Awakin Calls » Mandy Catron » Transcript


Mandy Catron: A Better Way To Talk About Love

Q [Alissa]: Welcome, Mandy. We're so happy to have you here.

Mandy: Thank you. I'm very excited to be here.

Q: I thought we might just start out by talking about when you first started to question some of our conventional notions about love?

Mandy: I think it was a couple of different things that kind of accumulated. First and most obvious thing that got me thinking about romantic love was my parents divorced when I was 26. As far as I was concerned, they had a great marriage. They always struck me as like the kind of kind of relationship that I wanted to have one day whenever I got married, which at 26 still felt like really far on the horizon. They were really generous with each other, they always took care of each other when one of them was sick, they were great partners in life.

And so, it was really difficult for me to understand why they didn't want to stay married anymore and they weren't very good at explaining it. Looking back, I realized that they probably weren't able to explain it even to themselves. They would say to my sister and I, "Oh well. We just don't love each other the way we used to." And I was like, "Why?" Like, what's going on here? I really wanted to understand it. And the first thing that I began to think was that if they couldn't make it work, then maybe no one could -- and that everything I understood about love was actually totally wrong.

I think because I'm an English teacher and I spend my days helping people think about stories and how they mediate or shape our experience of the world, it was really natural for me to think about my parents love story and how their divorce part was so hard for me. It just feels like the right ending to their love story. So, I started thinking a lot about what sort of unspoken unvoiced ideas I had about love -- these assumptions that I've spent my life making that maybe weren't true.

At the same time, I was in a long-term relationship. The thing about that relationship is that we had worked really hard to figure out how to be together because for the first couple of years we lived in different countries. We were both moving around a lot. And once we finally started making a life together in the same city and really I felt so deeply invested in that relationship and I really loved my partner. But I often felt like despite this intense connection, we didn't really like each other that much. I started to feel really stuck. I felt that I was stuck in a relationship because I loved this person. And because I had already invested so much, it didn't seem like there was a good reason to not be in that relationship except for the fact that we argued a lot and we weren't always kind to each other.

So I think it was this feeling of being mystified by my parents' divorce and feeling totally stuck in my own relationship that made me feel like there must be some better sources of information out there other than the narrative that I'm absorbing from my family or from popular culture.

I wanted to dig as deeply as I could into any way, any other alternative way of thinking about romantic love. That meant looking at the metaphors we use to talk about love. I was reading what biologists said about what's going on in our brains when we fall in love, trying to understand various psychological theories about romantic love and what it means and how it should be practiced. I was really desperate for any kind of information. Just process of immersing myself in all these different modes of thinking, all these disciplinary approaches to thinking about romantic love, gave me a lot of perspective. But it took years and years of going through that process.

Q: You explored a lot of different modalities and disciplines, but I'm wondering how you were able to combine, synthesize them into a digestable concept? Sort of like a work of collaborative art?

Yeah, that's a good question. I work at a university and am very much a part of the academic community, but I don't really think of myself as an academic. It's perhaps more literary than academic. That frees me up to not being stuck with any one particular disciplinary way of thinking about the world. I don't really think about its relevance within a particular discourse community but within my own life. Like I really feel like my individual, personal, subjective experience provides a useful lens for looking at research and thinking about what I want to keep, what feels meaningful to me, what intuitively feels like it matches something that maybe I haven't been able to voice but is true.

Here's another way to think about this. My favorite word is text or texture or textile or all these words come from the Latin word Textere which means to leave. I really liked thinking about text, a piece of writing that's been woven and brings a bunch of different things together. So this metaphor of writing is like weaving -- that's probably the discipline that I use. What I like about the writing essays is that the form can contain all kinds of different things like personal experience, family history, reflection, research data, and it all can fit together. Academic research often can be a little bit alienating, with the language that academics use, and it pushes people away. It's not successful, it's really jargon-heavy. Um, and so

What I'm interested in doing is bringing something that may be a bit clinical and thinking about it within the real world -- within the perspective of my daily life. So the filter that I have for all this information that I was finding was just me and my life.

What I think is compelling about a lot of literary nonfiction writing or the essays or the memoirs that I like to read is that the individual filter of the writer with all its subjectivity helps me understand something about what it means to be human. So even though I can only speak from my own personal experience as I'm processing this information or writing about it, what I hope is that my sort of subjective, limited, one person point of view helps some reader somewhere understand something about what it means to be human.

I don't want to sound grandiose. I recognize that there are real limits to that. Like not everybody's going to read something and be like, "Yeah, this really speaks to me," but some will. For me, what makes a text compelling is its ability to bring that personal experience to bear on these larger ideological or theoretical ideas. That's sort of what I was aiming to do as I was processing all this information.

Q: It seems like the process of writing for you is almost like a contemplative practice. Has the process of writing brought about any sort of healing? Did it impact your relationships as you were going through that process?

Absolutely. I think writing is very much a contemplative process. I'm not sure if I wrote science fiction, it would provide a kind of escapism, but writing about my own life, I'm thinking about my own assumptions about the world or my own biases or prejudices and having to constantly investigate those. Like one of the central questions I have when I'm writing is doubt. I bring in a lot of self doubt into the process. I'm always questioning my own assumptions or what I believe to be true. In every sentence I want it to say the most true thing I can possibly say. And so the writing process has a kind of meditative quality of thinking through an idea, which is really one of my favorite things.

I often feel like I don't know something until I write about it, because it requires a process of revision that forces me to like re-interrogate myself. What sort of biases am I bringing to this, am I saying something that I want to be true or am I saying something that I genuinely believe to be true or am I saying something that I think the readers want to hear? Or am I saying something that feels like intuitively accurate and sincere? So that process of a revision is really a process of self-interrogation. I think it's really valuable. But it's a slow process. Like it did help me resolve some complicated feelings about my parents' divorce, but it probably took like eight years until I arrived at a place where I felt like, "Oh, I understand this now."

The place that I arrived at the end wasn't some great insight. It was more like empathy. I suddenly understood that they weren't able to explain their divorce to me because they didn't understand it. They were hurt by the whole processes and I was too. And that's a nice place to have finally arrived, but it is really, really hard.

I should also say that there are limits to this contemplative practice of writing. It is really valuable and helps orient me to the world. After I took a year off work to write, it felt like such a privilege but at the end of that year, I was so happy to be back in the classroom and engaging with students and not living in my head all the time. So one thing I've learned about myself is that I do need to find that balance between that really introspection and outward orientation that is not just so much about my own life.

Q: I was really fascinated when I read your column about "falling in love with anyone". I wanted to ask you that technique of asking progressively more intimate questions -- and your experience with that and how that's impacted you and you've stayed active to those inquiries.

Yeah, sure. For people aren't familiar with the article, I'll just summarize it. So I came across this study and by the psychologist Arthur Aron and he does a lot of interesting research about how we as individuals incorporate other people into our sense of self. To explore the overlap between the self and the other, they wanted to see if they could create romantic love in the laboratory. Part of that was to use all their theories about why people fall in love, how to create intimacy and see if they could generate the conditions where love could thrive -- trust, intimacy and feeling of closeness.

The way they did that is they had two people into the lab through separate doors. They said to each one of them, "This person knows a little bit about you, they're excited to meet you." And then they had them take turns asking each other 36 increasingly personal questions. So they start out fairly mundane. Like if you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would it be? And then they get a lot more personal as you go along. So it's like, when is the last time you cried? Describe your relationship with your mother. At the end of those questions they then have the two people stare into each other's eyes for four minutes without speaking, and then they leave.

I read about this and thought, "Oh my gosh, that sounds terrifying but interesting." And rumor had it that one of the first couples who did it, started dating and they got married like six months later and invited the entire lab to their wedding.

I was really intrigued by this, and a little bit skeptical and I just filed it away in my brain. And then I'm out on a date one night with this guy that I knew a little bit but not particularly well. And he said, "I have this theory that you can fall in love with anyone." I thought, "Oh, that's an interesting theory." I remembered the study and so I described it to him and because I thought he was very handsome, I said, "Oh, you know, I've always wanted to try it." So we did. And honestly, it was such a great experience. Since I wrote about it, I have heard from hundreds of people who've done this experiment either with someone they've been in a longterm relationship or with someone they just met. Lots of people have done it in a non-romantic context, like a with a group of friends on a road trip. One woman emailed me and said she did the questions with her estranged sister while her sister was very ill in the hospital. She used it as a way to reconnect after years of not having communicated. That was one of the most compelling stories I'd heard about it.

Thing that seems to be pretty amazing, is that people seem to very consistently report not falling in love but feeling closeness. And it seems to work in all different circumstances with all different types of people. I should also say lots of other psychologists have used these questions in their research and they've found the same results.

In my experience, it wasn't like at the end of that evening I thought, "Oh my gosh, I'm going to spend my life with this person." It was more like I felt like I made a new friend -- a friend almost seems like too soft of a word. I felt like I had gotten to really know someone and I was really grateful to know him and that whatever happened after that would be fine. If we just developed an intimate friendship, that would be great. If we started a romantic relationship, that would be great. And that feeling was so different from the way I had felt with any other dating experience. There was no anxiety in it, like I just sort of trusted this person and I was open to the experience.

It doesn't mean that I never felt anxiety about our relationship. It's just that initially I had this real openness that was really nice. And so what I think that says that in order for us to feel close to anyone in our lives, to create that sense of intimacy, requires a couple of things.

One is a willingness to be vulnerable. The questions are designed so that you can't rely on the narrative that you've constructed about yourself. When you meet someone and you don't know them and you say, "Oh, here's what I do for work," or I'm really into hiking and swimming, or you talk your hobbies, your job, the weather. These questions really force you out of those conventional paths of conversation and require you talk about things that genuinely matter to you and things that have shaped who you are as a person.

One takeaway from this is that we have to be willing to be vulnerable to other people, and continue to be vulnerable to maintain that closeness. That's often a really difficult thing to do.

The other thing that makes the questions work is that they are reciprocal. Each person takes turns and that and they gradually get more intimate. So one person can't just open up to someone and the other person stay close, right? It has to be reciprocal and it has to happen in a way that feels natural and comfortable and that is a little bit gradual.

The process has really led me to think about the value of being open to other people. I think about this as a teacher. I think about this as a friend. Being guarded doesn't do much. It doesn't serve my relationships very well. So I have worked a bit harder to, to be open in really small ways. Like a small example of this is when I injured my neck and I had to cancel my classes that week. Normally, I would just say, "Oh, I have an injury", but not, "Oh, I should explain to my students what's going on." It's a small thing but it makes them feel like I trust them and it makes them see me as a whole complex person, not just someone who stands up in front of the classroom. It makes them more willing to be open with me when something's going on in their life that affects their schoolwork.

So the study gets a lot of attention, but the ideas underlying this study are actually the more important part, if that makes sense.

Q: I've found that sometimes I need a little space before I can really voice what's true. So I'm kinda curious what has been your experience with trying to foster real truth and honesty in addition to the openness and vulnerability.

You know, I had a really interesting conversation with a friend about this the other day because he was talking about how her partner always says, "I want us to be able to be really honest with each other in our relationship." And we were talking about like, what is honesty really mean? What does it look like? And I think it can look like one of two things. One thing that we sometimes mean when we say, "I want to be honest", is that actually I want to be able to say things that will hurt you. I want to be honest means that I want to critique you in ways that maybe are uncomfortable for you. And that isn't a very constructive kind of honesty. And I don't think it's the kind of honesty to aspire to in a relationship.

Like I said, so much of the research about romantic love suggested that love actually is the intimate relationships that we have, whether they're romantic or otherwise, and they have the ability to shape who we are. Really constructive ways. Psychologists call this the Michelangelo effect, which is basically that we can make our partners better versions of themselves. That doesn't happen through criticism. Like that's not like I'm going to workshop this draft of a person to make it a better person. The way it happens is through, through love and kindness and generosity. When people praise someone else's good qualities, it enhances those good qualities. So what the best relationships will do is that they'll see goodness in the other person and they'll bring it out. They'll encourage that person, whatever it is to really strengthen their strengths.

So when someone says, I want us to be really honest, one version is this direct criticism and other is this kind of honesty where I want to be able to be honest with you about the things that are hard for me or that hurt me or they're uncomfortable for me to talk about. That is really a way of saying I want to be vulnerable, I want to be vulnerable to each other. I want to be honest with you about the deepest, whether small or large, aspects of who I am and how I see the world, which again, I think has to do with that kind of intimacy. That kind of honesty is really valuable.

Maybe that means talking to someone you love about something that they've done that has caused you pain, right? That kind of honesty can be valuable as well. But in order to cultivate that, there needs to be a real sense of safety in a relationship since you were allowed to talk about difficult things and the person you're talking to can hear you, and are capable of just listening without reacting or even responding. Just listening. That's really hard to do. It takes practice. We have to cultivate these skills in ourselves that we want to receive from the people we love. So it's like if I want generosity, then I benefit from cultivating generosity myself and if I want from other people to listen and feel heard, then I need to practice hearing other people. And I do think that that when you cultivate those skills in yourself, it's easier for you to see those qualities in the people around you.

Q: That's beautiful. One of the best things you can do in a relationship is amplifying the good qualities in others. Can you share some examples of how plays itself out?

Yeah, that's a good question. I think the practice can look like lots of things. One thing that I have really worked on doing is saying thank you more. It's like such a small thing. Like, in my house, my partner and I take turns like making breakfast or dinner and whoever doesn't cook cleans up. When he makes dinner, I always try to say thanks even though it already feels equitable and we've already sort of agreed on this. Or he does the laundry in our house, which is like the greatest thing that's ever happened to me because I hate, I hate doing laundry. So I always try to be thankful even though that his "job" around the house.

Feeling appreciated goes so far. It's saying that I see you and see what you're doing. I just think it's so valuable that we should be doing it all the time. We should be sincerely complementing one another about the things that we like about other people or we should be saying thank you for the things that people are doing well. That's something that I really try to do and then it has really been inspired by the research that I've done is to express gratitude all the time to as many people as I can. Some days I'm better at that than others for sure.

But also be really sincere in my compliments of other people, especially the people that I love because if you want someone to feel comfortable being vulnerable to you, it helps that they think you like them.

One of the 36 questions is to list three things you like about your partner. Make sure they're things you wouldn't normally say to someone you had just met. Right? So they're not superficial. Not like "Oh, I like your shirt," but they're much more thoughtful and specific. That sense of liking really helps people let their guard down and this is something that I also try to incorporate in my teaching. When I'm giving a student feedback on their writing assignment, I try to start with saying like, "Hey, I noticed that you do this really well." So if being vulnerable requires safety, appreciating someone contributes to that.

Q: Right. It seems like two things can contribute to safety. One is what you've been describing in terms of focusing on the good. But you also mentioned a cultivating the qualities we wish to see in others in ourselves. Have there been situations where maybe you haven't felt as safe, and then you focused on cultivating these qualities in yourself?

Yeah. One thing that I've been working on is in my workplace, there is not a sense of collegiality. There are a variety of reasons for this, but in general I find that it is a bit of an unfriendly environment. I think people are really focused on the work that they're doing, and there's a real sense of scarcity -- of time and of resources. And it motivates people to sort of hoard those things. It's hard to relax, to notice other people, to engage with them. So I spent a lot of time complaining about this and I've come to realize that complaining about is not very helpful to me.

If I want my colleagues to be friendlier then I need to start with myself. So I've been trying to think about ways to really engage with people, whether that's for five minutes in the lounge while I'm like heating up my lunch or whether that's when I see someone in the bathroom or in the hallway or in the computer lounge or whatever, but when I see someone, I say hello to them.

I try to specifically engage with them and I'm like a fairly introverted person so this isn't necessarily natural or comfortable for me. But I have found just in the few months that I've been trying to do this, that it goes a long way. It's not that people are naturally unfriendly, it's just that we have to cultivate an environment of friendliness and I'm not going to cultivate that by complaining about it. I'm only going to cultivate it by, by doing it.

Q: Thank you. Over the years, I'm sure you've received a lot of interesting accounts from people about their stories. I know you write a lot about romantic love, but as a culture, we often put undue importance on romance. I'm curious about your experiences and feelings in a non-romantic setting and the lessons you've gleaned from those sorts of relationships.

I think you're right. We place a little too much importance on romantic love. We sort of fetishize it and think it's this mysterious force that can't possibly be knowable, but the more you dig into romantic love, the more it starts to look a whole lot like every other kind of love. Like let's consider parental love -- it's different clearly but also more alike than different, right? Because it's really about kindness, generosity, care, affection. These qualities are the things that that defined the most effective or important loving relationships in our lives. So I think those qualities really transcend romantic love, and they make sense in a bunch of different contexts.

One definition of love is by a psychologist named Barbara Fredrickson. She wrote this book called Love 2.0. She's interested in what happens to our bodies, physiologically, when we experience love. And she really argues that love is not a feeling, it's not an emotion, but it's an experience and that we only feel love face to face with another person. Something physiological that happens to us, in what she defines it as "micro-moments of positivity and resonance". Basically, it's just this brief experience of a feeling towards another person. Having that reverberate between two people, she compares that feeling of love to plants receiving sunlight. She argues that love is as important to our species as sunlight is to plants and that we really need it to thrive and not just to thrive but to be physically healthy.

That love -- these positive moments between two people or I feel that even with my dogs -- has all these physiological effects. It helps tweak our immune systems and it helps stabilize like our heart rate in our cortisol levels and all these other things. She believes that you can experience this with anyone -- so it can be like the cashier at the grocery store as much as it could be with like your mom or your partner or your kids. I really liked this idea and it sort of motivated me to think about how I can have more moments like this -- not just from my romantic relationship but from all my relationships.

Does this relationship feel like sunlight? Is it warm, does it feel like nourishing? I wish somebody had told me about this when I younger because back then, I felt like love was infatuation. Or that sometimes love is very critical or love was even like behaviors that were manipulative or like borderline abusive. I thought, "Oh, well that's what love looks like." You know? But that isn't love. People that you love treat you in ways that are abusive or manipulative or, or just playing the unkind, but that isn't them loving you. So, what I like about this definition, "micro-moments of positivity resonance", is the sense of love like sunlight. I find it's a very useful guide for me to think about the kinds of relationships there with cultivating the kinds of people I want to spend my time with and invest in.

We don't necessarily have a choice about who we feel romantic attraction toward, but we do have a lot of say over who we let into our lives and who we spend our days with. And I think exercising that choice in ways that are really thoughtful and purposeful is so valuable and it goes both ways, right? It's not just thinking about who do I want to let into my life, but it's also who do I want to be to the people that I love. I wouldn't want to be someone who feels like work, but I want to provide some sunlight in their lives. So, in my experience, so much of what I've found about romantic love applies really easily to all the other kinds of relationships in life.

Q: It sounds like kindness is a common denominator for loving relationships -- that sunlight. I also like the analogy because it provides a useful metric to feel whether you're engaged in those micro moments of positivity resonance. But it's a reciprocal process. It's not a neat feeling the sunlight, but also radiating the sunlight and putting sunlight out. Is there anything you do in your own life to try and make sure that you're radiating sunlight? How do you check in with yourself to make sure that you're radiating as well as receiving sunlight?

Yeah, that's a good question. Your question in many ways makes me feel like, man, I should check in with myself more often. One thing I know about myself is that the more grounded I am, the more access I have to the qualities in myself that I want -- like generosity and warmth. For me that looks like spending time writing, spending time alone. I really feel like I'm a better person if I have time alone to sort of breathe and think and read and write. For me, having something to offer other people requires feeling inspired by the people around me or the world around me -- and sometimes that takes the form of reading a book that reminds me and grounds me in like the qualities that I want to have or reminds me of who I want to be.

Sometimes it also requires getting away from myself. In order to be kind or generous, I need to be kind and generous, if that makes sense. So I benefit a lot from turning away from my own self, when I feel that I'm overly concerned with my own needs and if they're being met. I benefit more from saying, "Okay, what can I offer to someone else and how can I help someone else meet their needs?" That can take a variety of different forums, but maybe it means calling a friend to check in and see how they're doing. Maybe it means I'm volunteering with some sort of organization in community. But there's a balance between like inward self reflection and outward connecting with other people. In order for me to be good to the people I love, I need to be doing both of those things.

Q: Any final thoughts before we open it up for Q&A?

The main thing that I would just reiterate that while I think we don't have a lot of control necessarily over how we feel in a given circumstance or in a given relationship, we do have a lot of control over what we do with our feelings and who we want to invest in, who we want in our lives and who the sort of qualities that we want to cultivate in ourselves. So much of the research that I found reinforces this idea in lots of different ways.

When it comes to love, we, we often think about it as this very passive experience. Just consider our metaphors -- we fall in love or we're heartbroken or we're lovesick or we're crushed. This also suggests that love is something that happens to us, but I think the reality is a little bit more complicated than that. In practice, we do have a lot of choice in that we do get to shape our experiences and we can be thoughtful about what we offer to those we love and also what we want or expect from the people who we are closest to. Just being thoughtful about that goes a long way toward cultivating the kinds of relationships that sustain us, that feel nourishing the feel like sunlight.

Q: [David]: Can you share story or a personal experience from your own life that elaborates on "falling in love", this physiological thing that happens within us.

Yeah, I mean, I think this is a great point. There is something really physiological that happens when you "fall in love". I think we use that metaphor for a reason. The metaphor that we use the most in the English language when talking about romantic love is that idea of falling. We use that because we do often feel like that something is happening inside us that we can't control, and if we could control it, we would be much happier. Right? Because loving someone who doesn't love you back, which happens to many people all the time, is so painful. It's such an excruciating experience. So, it is important to point out that, that that is a part of the process.

Within my own experience, when I was younger, I thought that intense longing to be with someone was enough to sustain a relationship -- that was all you really needed. What I realized as I got older and saw the many limitations of that process is that actually, it isn't enough that we do want to feel like we have some say some consent over what happens in our relationships. The metaphor of the collaborative work of art is not mine. I've used it a lot, but I originally found it in an article by these linguists, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who essentially argued that metaphors shape how we experienced the world. And in that shaping, they can also limit it. So if we're only using metaphors that suggests love is something that happens to us, then it's really hard for us to conceptualize.

Love is something we get to do something about, that we get to offer someone else. So they come up with a new metaphor for love and their suggestion is as a collaborative work of art and they talk about all the things that this metaphor entails. So it's creativity, cooperation. Love has aesthetic value. There's work involved; it involves communication. All these things. If we switch to the collaborative work of art metaphor, we can bring all of these things into our relationship.

What it looks like for me and my relationship is my partner and I have a relationship contract and just two nights ago, we actually renewed it. The way works is that when we first moved in together, we went through everything we could possibly think of, that was important for our relationship. It has little things, like eating breakfast together every morning -- which is something that I wanted to do because I grew up my whole family eating breakfast together every morning. Even if we were in a rush, we're all sitting down at the breakfast table and it felt important to me to continue that in my adult life. It also has things like finances and we agree to be monogamous and all this. We took nothing for granted. We don't assume that will be monogamous because most relationships are monogamous. We decide actively that that's what we want.

I've gotten a variety of different responses to this. Some people are like, oh my gosh, this is the least romantic thing I've ever heard -- to be calculating and cold. Some people will say, "Oh, what are the punishments if someone doesn't hold up their side of the contract?"

It's not like we're constantly referring to it. It's not like one of us is holding up the contract and saying, you didn't take out the trash last week. It's really just each of us articulating the kind of relationship that we want, what we planned to bring to that relationship and what we want to get out of it. And it's really, it's not so much about about calculating who does what as much as it is about feeling heard and feeling like what you need or what you desire matters to the person that you love. And that there's a safe space for each of you to express that and to renegotiate it things change. So each contract is on a one year basis and then at the end of the year we get together and talk again and say, "What do we want to change?"

I think everyone should do it because I think we go into our relationships with so many unstated expectations about how love should work, what someone should do. "Oh, if I'm in a relationship with someone, they should always come to the airport and pick me up." Well, your partner isn't gonna know by default that you expect to be picked up at the airport every time you fly into town. You have to voice that somewhere along the way. Right? But I think our narrative tells us that like the perfect person will just anticipate all your needs without you ever having to articulate them. That is the fantasy of every Cinderella story, but reality is more complicated than that. We misunderstand each other all the time. So I don't think everybody necessarily needs to sit down and type up a contract, although I certainly think it's like a worthwhile experience if you want to try it. But I do think everybody benefits from saying, "Hey, what do you need from this relationship? I'd like to know and I'd like to talk about what I need or what I expect." Just having those conversations at regular intervals is helpful.

Q: For these practices to be effective, there needs to be a willingness on both ends. Do you have any insights into how can you create a space of vulnerability when there isn't trust or perhaps even when there could be conflict? I'm thinking of work environments and when there could be conflict.

Yeah. It's a really hard question because I don't know that there's necessarily one thing that you can do. Psychologist John Gottman talks about what he calls the emotional bank account. Over years, he's researched couples that he calls "masters of love". They tend to have a five to one ratio of positive to negative ones. In order to get that five to one ratio, he suggests that you need to put lots of small deposits in your emotional bank account, which means like saying thank you or, or giving someone like a really good hug when they come home from work. Or if it's a work relationship, then it means a thoughtful compliments or an active service or inactive gratitude. But if you can put those into your account, if you can increase the ratio of positive interactions, then the negative ones take less of a toll and decrease the effects of conflict.

Q [Audrey]: I can only imagine all the emails and letters that people have written to you and was just curious from your vantage point, are there any kinds of patterns or questions about love that are really common? Like maybe Western versus Eastern concept of love.

The question that I've gotten the most is a variation of: "How do I make the person that I love love me back?" It's always a little bit heartbreaking because of course, you can't make someone love you back. But I understand this impulse like that there should be some way to do it. And I definitely remember feeling this way a lot when I was younger. It's like, oh, I have all these good qualities and I'm a really good person. Why can't they feel that way about me? It's pretty normal to feel that desire and yet at the same time, I think it's one of those that ultimately there's not much you can do about it.

You can never make anyone feel anything that they don't want to feel. Right? So, that's a little heartbreaking, but I think it speaks to the fact that this is a really human desire. We all want to be loved and it's so normal and there's nothing wrong with wanting to be. When I was younger, I felt like it was embarrassing that I wanted to be loved so badly but now that I look back it's more like, "Actually, I was just totally normal." So that's probably the thing that I hear a lot.

In terms of Eastern versus Western referrals? I think in the West in particular about ideas about love are very much influenced by popular culture. We have these scripts about how romantic love should work that appear everywhere, right? They are in the Disney movies that we watch as little kids and they are in magazines sitting on the shelves at the grocery store and they are in every TV show or a romantic comedy or drama. Every film that you watch, there are all these ideas about how love is supposed to work. And I think so often what happens is if our experience of love falls outside of that really narrow, prescribed version of love that we absorb from our culture, then we start to feel like we're doing love wrong.

What I've found in my research is that there are so many different ways to practice love and so many of those different practices are legitimate, valuable. What is sometimes true for outside Western culture is that there is more space for different practices of love. This varies a lot depending on the culture, but there are cultures, for example, where romantic love is not tied to marriage as tightly as it is here. In North American culture in particular, we think that like love and marriage are basically the same thing, but there are lots of cultures in which people feel romantic love with someone and has absolutely no intention of marrying that person. Or spending their life with them because they have arranged marriages -- because there's a culture where marriage has a lot more to do with pragmatic concerns than romantic love. And really we've only married for romantic love in the West. That's only been an expectation of marriage for about 100 years. Prior to that, that wasn't really the case in many in many places around the world because really there would be an assumption that you would grow to love someone and that you married for much more pragmatic concerns, and hope that whoever you were married to would also like and respect you.

That way of thinking is still true in some places. The Western script about romantic love is that it's the most powerful and profound experience of a lifetime and hence, the thing that we should organize our entire lives around. I think these ideas are really powerful and thanks to globalization, increasingly taking a hold all over the world.

Q [Michaele]: In a few days, we'll celebrate forty years of marriage. We still make each other laugh. Different things work for different couples but the formula includes kindness, patience, forgiveness. Don't go to bed angry. Hug one another. Keep a good sense of humor. Stay friends. Get some silly in, not expecting all your needs to be met by one person. Perhaps a book on these different kinds of formulas could be required reading for all couples? :)

I love this idea of not expecting everything from one person. A psychologist who studied marriages found that over the last 150 years, our expectations of marriage and our partners slowly increased alongside the rise in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. So initially we just wanted belonging. Someone to make a home with, to be in community. Over time, we began to expect more and more from our partners so that now we don't just want love and belonging. We don't just want someone who's on our team in sort of making a home together, raising a family together. Now, we want self actualization so we want someone who can have like lively conversations about the last book that they read and someone who will be the best sexual partner we've ever had and someone who will be a perfect co-parents and someone who will be our best friend. And what the researched concluded is that as our expectations have gone up, more and more people are struggling to meet those expectations.

So there's more and more disappointment with marriage, while marriages on the whole have gotten better because of women entering the workforce and have more equal relationships in work and home and partners seeing themselves as true partners. Instead of having this division of labor where one person earns the money and other person takes care of the home, we are more likely to see partnerships. Peers, however, are also less likely to feel satisfied because we want so much from just one person. There's really a lot to be said about acknowledging that your partner isn't going to meet all your needs or expectations and also building a network of other people around who do meet some of your needs. Like if you're really into hiking and your partner hates being outdoors. There are ways to negotiate those expectations so that you still feel satisfied with your relationship while acknowledging that it isn't this one person who is everything to you.

Q: How do you navigate a relationship where your partner struggles with loving him or herself? Where your partner may have a deep sense of shame that require a lot of work. How do you have any tips on how to navigate those very heartbreaking relationships?

Oh yeah, that's so hard. I feel so deeply sympathetic to you. I know a handful of people in this situation and I don't think there is one easy or right answer. The thing I can speak to is when your partner needs more than what you can alone can provide, and they need some sort of of therapy, some sort of counseling, some network of people. I think it's really important to keep in mind that you can't make someone else happy. We have this idea, and I don't know if this is what is motivating this question, that love will make us happy or that the right partner will make us happy. And that happiness is an inevitable byproduct of a good relationship. Reality, I think, is a lot more complicated than that. It's important to keep in mind that we aren't fully responsible for another person's happiness. We owe the people we love kindness and we owe them empathy and we owe them generosity. We do things for the people we have chosen to love and the people who have trusted us with their love. But there are things beyond our control, and don't owe them happiness. It's not that we don't want the people we love to be happy, but it's that one person alone can't control another person's happiness or sense of self.

The best thing that you can do in that situation is help your partner to feel safe and from that place of safety to like get whatever sort of resources are available to them or whatever kind of care or attention that they need. The best thing we can do is just sort of create that environment which just says, "I care about you. And I am offering you what I have to offer, which is compassion and generosity, kindness." But beyond that, for better or worse, we're not in a position within our relationships to the control of someone else's happiness or their relationship to themselves.

Q: Thank you, Mandy, for your thought-provoking insights. One final question: how can we as a larger ServiceSpace community continue to support your work?

Oh, that's a good question. I don't know. I don't know the answer for that question. I actually feel quite supported in many ways. I met Alissa in January at Gandhi 3.0 retreat. And I've continued to be so inspired by and touched by the people I met there and the work that they're doing. So I feel like I get so much just from following a few members of this community. And that's been really valuable. I guess the only other thing that you could do is just encourage -- I know this sounds so cheesy, but it's true -- encourage people to be more thoughtful in relationships with the people that you love and care about.

Again, thank you guys so much. I mean it's funny because I feel like I feel like I've benefited just from having this conversation because there's so much value in just sort of reminding yourself of the things you know to be true or that you understand intellectually. You guys have asked such good questions that it's really motivated me to remember that I want to be practicing things as well. It's very good for me. Thank you. Really appreciate it.

About Awakin Calls

Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...


Subscribe To Newsletter

To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.


Archived Conversations

Or search by date or through tags like:

Contact Us

If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.


  • img
  • img