Love is a Gift
Martin Schmidt of LMU’s Unit for Couple Therapy Research and Practice helps distressed couples to improve their relationships. Here, he discusses the roles of rituals, romantic ideals and the unfathomable in one’s partner.
Photo: martinwimmer / istockphoto.com
Valentine’s Day is apparently ever more popular and more entrenched in our calendar. Have you any idea why?
Martin Schmidt: Valentine’s Day is a fixed date with cultural connotations that activate memories and can stimulate couples to reflect on what brought them together and how their relationship has developed. It tends to prompt questions that begin with “Do you remember how we …?” The earliest memories that two people share, as a couple, are very important for their relationship. Usually, these are associated with positive emotions and attitudes. And with this shared story about “us”, a couple defines a niche for itself that is set off from the wider environment. Rituals like the regular celebration of wedding anniversaries and occasions like Valentine’s Day help to perpetuate and thus consolidate a couple’s view of themselves as a pair.
Valentine’s Day also brings new couples together, as data from social networks show. Does this give them a good start?
It gets them off the mark, at any rate. When people pair off, both partners have certain notions about romantic love, and these positive illusions can sustain the relationship if they are appropriately nurtured. And if each partner gets the feeling that they are well matched, they become a community unto themselves. If this sense of a common destiny is also accompanied by a willingness to work on the relationship – not just to face the future, but to accept the challenges it brings and grow with them, then one has a very promising basis for a stable interaction.
How sustainable is the romantic ideal of love?
Love is a gift. Love is not primarily predicated on reciprocity, it is given freely. It is quite a different matter from the degree of satisfaction that each partner derives from the relationship. That is more in the nature of a contract, which does involve give and take. Many people believe that love can be intentionally directed, as if one could exercise conscious cognitive control over one’s emotions. On the contrary, it is important to realize that emotions have their own logic. Love is not something that one can influence at will. What one can do is to create conditions that may rekindle a love that has gone cold.
What are these conditions?
In any personal relationship, the other individual always retains a core of mystery, and ultimately remains a stranger. Try as I may to apprehend my opposite number intellectually, I will never succeed in fully grasping the nature of another personality. The important thing is that I should make the attempt, accept the inevitability of failure, and constantly remind myself that everything may well be utterly different from how I imagine it. Strangeness has negative connotations, because the idea that one can never really fathom the other person always has an unsettling effect. But by the same token, the very strangeness of the other means that there is always the chance to discover something new.
In other words, in a partner relationship one is continually trying to pin something down in a setting that is itself essentially undefinable. Insofar as both partners are engaged in this task, they create a common ground between them, and this common ground is the story of their shared relationship as a couple, which may also be a love story. But this common ground is the work of two contributors, and its parameters are inherently susceptible to change.
And couple therapy allows one to change these parameters?
The therapy gives couples a secure context within which they can try things out. These couples are looking for a point of equilibrium, at which each partner feels that he or she is fairly valued. There must be enough of ME, but there must also be space for WE, and the balance to be struck is subject to constant negotiation. A relationship is an incessant round of conflicts, negotiations and solutions. The difficulties arise when the familiar solutions become problematic, and the patterns of negotiation remain unchanged.
Couples need a whole range of skills. The partners have a rich store of experience in interacting with others. The aim of couple therapy is to get them to appreciate the value of these experiences, and relearn how to talk to each other. The therapeutic situation provides a framework in which they can begin to reflect and experiment anew. This makes it possible to initiate a process of change, which can be successfully completed if the two are able to integrate new elements into their everyday routines.
What do you learn from the couples who participate in your studies?
That couple therapy is worthwhile. Meta-analyses, which involve the evaluation of the results of large numbers of independent studies, show that couples who have undergone a course of therapy have a much higher partnership satisfaction index than non-treated controls.
The mechanisms underlying these positive effects are still largely unknown, and have not been well studied even on an international scale. This is the reason why we in the Unit for Couple Therapy Research and Practice are interested in elucidating how these changes are effected. What kinds of change occur during a course of therapy, and are these changes stable in the longer term? We study those couples who agree to participate in such studies on a day-to-day basis, from the very first therapy session on. We record the sessions on video and transcribe the consultations. Between sessions, the couples fill in a daily questionnaire on the internet. This enables us to follow, in real time, when and how the partners begin to question their problematic narratives, make new distinctions, and develop new points of view; how they then incorporate these new perspectives into their storyline as a couple, and how this process can lead to the construction of a more appropriate picture of their relationship. Very minor modifications can precipitate a qualitative leap in perception, so that what was a vicious circle is transformed into a virtuous circle.
At what stage do couples come to you?
Couples who decide to begin a course of therapy have already gone through a great deal. They will have sought the advice of family members and friends. And at the onset of therapy, the question of separation has either already been articulated or is implicitly at issue.
Considering the divorce rates these days, it is clear to me that not enough people take advantage of the therapy options that are available. But therapists could also make more of the opportunities they have if they were better trained. Unfortunately, there are very few high-quality, scientifically based training courses that are specifically designed to teach the skills required for effective couple therapy.
On Valentine’s Day, we say it with flowers, and go out for candlelight dinners. We all have very concrete ideas about what constitutes a happy couple.
The high romance that is served up on TV, the depictions of sexuality and all the other feats that couples supposedly need to accomplish – all that is just so much cultural ballast. The trick lies in cutting the unrealistic expectations propagated by these productions down to a size that suits one’s own personality and one’s relationship. The goal should be to find a design for life that I would describe as endowing one’s existence with meaning.
The same is true for the reams of so-called advice to be found in books and magazines, and on the internet, which purport to give us guidelines on how we should lead our lives. Simplistic recipes like “Be faithful” or “Have fun” must always be seen in the context of one’s own situation. To paraphrase Herbert Achternbusch: “To be on the safe side – try thinking and feeling for yourself.”
Dr. phil. Martin Schmidt heads the Unit for Couple Therapy Research and Practice in the Department of Psychology (Faculty of Psychology and Education) at LMU. On the basis of individual case studies, Schmidt and his colleagues study how systemic couple therapy changes the relationships between partners. The Unit offers systemic couple therapy based on the Munich Model, which Schmidt developed.