Is Love Really All You Need?
January 16, 2010, was an unusually sunny and balmy Saturday for the dead of winter in Philadelphia. I began that day like any other, with an outdoor run, this time in workout tights and a lightweight T-shirt rather than my heavy fleece and usual winter running attire. The mild weather was a welcome respite from the typical frigid temperatures this time of year, not only because it came after one of the biggest snowstorms in the city's recent history, but also because it was the perfect start to an extraordinary day I'll never forget-a day I had dreamt about all my life. My wedding day. As I ran through the familiar winding roads of my childhood hometown with the sun's golden rays warming my face, I thought to myself that the glorious sunshine boded well for a lifetime of happiness. I mounted the final hill, feeling triumphant.
Six hours later, clad in an exquisite Vienna ball gown, I stood at the altar of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, the largest Catholic church in Pennsylvania. I was beaming from having just wed James, the handsome and brilliant man who had captured my heart, dazzling me with his witty charm, sensitive soul, and elegant mind. We have a promising and happy future ahead, I thought to myself. As we stepped off the altar hand in hand, I smiled at our loved ones who had come out to witness and share in our celebration of love. The notes of Beethoven's symphonic "Ode to Joy," performed by the trumpeter and organist we'd hired for this special day, floated around us as we walked slowly down the aisle.
James joined right in, intoning the lyrics in his powerful baritone voice-and in German! "Why am I not surprised?" I laughed to myself, watching him joyfully singing along to the music.
I was suddenly catapulted back to another time when James surprised me with his knowledge. A month or two before our first kiss, we happened to be lingering on the steps of this very cathedral. I showed him a book I was reading, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, and we discussed our mutual admiration for this classic. After a while, James asked me what time it was, and wanting to impress him I responded cheekily, "What then is time?" Without missing a beat, he launched into Augustine's original question in Latin, "Quid est ergo tempus?" Then he continued to quote Augustine in English, "If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know." I was floored. My intention had been to impress him, but now it was I who was impressed! The butterflies that always fluttered in my stomach when I was in his presence now broke into full choreographic celebration.
Like on that first day standing on the cathedral steps together discussing Augustine, I couldn't but feel happy! It was like my past and present had merged together, and time stood still. (What then is time, indeed!) Now once again we stood on the same church steps together, but instead of James reciting Augustine's famous passage on time, he-my modern-day philosopher-poet husband-was soulfully singing the lyrics to "Ode to Joy." Written by yet another genius philosopher, the German poet Friedrich Schiller, the lyrics address another universal topic: the value of an enduring relationship.
Whoever has created an abiding friendship,
Or has won a true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join in our song of praise. . . .
I felt full of vitality and positive emotions. It was the perfect day to begin our lives together. A natural-born optimist, I was certain that this loving feeling would last forever.
Sitting on the balcony of our high-rise condominium in Philadelphia, I gaze into the distance at the midnight blue Delaware River. The sun warming my shoulders on this unusually mild winter afternoon takes me back to another unseasonably warm day. My wedding day.
All you need is love, love. Love is all you need. The Beatles' legendary lyrics play in my head.
I can remember thinking that day that the warm, positive feeling of love coursing through James and me would be enough to carry us through our life together, be it the good times or the bad. I assumed a happy, long-lasting marriage was as simple as coasting along side by side on those loving feelings. We have plenty of love to carry us through anything, I remember thinking on that sunny January day.
Now, after years of marriage, I'm sitting here pondering whether love really is all you need. If so, what about those inevitable times when you are not feeling so loving toward your partner or spouse? When, to quote the Righteous Brothers' famous lyrics, "You've lost that lovin' feelin'?" because despite your repeated requests, your spouse continually forgets-or even worse, ignores!-your pleas to exercise, be on time, clean up the home office, or [insert your own favorite irritation here]. Then what?
Do we have to feel loving all the time to be loving?
If so, then James and I are in serious trouble. But then so is every other couple I know. So if it's not mere feelings that do it, what, then, does make a couple happy together over the long term? What is the key to building love that lasts?
So How Do You Get to Happily Ever After?
After spending nearly half my life-almost twenty years-working in media and communications in New York City and then getting married a bit later in life (at forty), I am only now realizing the extent to which I have been influenced by how relationships are popularly portrayed. Unlike my husband, James, who spent more time listening to Beethoven's beautiful symphonies than the Beatles' peppy love songs growing up, I had a preconceived notion of what marriage should look like based upon what I'd seen and heard in popular media. I still believed in storybook romances, as so many young women (and men) do. If you listen to popular media, you know you fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. End of story.
And I fell for this fairy tale-hook, line, and sinker.
The problem with fairy tales, though, is that they focus only on the first two parts of the story: falling in love and getting married. In the first part of the story, you dream of finding and falling in love with your perfect partner, that special someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. You invest an enormous amount of time and effort into finding a mate: going on countless dates, signing up for innumerable online dating apps, and madly scanning profiles or swiping left and right in a furious search for the perfect person. Once you find that special someone, of course, you dive into all the courting, dating, meeting of the friends and families- and if things go well, the eventual proposal.
This brings you to the second part of the story: getting married. During the engagement period, you immerse yourself in meticulous preparation for the wedding: searching for the perfect dress, choosing the venue, selecting the band, finding the best photographer, and creating the menu, not to mention figuring out the seating chart. The list goes on. And on. And on. (Speaking for myself, it seems that I made many more deliberate decisions about details in the few intense months of preparation for my wedding than I did in the first few years of my marriage!)
And these activities are all for just one day! Sound familiar?
Falling in love is an amazing experience, and a wedding can be magical (ours certainly was!). It's definitely worth putting effort into these two parts of the story. The problem is that fairy tales don't say anything about the third (and longest) part of the story, except that the couple "lived happily ever after." We are given no hint about how we can actually go about doing so. But if we want the marriage-the happily ever after-to last a lifetime, shouldn't we actually spend more time in meticulous preparation for all those years to come than for the single day that kicks it off? We have all kinds of help (from family, friends, wedding planners, caterers, you name it) to get ready for our special day, but what about the years (and decades) that follow? Who will help us prepare for those? Imagine if a fraction of all the time and attention we put into our wedding day were put into our marriages! Not just in the planning of the wedding but in the long journey that comes afterward! If we invested equal energy into what happens after "I do," wouldn't we be more prepared for what happens down the road and increase our chances for the long-term success of our relationship?
In other areas of our lives, of course, we expect to have to put in careful work to achieve the results we are looking for. No one expects that landing our first job will automatically lead to a successful career, that planting a few seeds will inevitably yield a garden full of delicious, home-grown vegetables, or that the simple act of buying a gym membership will effortlessly tone our bodies and allow us to fit into smaller-sized jeans.
So back to my original question: What, then, makes a couple happy together? Clearly, it can't just be falling in love or planning a magical wedding day. What comes next? If we're prepared to work hard to turn a job into a career, seeds into healthy vegetables, and a gym membership into fitness, what steps can we take to turn a memorable wedding day into a lifelong, fulfilling, and happy marriage? Since we're never told in storybook romances the details of the happily ever after, it seems it's just supposed to happen automatically. Of course, that's not how things work in the real world. So where can we turn for advice on this crucial question?
In my own life, the key has been the wedding favors. Allow me to explain.
After my career in media and corporate communications, I started a new career as a freelance writer, studying research outcomes in the (then) new field of positive psychology and publishing articles on them. James was also working in this field, directing and teaching in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania, which is how we met. Given this background in positive psychology, we had a great interest in what makes a couple happy-especially when we started our own relationship!
It just so happens that at the same time I was also writing a cover story titled "The Happy Couple" for Scientific American Mind magazine. My article addressed how couples can create happier marriages by applying the science of positive psychology to their relationships. Specifically, it focused on research supporting three key activities for flourishing: cultivating positive emotions in your daily life, developing a harmonious or healthy passion, and remembering to seek out and celebrate the good times rather than just focusing on fixing problems.
Coincidentally, as luck (or perhaps destiny) would have it, the article ended up hitting newsstands the month we walked down the aisle. If impending marriage alone doesn't create pressure enough for any couple embarking on the new adventure of a life journey together, having your cover article heralding "The Happy Couple" from newsstands everywhere while you exchange vows sure does!
There was, however, one lucky advantage to this timing. We realized copies of my article would make great wedding favors, reminding us (and our guests) that happily ever after doesn't simply happen. And in the spirit of celebration, we decided to take some liberties with the accompanying pictures, replacing the stock photos of smiling couples with fun pictures of the two of us. We then rolled the articles into scrolls and tied them with ribbons embossed with "Happily Ever After" that I had stumbled upon at our local craft store.
The wedding favors were a hit, and although we didn't realize it at the time, they were the seeds of what would eventually grow into this book. As we began our life together as a newly minted couple with a shared interest in positive psychology, human nature, and helping others, we were both naturally curious to dig deeper into what makes a couple happy together, particularly once the excitement of the wedding day and the initial newlywed bliss have faded. Ever since then, we have been on a personal and professional journey to discover what leads to marital longevity and satisfaction.
My article, we realized, just scratched the surface of the ways in which positive psychology research could be helpful for developing healthy romantic relationships. And now that we were married, talks about what makes a happy couple went from interesting discussions to necessary investigations. I suggested we write this book together as a way of digging deeper into the science and its application. James agreed, seeing it as a shared project we could undertake to help develop and strengthen our own marriage and at the same time provide a resource that could be helpful to others.
In the rest of this chapter, we'd like to introduce you to positive psychology and explain why it's such an important area of research for people in romantic relationships. Our favorite way of introducing the field is through an interactive thought experiment James devised.
What Is Positive Psychology?
While browsing at a local flea market, you stumble across what looks like a magic lamp in one of the stalls. Just for fun, you rub it-and to your amazement, out pops a genie! The genie calls you by name and says she's been waiting to meet you for a long time. She says she is so impressed with you that she wants to transform you into a superhero. Before she can do so, though, she needs to know what color you would like your cape to be. She gives you two options. Choosing a red cape will give you powers, or "cape-abilities" (sorry, we couldn't help ourselves!), to fight against unfair and unjust things in the world we want to discourage or end, things such as poverty, disease, prejudice, hatred, and war. Choosing a green cape will give you cape-abilities to fight for the things in the world we want to encourage and promote: things like abundance, health, justice, love, and peace. The genie tells you that you can choose only one of the capes. Take a moment right now to consider: Which cape would you choose? And why?
You may think the red cape is the responsible choice, since there is so much suffering in the world that should be stopped immediately. Or you may prefer it because you feel it's easier for people to agree on how to put the red cape to use. It's often easier to see eye-to-eye on what problems need to be addressed than on what opportunities should be realized. Alternatively, you may choose the green cape, because you feel that would be more uplifting. Or perhaps because you realize there are at least times when realizing an opportunity can also solve a problem. Increased love and understanding in a relationship, for example, can ease much of the tension that may otherwise lead to frustrations and fights. So which cape should you choose?
Copyright © 2018 by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, MAPP. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.