My sensible wife reminds me that Valentine’s Day is only a Hallmark holiday – a day when florists are overwhelmed selling roses at the highest prices of the year and when you should have made a reservation if you wanted an intimate night out.
Of course, we could never outlaw Valentine’s Day in Canada; the chocolate, floral and greeting card industries would lobby ferociously for their biggest day of the year.
Quite contrary to Hollywood movies, I’ve always told my children I wouldn’t let them get married when they were head-over-heels madly in love. After all, infatuation is not unlike a psychosis where reality testing is impaired. We see only the idealized good in the other and none of the bad.
Legally, individuals with impaired judgement cannot give consent. So why should they be allowed to sign a marriage certificate? Every young couple needs a cooling off period … until they see (and love) each other as they really are.
With mature love, we see the best in our loved ones, want what is best for them, see their faults, accept them and love the whole imperfect, human package.
We’ve seen many wedding invitations with the inscription, “Today, I marry my best friend.”
In my practice, I’ve seen some marriages fall apart over time. I’ve seen young couples blissfully in love and delivered their babies, but years later, they can’t stand being in the same room together.
If they were to have invitations to a divorce party, I would expect to find the inscription, “Today, I divorce my worst enemy.”
Why does this happen?
Sometimes they have fundamental incompatibilities in values and temperament. Sometimes, one partner does something that forever changes how the other sees them. Instead of all good, the other is seen as all bad.
Neither, of course, is a true reflection of reality.
And there is that Negativity Bias of the human brain. As Rick Hanson - the psychologist and author of “Hardwiring Happiness” - has said, our brains are Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.
This Negativity Bias has had survival value for the human race; it helps us spot and avoid danger. Yet it makes us miserable; we don’t recognize the good in our situation, our partners and ourselves. It also makes us miserable to live with if we voice all those negative observations as complaints and criticisms.
Many couples just drift apart. We take the other person and our relationship for granted. When they are neglected, the relationship is at risk.
Lasting relationships – like good health – require our daily attention and maintenance.
Here are four suggestions that have worked for my patients in lasting, loving relationships.
1. Foster emotional intimacy. Agree on a habit of checking in with one another each day. How was your day? How are you feeling? (Don’t ask the tired parent who has been at home with the kids, “What did you do today?”).
2. Show your affection. Express your positive feelings. Remember that Negativity Bias: you have to say 5 positive for every negative comment just to come out neutral. Think about that before you criticize your partner or your kids.
3. Schedule regular dates. Commit your time to what and who matters most to you. Don’t wait ‘til there’s time; make time.
4. Communicate in a healthy way. Take a breath and let anger cool before you react. Acknowledge your partner’s feelings and point of view. Express how you feel without blame.
Before you open your mouth, carefully consider your words. Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind?
This Saturday, I’ll be enjoying a nice dinner with my wife before watching a play. It won’t be a celebration of Valentine’s Day but rather our relationship.
Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician. His Healthwise Column appears regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in life, read his blog at davidicuswong.wordpress.com.