Kinstler: What is Love? Baby Don’t Hurt Me.

Ethan Kinstler, Staff Writer

Have you ever been in a relationship with someone, and you feel like things are going great and you’re happy, but in the next moment, it’s like a switch flipped off, and now you feel nothing? Or maybe you have a friend who seems to end relationships immediately after they begin. Both of these situations demonstrate the importance of understanding the way we love when building healthy relationships.

According to psychologist Dr. Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love, love has three main components that can describe all relationships. The first component is passion: the hot-and-heavy attraction that immediately pulls us to another person. In relationships, passion typically increases very quickly while the experiences are still new and exciting between partners; however, after about 3 months, you begin to acclimate and the passion plateaus. At this point, you begin to think about the next component, which is intimacy: the feeling of closeness you have with your partner. The inside jokes, their dimples, the way they smell and more all fall under intimacy. Unlike passion, intimacy needs to be nurtured, built and curated. If one partner becomes lazy in the relationship, intimacy will fade. Intimacy typically increases at a more gradual pace than passion, but healthy relationships do not experience the same plateau in intimacy that is found with passion. In order to build intimacy, you must understand the third and final piece of Sternberg’s love triangle: commitment. Commitment is exactly what it sounds like; how much time and effort do you devote to your relationships? Unlike passion, commitment can be found in any relationship, whether it be commitment to a loved one, to a team or to your friends. Like intimacy, commitment must also be nurtured, where both partners have to want to make a relationship work in order to build a sense of commitment.

So how does this relate to you? Well, that friend you have who always seems to be falling in and out of relationships is probably defining their relationships around passion; they choose their partners around base-level attraction without putting in the effort to build intimacy or commitment. When a relationship is good, it is really good; however, once that initial passion subsides, they realize that they either don’t really like their partner or they have nothing in common to keep the passion alive. Inevitably, the partner grows distant.

Passion is fickle. It is affected by distance, stress, anxiety and even how we are feeling day-to-day. The concept of passion explains why in some moments you feel deeply close to your partner, but in other moments you feel repelled by them. In these moments it is important to be introspective.

When something in our relationship feels off, it is easy to become overwhelmed and assign blame, especially to ourselves. We may think that something is wrong with us; there isn’t. You’re simply growing into your relationship. Check in with your emotions and be careful not to discount yourself. Fully understanding your own mood state can shed light onto the inner workings of your relationship. 

For example, you’ve been stressed about an upcoming test and you’ve been studying all week. You weren’t able to spend as much time with your partner as usual, and when the test is over, the relationship feels off. This feeling is an indication that passion has shifted. At this point, you have two options: either deepen your commitments by spending more time with your partner to build or rebuild intimacy, or end the relationship if it no longer serves you.

On the other hand, you might not feel distant, but your partner does, leading us to the next important part of love: communication. In any relationship, personal or professional, communication is key. How we communicate is paramount to our satisfaction with relationships. 

Furthermore, communication doesn’t just mean talking about your problems, though this is important, it also means understanding how we are communicating. How we communicate is so important that in an experiment, psychologist John Gottman was able to predict—with over 90% accuracy—whether a couple would get divorced or stay married by simply observing a short argument between the couple.

Gottman created the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships, which describe the common negative communication styles. The first horseman is criticism, or rather verbally attacking your partner’s character. This can include phrases such as “you’re so lazy,” or starting a sentence with “Yes, but..” where you ultimately deflect blame by incorporating the statement like “in my defense,” instead of listening to your partner and taking responsibility. Criticism also involves cross-complaining and kitchen-sinking, where one partner brings up an unrelated grievance as a defense. For instance, if you tell your partner that you feel they don’t spend enough time with you, and they reply with, “Well, you never listen to me when I talk.” This can lead to arguing about “everything and the kitchen sink,” and nothing will get resolved as you perpetually rehash old grievances.

In order to avoid criticism in arguments, be specific with your problems and try to solve one issue at a time. Avoid using “you” statements and instead incorporate “I” statements, as in “I felt unimportant when you didn’t spend time with me last weekend.” Now, you’ve identified a specific issue in context that you and your partner can then resolve.

The next horseman is contempt, or intentionally acting with disrespect in order to hurt your partner and invalidate their concerns. Contempt can be verbal, such as making a snide comment or mocking your partner to purposefully hurt them, but it can also be nonverbal, such as rolling your eyes. No matter how contempt is expressed, it is always detrimental to a relationship.

In order to avoid contempt, it is important to build appreciation within your relationships. Make sure your partner knows how much you care about them, and make sure you communicate when and why things are going well. Perhaps while you were really stressed about your test, your partner brought you your favorite meal from your favorite restaurant as a surprise. Be sure they know how much you appreciated that act. If your partner feels that their acts of kindness are going unnoticed, then, obviously, they will be unwilling to communicate when you bring up a different issue. Therefore, ensure you express your gratitude for your partner so it can lead to overall better communication within the relationship.

The third horseman is defensiveness, or blaming your partner rather than yourself. For example, if you tell your partner that you feel slighted because you’re always doing the dishes without any offer to help, and they respond with “What are you talking about? I do the dishes all the time!” These types of interactions embody defensiveness. It, like the previous horsemen, is a nonstarter and only breeds frustration and anger because one person will inevitably feel unheard. Instead, listen to your partner because their grievance can be valid; your partner’s counterview could be one that you haven’t considered. So take responsibility when it is necessary. It is much easier to communicate your needs with someone when you have humbled yourself to their needs as well.

The final horseman is stone-walling, or a complete avoidance of or separation from an issue. Stone-walling is often nonverbal and is kind of like the silent treatment. One partner is totally unwilling to even acknowledge you or your grievance. To combat stone-walling, simply take a break. Distance yourself from the conflict and revisit the topic once both parties have cooled down.

Of course, the strategies for combating the Four Horsemen should not mean that you are ignoring red flags. For example, if you find that you are always taking responsibility for things you don’t feel you’ve done, and your partner never apologizes, then the relationship is clearly not working. Make effort when developing healthy communication and conflict management skills, but also be aware if your partner is consistently reticent, combative or contemptuous.