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    Love and “Settling”

    John privately wonders whether he should break up with Carl, his partner of seven years. It’s not that there are major problems. It’s not an abusive relationship, and there is still a lot of love between them. It’s an accumulation of small things. The sex isn’t as hot or as frequent as it used to be; Carl doesn’t share a lot of his interests; he’s gained some weight, and he has some habits that annoy John. What started out as a hot and passionate romance now feels kind of ordinary. John wonders, “If I stay with him, am I settling?”

    These doubts arise eventually in many, maybe even most, long-term partnerships. One of the most common disappointments in even successful relationships is just this ordinariness, which is so different from what we’ve come to expect love to deliver. Our culture’s happy-ever-after fantasies of what is supposed to happen after you meet “the one” have absurdly inflated our expectations of what romantic love can provide. Many people only consider a relationship successful if it meets all of their sexual and emotional needs, as well as their economic and social status aspirations. It should also heal their childhood wounds, be a source of unconditional love and endless praise to help them overcome their self-esteem problems, and rescue them from boredom, unhappiness, and aimlessness. No real relationship ever does all that.

    One way out of this trap is to stop measuring our relationships from a primarily egocentric point of view by working at changing the focus so that our primary relationship is with love itself, and to begin to view those we love as the opportunities that life has given us to share that love. Everyone has experienced this kind of unselfish love. We’ve all looked at a partner – or a friend, or a child – and felt a deep delight in his or her being that is completely independent of what this person was or wasn’t doing for us. This shows that loving itself is inherently satisfying, and can be the primary source of our happiness. In this shift of focus, we stop keeping score, stop judging, stop being obsessively focused on “getting my needs met” and stop trying to win every time there’s a disagreement. When frustrations and disappointments arise, we see them as opportunities to deepen our relationship to love, not as affronts to our egos or as experiences of being denied our “fair share” of whatever it is we think we’re owed.

    Shifting focus in this way is a lifelong practice, but it has many rewards. The more deeply we do it, the more we develop a realistic and mature understanding of what relationships actually are, and we also become more accepting of their unavoidable imperfections. It is then that our relationships become vehicles for teaching us to love more deeply, and to become more self-contained and less demanding of others.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is