Thursday, February 5, 2009

Against the Grain: Unlearning What We Know About Relationships

Elizabeth Zelvin

A few days from now, I’ll be giving a talk at the Mid-Manhattan Library in New York City on how to have a good relationship. Since not many readers of Poe’s Deadly Daughters are likely to get there, I’d like to offer a foretaste of the topic. I chose it as a way to mark the transition from my current mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, to its sequel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, which will come out in October. The new book deals with destructive and addictive relationships, so it seemed to fit. It’s also in honor of Valentine’s Day, which represents the desire of most folks to be part of a couple and their utter cluelessness about how to make it work.

It’s not our fault. We are bombarded with messages from the popular culture that mislead us about the nature of love, how to attain it, and how to make it last. Falling in love, from a psychological standpoint, is a perfectly good description of short-term bonding. Unfortunately, a fifty-year marriage—in the vernacular, happily ever after—is not a short-term bond. Songs tell us that some enchanted evening we will meet a stranger, dance a little, send a valentine, and get along perfectly for the rest of our lives without ever having to say we’re sorry.

Alas, that’s not the way it works. Let me offer several different perspectives on relationships and how they go wrong, from popularizers who have written best-selling books on the topic, all based on sound psychology.

Harville Hendrix, the author of Getting the Love You Want, developed something called Imago relationship theory to explain that mysterious process of attraction that is often called “chemistry.” He gave the name Imago to the unconscious image of our ideal mate that we carry around within us, a combination of both the positive and the negative traits of both parents plus all the potential traits within ourselves that we disown or deny exist. Imagine the permutations. He says this unconscious lottery explains why as romantic love fades, couples start to push each other’s buttons and stir up childhood wounds. Of the ensuing power struggle, he says, “In despair, people begin to use negative tactics to force their partners to be more loving....What makes people believe that hurting their partners will make them behave more pleasantly?” Good question.

John Gray, the author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, took a view of male-female relations that makes sense in the light of both traditional psychodynamics and the relational model developed by feminist psychologists. Men really are different from women. Men cope by pulling away and working things out. Women cope by talking things out and connecting. Men show love by not worrying (assuming women’s competence). Women show love by worrying (maintaining the connection). Gray says that women’s most frequent complaint is that men never listen; men’s, that women are always wanting to change them. Ring a bell?

John Gottman, the author of The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, looked at conflicts, which he divided into solvable conflicts, which can be negotiated if the couple can learn not to sabotage the process, and perpetual conflicts, which there’s no point trying to solve. My favorite concept from Gottman’s work is one he cites as one of the best predictors of divorce: failed repair attempts. Have you ever had a bitter argument with your partner that ended when one of you said something funny and you both dissolved in laughter? Do you and your partner take turns being the one to climb down first and admit you’re wrong, or at least extend an olive branch? Can you and your partner accept a reasonable apology, let go of your self-righteous anger, and stop sulking? If so, you have a valuable skill: you can repair a relationship that’s been damaged by a quarrel.

So how do you go about building a better relationship? Look for Part II after Valentine’s Day.


Sheila Connolly said...

By Gray's standards, my husband and I have reversed roles: I want to fix things, he worries.

I started out trying to write romance (which I do badly), which required that I read a lot of romances, something I had avoided for years. I'm still puzzling over the imagery perpetuated in the genre, and I have to think that it's the female fantasy that drives the books: what women wish a relationship was like. If the story bears any semblance to reality, it's labeled "women's fiction" (?) or "literature." But bear in mind that romance is by far the largest market sector in fiction publishing.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, there was a wonderful piece on "male romance" in either the MWA or the SinC newsletter a couple of years back, by either Elaine Viets or the late Elaine Flinn (I apologize for my aging memory!) to the effect that the action thriller in which the hero, especially the middle-aged hero, fights off six guys before breakfast without so much as an eyebrow out of place and beds every woman he meets on short acquaintance is as much a romantic fantasy as anything published by Harlequin. I'd consider any of Stuart Woods's Stone Barrington books a good example.

Sandra Parshall said...

A lot of relationships break up as soon as the "romance" fades. Men are every bit as guilty as this kind of serial romance as women are. Romance novels feed the fantasy and probably make a lot of women unsatisfied with their real relationships.

It's interesting that modern heroes, in all forms of fiction, are considered more attractive when they finally reveal their "vulnerable" side. What does this say about women?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Leslie Budewitz asked me to pass on that the discussion of male romance was started by Elaine Viets on the Lipstick Chronicles a few years ago.