Part 7 in the What love is all about series
What’s the difference between your love relationship and your relationship with your favorite local pizza joint?
Well, for one thing, your local pizza joint—let’s call it Mario’s—may be much more reliable than your partner. You call Mario’s and they’ll be delighted to send just the pizza you want right over. And they will! No questions asked. You gotta love it!
On the other hand, sadness of sadnesses, Mario’s doesn’t actually care about you. You’re gonna have to pay for the pizza—no freebies—and if you don’t call Mario’s they’re not gonna call you to see how you’re doing and maybe ask if they can send over a free pizza.
It’s different with two people who love each other. At least it should be. It’s not just about caring. Mario’s cares in it’s own very reliable way. But one of the most important things that true love is about is attention. Mario’s ability to pay attention to you is extremely limited, however excellent it is within those limitations.
Love is the opposite.
Think of it like this, because we’re about to get to very heart of love.
Love is about my understanding not just that you’re an event in my life. Everyone experiences that! You wake me up with your snoring. You come home from work in a bad mood. You’re suddenly horny when I’m suddenly not at all in that place. You surprise me with muffins.
But much more important is your understanding that you’re an event in your partner’s life. And that’s what most of us don’t think about, and maybe don’t even know how to think about. And yet, that’s where love begins.
Love begins with your paying attention to what it’s like for your partner to be who they are, to live their life, and to live with you.
For example, you’ve had a very busy, stressful day. You’re fried. Fine. We all understand that. So you come home, focused on your partner being an event in your life: either someone you have to prevent from bugging you or else someone you have to mobilize to take care of you. Understandable!
But still: love begins with your understanding that your coming home with nothing to give, nerves on edge, is an event in their life, and probably not a welcome event. How do you think about that? How do you take that into account? How do you give that full weight?
It doesn’t mean you deny your needs for...whatever the hell it is you need when you come home fried. It just means that your needs have implications that are just as important for your partner. As much as your partner is an event in your life, you are an event in their life, and love means paying attention to that no matter how fried you are.
I’m pretty radical about this, because I’m pretty radical about love. Let’s say I’m, like, I don’t know...dying. Now this will be—duh!—a pretty big deal for me. And so I will be hyper-aware of what I need from those around me. But still! If I’m dying, my death is also an event in my partner’s life. My death is something happening to them! As much as I want them to be there for me, love requires my attention to understanding what I need to do to be there for them. So that up to the last moment we’re there for each other.
Is there any exception to this? I don’t know. I guess the opposite of death: childbirth. If your partner’s giving birth, you are there exclusively for that. There is no you in that. Sorry.
Okay, so now: how do you DO this: successfully pay attention to what it’s like for you to be an event in your partner’s life and to deal with what that requires?
Here’s the answer. You do it badly, but you DO it, and so you get better at it.
Think of it like another task, making a tower of children’s blocks, putting one on top of another. Now when you were 2, that was hard for you. You might have had trouble making a 3-block tower. A couple of years later, 6-block towers would be a piece of cake, but maybe 12-block towers would still be tough. By the middle-school years, there are the kids who can make a 100-block-high tower of blocks. I have no doubt that at MIT they are working on a tower of children’s blocks that reaches up to the sky.
Well, you don’t need to reach for the sky. But jeez! Try. I had this couple in my office for pre-marital counseling and I asked each to describe what it was like for the other to go through his or her day. The guy was great at it. “Ellen always hates to get up. She never starts out wanting to face the day. But then after shower and coffee, she gets in gear by thinking about what needs to be done, and that’s her focus, and she needs to hang on to that. Then...” And he went on and on like that. He more or less nailed it.
Let’s just say that Ellen took a different tack. “Jack? I don’t know. He gets up, you know, gets ready for work, says good-bye, and goes. Then he comes home, and we have dinner, and...” Wow! Not exactly a masterpiece of insight into Jack.
I don’t know if she just didn’t try or she wasn’t even interested in trying. But this was a revelation for Jack, and they never made it to the altar.
So pay attention. See your partner from your partner’s point of view. See yourself from your partner’s point of view. Start out doing it badly and watch yourself getting better at.
Your relationship will be transformed.
This is the hidden secret behind the solution we offer in Why Couples Fight. Check it out!