A Fine Romance: Secrets to Making Love Last a Lifetime

iStock_000016074135SmallThe news isn’t very promising. Less than two out of five married couples describe themselves as happy while the rest are either somewhat satisfied or living with spouses in quiet desperation, experiencing little intimacy, passion, romance or sex.

Enter the Johnsons, Melva and Jesse, a handsome baby-boomer couple with two grown sons, who appear to be the poster pair for the happy couple category. They are Royal Oak psychotherapists and relationship experts, offering couples therapy and workshops. Upon arriving at their office, it becomes clear they can’t keep their eyes off of each other. In light of our country’s divorce statistics, I was determined to discover their secret.

As Jesse sits deep in the couch, legs loosely crossed, wearing a wool blazer, dark sweater and trousers with a smart crease, Melva sits on the edge of the couch, her body turned toward her husband, hands folded intently in her lap. Laughing with a high, hearty giggle, her fiery red and black jacket matches the brightness of her energy, a striking contrast to Jesse’s deep baritone voice and laid-back demeanor.

“One thing I learned about myself by being in a relationship with Jesse is that I needed to become a better listener,” begins Melva. “There were times Jesse experienced me as critical, and I would say, ‘I’m not critical.’ But I needed to pay attention to my impact on him.” Melva says her reaction was rooted in frustration at not feeling heard, and realized that she wasn’t even listening to her husband. “I wanted him to hurry up,” she says, “so I could have my turn.”

So, how have they managed to flourish for 30 years of marriage? For starters, two important qualities are required: caring behavior and a proactive approach. “You’ve got to change your orientation from the ‘Me’ plan to the ‘We’ plan,’” says Melva. “If the needs of both people in the relationship are being met, if both are mutually satisfied, there is the real potential for a life of joy and fulfillment.”

The three predictable stages of a relationship are: (1) the infatuation stage, which, though pleasurable, is not supposed to last; (2) the power struggle stage, where you learn to understand each other; and, (3) the figuring-out stage, when you discover how to live together under one roof, realizing personal vision, as both an individual and as a couple.

There are always two realities going on within a relationship at any given moment, say the Johnsons. “We tell people they don’t have to give up their reality of the experience – what we call their country,” Melva says. “The goal is for couples to cross the bridge to their partner’s country, and really hear, understand and make sense of it, and then imagine how their partner feels within that context.” Having two realities is okay. It makesgrowth possible as two people discover new ways of being together.

A central component to building a satisfying relationship is appreciating each other. Successful couples experience feelings of appreciation, support and safety. “My only question,” Jesse says, “is how can I support her?” Melva is quick to stress another important rule. “No spontaneous expression of frustration or anger is allowed, ever.” This is a point she emphasizes, calling it “dumping.” Anger and frustrations are discussed by appointment only within a 24-hour period so neither partner has long to wait, yet has time to calm down. Everyone has emotional parts of themselves that have not been fully developed, and while buttons will be pushed and triggers will be activated, relationships can actually help mature those aspects of our personalities.

As Melva says, “Instead of getting upset when Jesse is annoyed with me, I’ve learned to develop more of a curiosity. The goal is that I get curious about this other human being that I love and care about and realize that his intention, though it frustrated me, was not to hurt me. It has more to do with what is going on with him. But it has taken a lot of time,” she adds, “and it’s not that I instantly do it, even now.”

Partners must give 100 percent of themselves to the relationship, recommitting every day. The relationship is looked upon as a sacred agreement. “The idea is to keep a sense of sacredness about the union and about the bond,” Melva says. “Then when things happen, when you hit the wall or have a conflict, you see that it’s what is underneath that is an opportunity for healing and growth for each individual and for the relationship itself.”

So, what is the secret to the Johnsons’ enduring and satisfying relationship? “A lot of us live in fairytale land thinking that things are supposed to go well all the time,” says Melva, inching up closer to the edge of the couch. “When we have difficult moments, we can look at how we contribute to the nightmare, as well as how we contribute to the dream. My part in the success of our relationship is not only to look at how I might feel wounded in the situation, but also at how I am wounding. By taking responsibility for everything I do and say, I am honoring the covenant and being a responsible, accountable partner.”

Being open is also key, Jesse says. “Men are so afraid to show their vulnerability. Choosing to be vulnerable with Melva was freeing and healing. Men can relax. We don’t need to fix everything.” As Melva adds, looking wistfully at Jesse, “What I have experienced in my marriage over and over again, more than anything else, is that I matter.” personal transformations.com

This first appeared in Ambassador Magazine, Detroit, Michigan

About the Author

Donna Rockwell, Psy.D. Dr. Donna Rockwell, Psy.D., L.P. is a licensed clinical psychologist, adjunct faculty member, community outreach worker, columnist, and mindfulness meditation teacher. Dr. Rockwell specializes in both mindfulness and celebrity mental health. She works with clients in her private practice and teaches public meditation classes. You can watch Dr. Rockwell on YouTube or read more of her blogs at The New Existentialists.

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