Give Love, Get Love: 7 Things I’ve Learned About Love Since My Divorce

Call me crazy, but I’m getting married again.

It’s been almost 10 years since my divorce.

Reflecting on the relationships of those years I can see that I’ve been through different phases: dating for a confidence boost (while being totally unavailable); trying to ‘keep it light’ (while being invested enough to get hurt); being in a committed relationship with someone who helped me heal (but who I knew I would outgrow); and now, finally, risking being available and committed, with major potential for both growth and hurt.

Sometimes it does seem crazy these days to believe that love can last a lifetime. With the demands of modern life, all too often marriage can become about downtime and recovery, like a comfortable pillow, rather than a living connection that we feel inspired to nourish and feed.

But what I now realize is that sustaining love for a lifetime, if possible, does take a skill set; one I definitely didn’t have during marriage number one. Likely a lucky few inherit these skills for sustaining intimacy from their families, but for most of us, they need to be learned.

For me, this learning has taken perseverance, humility, and commitment. And while I can’t say for sure that this one will last, since no one ever really knows that, I do know that after swearing for years that I’d never get legally married again, I can now more fully experience the love that makes the risk worth it.

So, for what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve learned about how to keep love alive.

Give Love, Get Love

In my first marriage I focused a lot on how I could get love. I wanted to feel loved and cherished and I didn’t, and this hurt a lot. But rather than feeling that pain and dealing with it, I started fighting harder to get love. So did he.

Now, I’ve learned that it’s important to focus more on how I can act lovingly. I try to be aware of the gestures, words, or actions that my partner experiences as being cherished, and do them. Some of them come naturally to me because they’re my ways too, and some don’t. For the ones that don’t it takes some effort to remember, but it’s worth it.

When I do this from the heart, the love I get in return fills me up! From the heart is the key. I don’t think this would work well if I did it as a tactic or manipulation in order to get what I want.

Take a Hit for the Team

Marriage makes you a team, emotionally and financially. I didn’t really get this the first time. I thought of it as mostly the same as living together.

I’ve never played team sports but I imagine that for a team to function at its best, it’s important not to shame or belittle your fellow players when they miss the goal.

Good marriages are like that. I’ve learned that it’s important never to throw your partner under the bus, even if you have to take a hit. Certainly, talk about it afterwards, but don’t embarrass them or belittle them in front of other people.

Always Reflect on Your Part

My first husband and I fought but that wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that no matter what the topic, we actually had the same fight over and over without ever hearing each other’s hurts or repairing them. We didn’t know how.

Fighting still sucks but now I know how to fight well. I’ve developed much more self awareness of my triggers and the skill to be able to track them during and, at least after, the fight. It’s still vulnerable to talk about them with my partner but I do because I know that it’s important for us both to feel heard in order to feel close again.

This didn’t happen overnight but with lots of work in therapy, and with practice.

Don’t Try to Change or Fix Them

When I think about how controlling I was in my first marriage it makes me cringe. My anxiety was intense but it was also familiar so I didn’t notice it. I tried to use the strategy that kept me safe during my childhood, working hard to fix, change, and control in order to manage my feelings.  I didn’t know I was doing this or why.  Inside, my experience was that I was the responsible and emotionally mature person in the relationship, the one who had to hold it all together.

Now I know how to attune to and process my own feelings. Of course, my partner still has habits and personality quirks that I wish were different but I try my best to accept them.  When I ask him to consider their impact on me, I do it knowing that it’s up to him whether to change or not, and up to me to manage my feelings about it.

Be Tender with their Tender Spots

As humans we’re all a work in progress. I’ve learned to be particularly aware of my partner’s tender spots—in other words, the parts of himself that he feels ashamed of or finds hard to like.

I try to take extra care with his emotional vulnerability, especially not using these places as ammunition during fights (when they will inevitably come right to mind!)

Value their Happiness Like You do Your Own

In my first marriage I didn’t get this at all. It felt like I had to fight for my own happiness and that if he got his, mine would be taken away.

I’ve learned that it’s not a zero sum game. Supporting his happiness feels good and it usually means I’ll get the same consideration in return. This is not always easy when the decisions are bigger, like a career change that requires a move. Compromise is still required, in addition to a good awareness of my own needs and willingness to talk about them.

Let Yourself Need Them

In my first marriage this felt impossible. I spent a lot of effort trying to retain my independence and not feel taken over and I imagine he did too.

Now I’m learning to love in a way that’s closer. I have a good sense of who I am, of my own needs and boundaries. Although I’m excited about being married, I also know that, should it not work out, I could be okay on my own. But I also let myself need him emotionally. When I’m struggling, I try to open up rather than go inside myself for comfort.

For me, the movement towards healthy interdependence – the balance of closeness and separateness – has been to allow more of my need for connection. For some, the needing part is easy, and healing requires work on a more independent self.

Relationships need both independence and dependence to thrive; too much merging drains the spark of connecting to a unique and separate person and too much independence risks creating a roommate-like type of co-existence.

My two cents? Relationships are hard, and often fail, because in order to work they require a big commitment to emotional vulnerability. This means facing yourself, a lot. I know being single is hard and coupledom can feel quite welcome after a long dry spell, but being a successful couple takes courage.

We don’t have a template for this kind of relating in our culture and in our families; the tools for sustaining intimacy are becoming lost arts. Too often we think of our relationship as a respite from being alone; its ultimate goal to keep us in a state of security that will ensure our happiness forever. Or we have a sense that marriage takes ‘work’ without knowing what that work is or how to do it. My hope is that this inspires you to join me in learning.

So, here goes marriage number two. My intention this time around is to love well. Wish me luck: I’m sure I’ll need it.

 

Jodie Stein

Jodie Stein

Jodie Stein, MFT is a San Francisco based therapist who helps women in transition to be fierce about loving themselves. She sees women navigating relationships, separation/divorce, becoming married, or learning to follow their own rules. She believes that you have the choice to create an authentic life that you love and brings her unique blend of heart, humor, warmth and challenge to help you get there.

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