holding back such feelings, by not honestly expressing them and resolving
the hurt, the suppressed feelings become a basis for permanently negative attitudes. It is
not difficult to bury love with hurt and then anger and resentment. I see this every day
in my practice. Couples who basically admire each other are completely distanced from each
other because they do not express such feelings honestly. As a result, even couples who
did not have fundamental differences when they selected one another can often create them
if they cannot agree that emotional honesty is absolutely necessary.
For example, one of my patients who is under pressure at work believes that when he
comes home, he should not discuss business with his girlfriend. Nor does he think he
should share his fears or doubts with her. He thinks that it is bad for the relationship.
His childhood is also a forbidden topic because "that was in the past." Not
surprisingly, the girlfriend knows very little about his true feelings. As a result of the
fact that he is afraid to reveal any weaknesses to her, she knows that he is holding back
certain feelings. Not knowing the nature of these feelings, she imagines that he has found
someone else and that he is ready to end the relationship. Not surprisingly, she feels
that she can neither trust him nor get close to him.
Sometimes lack of emotional honesty creates a sudden crisis that is capable of
destroying the relationship. Mr. and Mrs. Wood are a good example. For five years--the
duration of their marriage--she has faked orgasm. Now she is at the point where she can no
longer have sex with her husband. On the one hand, if she tells her husband the truth, she
claims, it will hurt his pride and he will view her as dishonest and will not be able to
trust her again. On the other hand, if she continues to reject him sexually, the marriage
will most likely end in divorce.
As in the case of Mrs. Wood, couples often have great difficulty in honestly
communicating their emotions concerning sexual issues.
A sexual relationship between romantic partners is an absolute essential. If the two
individuals live in complete harmony but do not enjoy each other physically, then they may
be best friends, but they are not lovers and therefore not romantic partners.
Sex, of course, is not a primary. A sexual response originates in the sexual identity
of one person and is a response to the sexual identity of the other person. This adds
another dimension to the relationship. It is the way of joining and expressing the most
profound values in a physical form. Needless to say, both partners have to be sexually
fulfilled. Otherwise the relationship is in trouble.
Unfortunately, the mere fact that the couple was attracted to each other sexually at
the outset of the relationship is no guarantee that sex will be fulfilling for them. There
are good reasons for this.
Each person develops his likes and preferences in sex in an individual way, according
to his own particular premises and experiences. And individuals have different ways of
expressing their sexuality. In addition, early sexual experiences and fantasies can leave
an indelible imprint on a person's sexuality. In order to achieve fulfillment, therefore,
each must be willing to acquaint the partner with such particular preferences. It is
essential that each communicate to the other what he or she likes and wants in sex and how
each achieves the highest possible enjoyment. As you can see, true sexual intimacy, again,
depends on mutual trust: that the sexual preferences each will reveal will not only not be
condemned but actually be accommodated by the partner. Trust in this context also means
that each partner will try to be as free as possible sexually, and reveal his or her fears
or inhibitions. It means that the partners feel free to experiment in order to enhance
each other's pleasure in every way. In other words, each has to feel that the other is
willing to give and receive the greatest possible sexual pleasure. At the same time, each
has to feel that the other is willing to assume the responsibility of pursuing his or her
own pleasure without placing the burden on the partner of fulfilling expectations that
were never expressed. Both have to agree that the sexual relationship requires both a
selfish focus on one's own erotic sensations and a willingness to be aware of the
partner's needs and desires.
Not many couples share such sexual intimacy. Most couples have sexual taboos--subjects
they never talk about. For example, very few couples share each other's fantasies.
One of my patients, Mrs. Gilbert, told me with great trepidation that she enjoys a rape
fantasy--a common fantasy among women--which she never revealed to her husband. Fantasies
involve play-acting. Mrs. Gilbert does not want to be actually raped. She wants to play at
being overwhelmed so that she can fully surrender to pleasure. At the same time, Mr.
Gilbert told me that he would like her to wear a certain type of lingerie, but is afraid
to tell her for fear of being laughed at.
Unfortunately, couples are often unwilling to accommodate each other even when they
know what the partner desires. Thus, for example, the issue of how frequently a couple
will have sex is often a source of problems, because of the differences in the
inclinations of the partners and their unwillingness to compromise and accommodate.
Also adding to sexual difficulties are various incorrect ideas concerning sex--ideas
usually learned early in life and often fixed. Subconscious and conscious conclusions such
as "sex is dirty and I shouldn't enjoy it"; "if a woman cannot achieve an
orgasm vaginally, she is frigid"; "a man is a good lover only if he can give a
woman a climax"; "respectable girls do not like sex"; "looking at
girlie magazines or pornography, or sexually appreciating members of the opposite sex
other than one's partner, means the person is no longer in love," etc., etc.
Time does not permit me to analyze such mistaken ideas, but I hope that you can see how
they can stand in the way of a healthy sexual relationship by causing self-doubt and fear.
Many individuals are vulnerable about their sexual identity to begin with. They do not
view themselves as physically sexy. As a result, any feelings of the partner that are not
in line with their own ideas about sex will be threatening.
Of course, in most cases, the sexual distance and sexual difficulties are mere
consequences of what is going on between the partners outside of bed. Sex is usually a
mirror of the state of the personal intimacy, admiration, and respect between the couple.
Unresolved hurt, buried under anger, often surfaces as a sexual problem, such as
impotence, distant and mechanical sex, or, quite often, as a lack of desire to have sex.
Even young couples will often live without sex with each other for years rather than
honestly discuss hurts and disappointments in their relationship.
Often, personal and sexual distance between a couple sets the stage for infidelity.
Depending on which survey one reads, infidelity occurs in thirty to sixty percent of
marriages. Whatever the alleged reason for the infidelity, it is in most cases an
indication that the romantic relationship is not fulfilling. I am fully aware that
individuals who are unfaithful, especially men, may give the excuse that such
unfaithfulness is meaningless--that they love their wives or girlfriends--that men can be
sexually attracted to the female anatomy and can become involved sexually without being
seriously interested in the person. Even if that were true, this is not acceptable
In my opinion, exclusivity in a romantic relationship is a requirement necessarily
agreed upon by the partners at the time of their commitment to each other. A romantic
relationship is a private world of two people who consider each other the most important
person in the whole world. Infidelity is contrary to such commitment. It is a breach of
trust. Aside from the moral implications, by being unfaithful and concealing it, such a
partner is willing to cause hurt to the other. Obviously, what I am saying does not mean
that simply being attracted sexually to someone other than the partner is a breach of
trust. Certainly, most men, if not most women, experience such attractions occasionally.
It is usually an out-of-context emotion connected to an individual's subconscious sexual
likes, and unconnected to his or her conscious personal values. And there is nothing wrong
with such emotions. There is something wrong, however, if an individual acts on such
emotions. In a good romantic relationship, such behavior is not an option. Both parties
must rule it out. Nor is such behavior excusable when one or both partners are no longer
in love. In this case, honesty demands that they part.
To summarize these points: the couples I have observed who have a
successful romantic relationship are always couples who agree to conduct their
relationship through honest communication of their emotions. Such couples may sometimes
fight and yell at each other, and sometimes emotionally hurt each other, and occasionally
not understand each other. But throughout, what I have observed is an unwavering focus on
each other. I have observed how they continue to consider each other the most important
person in the world, always thinking about and considering each other's needs and
expectations. Thus, in spite of occasional disagreements, such a couple continues to
respect and love each other, and remains faithful. And because of this extreme interest in
each other, both personally and sexually, their romantic relationship survives any
struggles they may go through.
Let me turn now to another underlying term of a successful romantic relationship.
The couple has to agree that the romantic relationship is to be conducted on the
basis of equality between the partners.
Love between soulmates implies equality of the partners--not necessarily in knowledge,
but in standing. In every romantic relationship, there are issues involving the
relationship of each partner to reality and issues involving their responses to each
other. The category of equality embraces both. This means that each partner has the right
to pursue his or her needs and values in reality and has a right to expect support from
the other partner.
A good example of equality in a romantic relationship is demonstrated in a TV series
called "Cagney and Lacey." I don't know how many of you have seen it. It is
about two lady detectives. One of them, Mary Beth Lacey, is married to a construction
worker, Harvey Lacey, and they have two children. In the show, Lacey, being a police
detective, often has to stay out all night and work under dangerous circumstances. She
also has a more intellectually demanding job than her husband, who does physical labor as
a construction worker. The unreserved support she gets from him throughout the various
episodes is something every woman dreams of. And in giving her the support, he does not
appear weak or subservient. It is clear that he knows she loves her work. He wants her to
be happy. And when at a later point they have to risk all their savings for Harvey to
become a construction contractor, she gives him her unreserved support too.
Unfortunately, many men and women, while paying lip service to equality, secretly or
subconsciously believe that a woman's career is secondary to that of the man. Or they
believe that it is the man who first has to achieve personal success, and then the woman
can seek hers. They often find it perfectly natural that a woman place her partner's or
her children's needs ahead of her own. Since there are different styles of romantic
relationship, this problem does not come up when the parties' desires are in harmony on
this score, as in a traditional marriage, where both agree the terms call for the man to
work and the woman to take care of the home and the children. But even in such a case,
equality implies that each party has the right to change his or her mind at any
point. In an example previously mentioned, Mr. White claimed that they had agreed that she
would retire from her profession permanently and take care of the child. She believed that
they only agreed on this for a limited period of time. But even if at the time of the
agreement she had believed that she wanted to abandon her career permanently, she has a
right to change her mind--the same way as anyone else has a right to change his job or
profession. Clearly, a reasonable couple who believed in equality would be able to work
out the timing of when she can return to her career and the strategy of how they can both
take care of the child without either of the partners having to sacrifice his or her
Another example: Shortly before his wedding, Mr. Clark, a wealthy retired lawyer,
decided that he could not proceed with the wedding unless his fiancée, whose business was
just developing, could promise that she would be home every night at 6:00 P.M., at the
latest. "I let her work," he said magnanimously, "but she must be home at
night." With great self-control, I inquired whether when he was building up his law
practice, he was required or would have been willing to be home at six. "It's not the
same," he said. "I have enough money for both of us."
I don't have time to go into an analysis of men's attitudes toward housework and child
rearing. But, briefly, many men believe, perhaps secretly or subconsciously, that
housework and child rearing are really a woman's job, though, being nice, they are willing
to help. Many men also believe that women are more interested in mundane issues such as
cleaning or preparing dinner because women are the ones who think about them and are
focused on them. Again, Mary Beth and Harvey in the "Cagney and Lacey" show
demonstrate that a couple need not have problems in this area. They are both willing to do
what is necessary at any point. While he complains sometimes that the children need her,
he understands and does what is necessary for the children and the house, and so does she.
The meaning of equality in a romantic relationship also implies that important
decisions affecting the partners' lives are to be made by the agreement of both partners.
Recurring conflicts between couples can often be traced to the violation of this
principle. Numerous female patients who willingly chose the role of mother and wife are
often made to feel miserable because they have no say in how important decisions are made.
Where to live, what house to choose, or what to invest in, are such examples. Some men
state it explicitly and others implicitly--that the one who makes the money decides. The
woman often keeps quiet about being hurt and resentful until the relationship starts to
The handling of finances in general can often be an issue, and here the meaning of
equality can sometimes easily be misinterpreted and misapplied. A couple can choose
whatever arrangement they want, of course. But whatever the financial arrangement, it
should not make any difference who makes more money in a romantic relationship. What is
important is that each does what is rational and important to him or her and makes him or
her happy. Since a romantic relationship is the highest possible form of relationship,
with the well being and happiness of each vital to the other, sharing is a natural
consequence. So long as each respects what the other one does, to apply the concept of
equality to mean that each pays fifty percent of the expenses would be to forget the
context. For example, suppose the man is a writer or a painter and works hard, but is
unable to sell his work. If the woman respects what he does, it would be ludicrous and
most unromantic to tell him to stop doing what he is good at and loves, in order to pay
half of the expenses. Nor does it make sense, for example, for a man who earns several
hundred thousand dollars a year to ask his wife, who earns $30,000 a year, to contribute
to household expenses. Such a position reflects an adversarial attitude, not an attitude
appropriate to a relationship between soulmates.
By the way, I have to say that, in my opinion, keeping separate finances--unless
required for business reasons--reflects a certain distance between the partners.
Equality also implies certain equal responsibilities of each of the partners.
Each partner not only has the right, but bears the responsibility, of seeking out values
in the three remaining important areas of life. This means that each has to know what will
lead to his or her happiness in work, what type of friends to have, and what leisure-time
activities he or she wants to develop. The more fulfilled each partner is in these areas,
the happier he or she can be in the romantic relationship. Self-esteem, whose role I will
discuss shortly, is the consequence of the individual's relationship to reality. For now,
I just want to mention that it cannot be achieved from the admiration of the partner.
This, of course, does not mean that if a partner does not know what makes him happy, the
relationship is doomed. But it does mean that his responsibility requires that he
seriously act to find the values which will make him happy, by trial and error if
necessary--such as trying different lines of work--and not by being miserable and
withholding love from his partner.
Couples also have to agree that each partner has the responsibility of continuing to
grow intellectually, and of promoting the development and enjoyment of optional values
in which both partners can participate--both for his or her own sake and to sustain the
partner's romantic interest and admiration. Unfortunately, many couples, having found each
other, begin to stagnate. Finding various excuses for not planning any activities outside
of watching television, they often complain that the relationship has become boring.
A good romantic relationship needs excitement and mutual enjoyment. To achieve this,
each partner has the responsibility of taking on new challenges in his or her own field
and sharing them with the partner. In addition, each has to embrace the values of the
other. This means, first of all, that each has the obligation of acquiring the knowledge
necessary to understand the partner's work, in order to be able to speak about it
intelligently with the partner. Also, while individuals may have different optional values
when they meet--for example, one may like opera, tennis, and mountain climbing, and the
other, golf, stamp collecting, and dancing--it is important that as the relationship
develops, they make a serious effort to become involved in each other's optional values,
usually by acquiring more information about them. For example, if the husband has a
passion for baseball, the wife should go to the trouble of learning how the game is
played. In that way, she may come to understand why her husband enjoys following the game
and may come to enjoy following it herself. Finally, as I said, each partner has the
responsibility of developing and promoting the enjoyment of new optional values in
which they can both participate. The point is that at times it is important for the
partners to focus on being playful and carefree and simply having fun together--in other
words, to enjoy life and each other in areas where, in effect, they can just play
A couple must agree that the intimate details concerning their relationship are not
a topic to be shared with anyone else.
Obviously, having friends, especially ones that the couple can share, is highly
desirable--it adds to the enjoyment of life. This does not mean, however, that it is
appropriate to confide intimate details concerning the romantic relationship to any
friend, no matter how close. In my experience women are more inclined toward such behavior
than men. They are used to sharing secrets with girlfriends. They in particular feel that
they benefit by discussing such matters with a supportive friend. In my opinion, such
sharing must stop when it concerns details of what goes on in the romantic relationship.
First of all, it may be difficult for a friend to be impartial. Furthermore, it is
possible that the friend's subconscious motivation may result in bad advice. Worst of all,
sharing intimate details concerning sexual matters or any weakness of the other partner
has to have devastating effects. The other partner is humiliated in the friend's eyes, and
it denigrates the complaining partner too. A likely result is that the friend loses
respect for both partners. In addition, a third person was allowed to intrude into the
private world of the couple by sharing such intimate knowledge of what goes on in the
When one or both of the partners cannot resolve problems concerning the romantic
relationship, they should turn to an objective professional. Making a friend privy to the
details of the relationship devalues the relationship. It places the partner, who should
be valued far above any friend, below the friend.
Finally, couples have to agree that each partner has the obligation to remain
courteous to the other. This may seem to be a minor issue, but in fact it is not. Most
couples I deal with are more courteous to total strangers than they are to each other.
Cursing, name calling, not taking care of their appearance, are everyday occurrences in
such a relationship. The implied expectation is that once they have selected each other,
they can do anything and can still be admired.
Again, in a successful romantic relationship, no matter how serious the disagreement
between them, no matter how angry they become at each other, the partners do not curse at
one another or in any other way insult each other. Nor do they use knowledge of one
another's weaknesses, revealed in trust, as weapons of humiliation by throwing it up in
I must turn now from the terms on which a romantic relationship should be conducted to
other major factors in the lives of couples. As we all know, a romantic relationship does
not exist in isolation. Many things seriously affect it--for example, the careers of the
partners and various financial factors. In addition, other personal relationships, such as
those with children, stepchildren, former spouses, parents, and in-laws, also seriously
impact the romantic relationship. Furthermore, various psychological problems of the
partners can get in the way of a successful romantic relationship, such as dependence,
defense values, and especially defense mechanisms, such as repression. I will deal with
these factors in detail in my second lecture at The Jefferson School next summer. For now,
I only have time to make some brief remarks on the effect that having children can have on
the romantic relationship and on the role of self-esteem in the relationship.
While raising children can be a highly rewarding experience, few couples realize in
advance the work and difficulties it entails.
The arrival of a child totally changes the romantic context, and the romantic
relationship can never be the same. Before the child, the partners could focus exclusively
on themselves and their relationship. After the birth of a child, they can no longer do
so. In everything they do, they must consider the effect it will have on the child. The
preoccupation with the child's needs, especially in his or her early years, necessarily
causes a shift away from romance. It interrupts the intimacy that existed between the
partners before, and the sheer energy required to take care of the child's needs often
results in tension between the partners and thus in sexual distancing. Disagreements as to
how to raise the child may arise. In addition, children can also become a source of
disappointment and pain. They can be born with or can develop physical or psychological
problems in spite of the best efforts of the parents.
It takes an unusually mature couple to maintain a good romantic relationship under
these circumstances. The couples who are able to accomplish it usually had a good romantic
relationship to begin with. They were psychologically and financially ready for the child.
Furthermore, they continued to work on their relationship by being aware of what is
happening between them, and by taking time out for themselves, away from the child, and by
sharing the responsibilities of child rearing. Such a couple can, of course, become even
closer as a result of having children.
Unfortunately, many couples who decide to have children do so for the wrong reason.
They don't have a good romantic relationship. They hope to improve it by having children,
or they hope to relive their own childhood, or to make up for wrongs which they
experienced in their childhood. Such parents view children as mere extensions of
In cases like these, the arrival of a child has the opposite effect. It makes the
romantic relationship even worse. The children are used as an excuse not to have sex, or,
worse, they are made scapegoats through whom the parents fight their battles.
Turning now to the role of self-esteem, we all know that in order to value and love
another person, an individual has to value himself; namely, he must have a certain degree
of self-esteem. Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of one's worth based on a conviction
of one's mental efficacy and commitment to rational values. The feeling of self-esteem is
based on the conclusion that one is a valuable person and can be perceived as such by
another, and therefore loved. Self-esteem, of course, exists on a continuum, and the more
an individual values himself, the easier it is for him to accept and give admiration and
love. By the same token, low self-esteem not only interferes with the individual's ability
to pursue his values in general, but it causes especially painful difficulties in the
romantic realm. Subconscious defense mechanisms, such as repression, projection,
withdrawal, and compulsiveness, which are developed to defend against the effects of low
self-esteem--namely, self-doubt and anxiety--greatly interfere with the ability to trust
and be intimate.
An individual may also be compartmentalized. He may believe that he is worthy enough to
pursue and succeed in a profession he likes. At the same time, he may not be able to view
himself as a sexual and romantic being who can be responded to as such by the opposite
sex. This type of compartmentalization is very common.
Thus, depending on the degree, low self-esteem may affect the individual in the
romantic area in three ways:
He may withdraw from it altogether, or he may make attempts but be so fearful and
anxious in approaching a possible romantic partner that the fear paralyzes him and leads
him to fail. Patients who function well in other areas and are highly successful in their
work are sometimes unable to call a woman for a date. Their subconscious conclusions about
themselves are projected onto the woman--they believe she will know just by speaking to
them that they are not worthy of romantic admiration and will reject them.
Or, in contrast to this, individuals suffering from masculine or feminine self-doubt
may go on compulsively from one relationship to another looking for conquests to give
themselves boosts of the self-esteem they do not have. These are individuals who are
unable to commit themselves to a long-range romantic relationship.
Romantic self-doubt may influence a person's selection of a partner. He may chose a
partner who has low self-esteem; he may role play, pretending to be confident, and seek
out someone who will admire him so that he will not experience the void he feels within
himself. In other words, he makes his choice on the basis of neurotic need.
Or, having found a suitable partner, such an individual's psychology will sabotage the
romantic relationship for the following reasons:
A lack of self-esteem causes severe self-doubt and anxiety. The inner life of such a
person consists of a continuous struggle. Feeling unworthy, he lives in a chronically
uncertain world in which his unworthiness can be discovered at any moment. Subconsciously,
he has to negotiate his worth every minute--that is, continue to interpret every event in
his life and every action on his or anyone else's part as a reflection on his worth. Thus,
a hint of criticism, the anticipation of any situation in which he may make a mistake will
be viewed as proof of his lack of worth--while other, equally insignificant events may be
viewed by him as proving that he is worthy after all. In effect, his mind, subconscious
and conscious, is flip flopping between "Yes, I am worthy" and "No, I am
Obviously, such self-absorption makes an individual appear preoccupied. The partner
feels unperceived, living with someone who is not fully there or not relating in an honest
way. In addition, the self-doubtful partner, involved in negotiating his self-esteem,
often misinterprets the meaning of his partner's words or actions, and often feels
attacked. Or he may deal with the partner in a competitive way, struggling to be in
control. Or he may require continuous reassurance. Add to this, the effects of repression,
the fear of emotions in general, especially of tender emotions, and there is no way for
such a couple to achieve trust and intimacy. The relationship has to deteriorate.
Thus, if both partners have low self-esteem, the likelihood is that the
romantic relationship will have severe neurotic aspects. If only one of the partners has
low self-esteem, then he or she, as the weaker link, comes to rule the relationship,
because the focus of the relationship will be dominated by the fears and defenses of the
weaker partner. By the same token, the stronger partner will feel that he or she does not
have the support of the other partner. The constant internal struggles of the weaker
partner prevent him or her from providing such support. Of course, where both individuals
have fairly high self-esteem, each has the strength to pursue not only his or her
individual values, but also to give emotional support to the other partner.
* * *
In conclusion, I want to stress that there are different types and styles of romantic
relationships and that different types work for different couples. I have described what I
consider to be the highest, the best type.
I don't want you to leave here and conclude that because you do not have the type I
described, you don't have a relationship worth having. What is important is to understand
the kind of relationship you want by analyzing your needs and expectations. Ask yourself
what you need in order to be happy and satisfied in a relationship. Ask yourself how you
would like your partner to behave toward you.
If you are unhappy in a relationship, the best thing you can do for yourself is to
admit that it is in trouble. Don't be afraid that questioning it will open up a Pandora's
box. It need not. If the reciprocal admiration and the commitment to one another remain,
the problem can be corrected--so long as both partners are willing to change the status
quo and so long as each is willing to change by assuming responsibility for his or her
contribution to the problem.
Many of you may think that it would be wonderful to have the kind of relationship I
have described, but it sounds like too much work. You may think that if a relationship
requires this much work, it isn't spontaneously good and thus not worth the trouble.
Well, you are right, it is hard work. It requires continuous hard work. Indeed, even in
the best romantic relationship there are periods of some distance between the partners,
when one or both may be preoccupied with existential problems. At such times, the partners
have to work even harder at the relationship. You are wrong, however, if you think it
isn't worth it. The periods of extreme closeness far more than compensate for the work.
Personally, I committed myself to this kind of hard work nineteen years ago, and so did my
husband. We believe it's been worth it.
And so, with all my heart, I wish each and every one of you Romantic Love.
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