02/29/2012 10:39 EST | Updated 04/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Making Love Last


Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction. --Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Our expectations of romantic love as a foundation for marriage are too simplistic and, hence, unrealistic. Women, in particular, ascribe to the "happily ever after" scenario promulgated in everything from fairy tales to sitcoms.

And men aren't much better off.

But the fact is that 37 per cent of marriages that began in 2003 or thereafter will eventually end in divorce. Governments are beginning to recognize how this is tearing apart the fabric of society. In Texas, legislators passed a law in 2007 that waived the marriage-licence fee for couples who take a premarital class and doubled the fee for couples who don't. In Germany, couples must wait three months after acquiring a marriage license before getting hitched.

With good reason.

The ideal of romantic love is mired in the beginning of the love relationship; the most sexually charged, fleeting period when we are most attracted to one another. This inevitably dissipates, and it is at that point that either the relationship fizzles or slowly unravels, or that we begin the real work of love. Once the initial rush of romance fades, you must have something more than the fact that you're in love to keep it going and growing.

And so the question is: How do you make love last?

The simple answer: work. I know no one want to hear that, but if we don't understand this basic fact, we are forever doomed to disappointment and disillusionment and the need to start over again and again.

That work begins with yourself, with self-awareness and recognition of your needs and your responsibility for meeting them. The result of this is a true acceptance of your separateness. Couples comprise two people with two lives and all that entails: career, friends, hobbies, volunteer work, reading, entertainment -- the list is as individual as our thumb prints.

Asking one person to play an integral part in all these areas is untenable -- and ultimately boring. The kiss of death. A relationship perseveres because you're interested in what's going to happen the next day and your partner's an interesting person to share it with. It's therefore vital to have something to help you grow individually: your career, volunteer work, hobbies or passions, sports, etc.

Dr. M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, one of the 20th century's most famous and arguably most useful self-help book, defines love as the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth. Spiritual growth, in this context, can be loosely defined as striving towards and meeting our full potential. According to Scott, the act of nurturing another person's spiritual growth has the effect of nurturing one's own growth.

At the same time, in genuine love, the distinction, the separateness between the two is always maintained, respected and nurtured. In other words, you support your love partners for who they are -- not your idealized notion of who you wish they were (often replicas of ourselves).

What this means, in practical terms, is that you must nurture and support, but at the same time, not expect everything from the one person. My grandmother used to tell me: "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." If that basket is marriage, it will break under the weight.

It is not realistic, possible, or even desirable to have all your physical, intellectual, and emotional needs met by one person. But you are responsible for seeing that they are met, by yourself and by others (including yourself, your lover, friends, relatives, colleagues, etc.).

One of the side effects of adhering to the above is that it frees one to live one's life, rather than succumbing to some gradient of the co-dependent relationship, which is essentially a relationship prison that limits who you see, what you do, where you go, etc.

Separateness requires mindful living: living in the present, instead of worrying about a past you can't change and an uncertain future. The idea is to enjoy every morsel of your time together and apart. Otherwise, it's not well spent. And we only have so much currency.

Barbara Sibbald is a two-time novelist, editor at a leading health journal, and an award-winning freelance journalist. The above is an excerpt from The Book of Love: Guidance in Affairs of the Heart, a novel (General Store Publishing House), which will soon be available in e-book format.