WE all want to be loved. Yet living in a world driven by commercial messages about entitled happiness and freedom of choice, our relationships bear the burden of the misguided belief, that, like the stuff we accumulate, they are interchangeable and disposable if they do not meet our needs. Instead of recognizing another’s capacity to teach us how to love more, we refuse the daily, messy work of relating—learning how to communicate, negotiate and master shared difficulties and challenges.
This misunderstanding impacts our ability to commit as well. True happiness comes as a result of sustained emotional investment in other people. When we commit, we agree to not measure our relationship on a daily barometer: Although there may be many a day when honoring our commitment and values in our relationships contradicts our momentary feelings of frustration and disappointment in the relationship, commitment comes from developing the ability to remember that you really love someone, even if you aren’t feeling it.
Ultimately our loving relationships are the most gentle and effective education we engage in to become the person we want to be. Rather than focusing on finding the right partner, commitment works best when we approach it as a method of personal growth. The late psychologist Caryl Rusbult coined the notion of the “Michelangelo effect” in describing how committed, loving relationships have the power to sculpt us into the people we want to be. Michelangelo used to say that the figures he created were asleep within the stones, waiting to be discovered. This is what love that works on us over time can do for us: We both reflect and elicit the values that we commit to creating with our partners.
As the work of love changes you and helps you grow into the person you want to be, the relationship creates a commitment of its own. The work becomes its own incentive, as both parties involved recognize that their own well-being is linked to the health of both your partner and your relationship. The cultural myth of the perfect partner or soul mate is a distraction that keeps us from the real work of love. This book is dedicated to finding the many ways that love will sculpt you and your life into a work of art—one that is worthy of you and the one you love.
We all live in a laboratory of love—if we are awake. Every day, there are opportunities to learn to love the people who inhabit your world. Some days it comes out looking just like you planned. Some days, the relationship is so far off that it is barely recognizable. Most days, we all live somewhere in between, striving to see the best in others and to act from the best in ourselves.
This has not been an easy path. But if you believe the maxim that “you only fail when you quit,” then you can always agree to keep it going one more day. Every relationship is really something that you agree to one day at a time. Anyone can learn to make his or her love sustainable. The skill set to love over time exists as a seed in all of us. But without careful tending and cultivation, it will not thrive. Sustainable love is not driven by the sexy early feelings of falling in love. It thrives by building skills in communication, keeping your promises, controlling your thoughts instead of being controlled by them, and being a curious and willing lover.
This combination of behaviors—what I call the Ecology of Love—is what I teach and write about every week in my sustainable love letters. The Ecology of Love is the natural habitat where love can grow and nourish the relationship and the world. The understanding of it came to me slowly, but the more I study and teach it, the more that this natural ecosystem of love makes sense. I hope it can help you to understand your own relationship in a way that renews your commitment and allows you the freedom to fall in love again and again.