When You Love Someone

Posted on January 23, 2017


Among the dangers of writing on topics about which one is passionate is that it is easy to cross the line into a rant.  This one may be as close as I get to doing that.

I was driving home from the gym with American Top 40 on the radio playing “When You Love Someone” by James TW.  If the point of music is to move your listener, it was very effective.  My reaction was a mixture of anger and sadness.  I was sad for the kids and angry at the parents.  If you want to get the experience before we talk about this, here’s the video on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Bf3CJZ4hvg.

Essentially, the song is a father explaining to his son that mom and dad are splitting up because “Sometimes moms and dads fall out of love.  Sometimes two homes are better than one.  Some things you can’t tell your sister ’cause she’s still too young.  Yeah you’ll understand when you love someone.”  I must say that this is the lamest excuse for bad behavior that I’ve heard since the Gin Blossoms sang “You can’t call it cheating; she reminds me of you.”[1]

First, this suggests an immature understanding of love.  My former pastor used to say,[2] “Love is not something you feel.  It is something you do.”  In John 13 when Jesus commanded us to love[3] one another and said that this would be the trait that would identify his disciples, he was not talking about warm fuzzy feelings.  Love would be demonstrated by loving actions, kind words.  By this definition, it is absolutely true that sometimes moms and dads stop loving each other.  It is also true that they can choose to start loving each other again.  If love is an action and not a feeling, it becomes a choice and not just some mysterious force.

Second, the research does not support the idea that two homes are better than one.  When looking at comparably distressed couples longitudinally, five years later the couples who persevered together report better health and life satisfaction than those who divorced.[4]

Third (and this is where I can come close to the rant), doing this to your children is not an option.  You are handing them the bill for something that has nothing to do with them.  I have had adult clients talk about the trauma of the moment when they were children and dad said he was leaving.  The research has found that the rate for almost every ill you can name (depression, drug use, teenage pregnancy) doubles for children of divorced parents.  You can mess up your own lives, but it is not okay to mess up theirs.

Fourth, the assertion that you will understand when you love someone seems to be teaching that once you have more life experience, you will understand that all relationships will eventually fall apart.  It is setting up for this family pattern to repeat.  The culture already offers little to support marriage.  If we add on top of that that we should teach our children that maturity is understanding that all relationships are destined to fail, we really undermine marriage.

Fifth, emotionally focused couples therapy (which has had the most empirical validation) has found that 90% of couples report improvement and 70% of couples report the relationship problems have been resolved.  If you have two people who are willing to work on it, the prognosis of therapy for even the most distressed couples is really good.

Let me add a little disclaimer here.  1) This does not mean that you need to stay in an abusive or unsafe situation.  Abuse, affairs, and addictions are contra-indicators for couple’s therapy.  Those issues need to be resolved individually before there can be enough safety to do good marital work. 2) If your partner is adamant that he or she is done with the relationship and unwilling to work on it, you cannot control and are not responsible for what your partner says or does.  3) This is not intended to place guilt on anyone who has already been through the pain of divorce.  I assume you were doing the best you could according to your awareness and understanding at the time.

So, what is there about marriage that makes it worth fighting for?  Marriage, when it goes well, is one of the greatest experiences human beings can have.  If you had a church wedding, somebody probably read from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 where Paul writes about love.  What they did not read was what followed.  Paul segues to talking about our future perfection when Jesus returns.  At verse 12, he writes, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully even as I am fully known.”  This description of heaven (knowing and being known) is essentially a description of intimacy.  The situation in which we most get to experience this during our life here is marriage.  It is our greatest opportunity to know and be known.  When it works, it is a foretaste of heaven.

The flip side of this is that a distressed marriage is among the more painful human experiences.  When you are in that much emotional pain and distress, it makes sense that you would desperately want that distress to end.  Further, if you have been struggling with this relationship for years, it makes sense that divorce would seem like the route to ending the pain.  Add to that that distressed couples are usually stuck in a negative pattern of interaction that leaves them both feeling disconnected and not loved.  When you are stuck in that dance, it seems like the problem in the relationship is your partner as after all, you have been trying hard at this for a long time.  If you had a different partner (e.g. that nice person at work with whom you can talk so freely and comfortably), you would be much happier.

There are multiple errors with this line of reasoning.  First, the problem with the relationship is neither you nor your partner; it is the negative cycle in which you are stuck.  What you each say and do in that dance makes sense within the context of how you each experience.  Just as you know that there is a logic behind what you do and say, the same is true of your partner.  Second, I know that your partner is strange in ways that you never could have imagined before you got married.  The reason I know this is because everybody is.  Normal is just a setting on the dryer[5].  We all have our quirks, some of which are pretty bothersome.  If you think someone has it all together, you just have never lived with that person for an extended period of time.  If you trade in this partner for a new one, you will swap one set of quirks for a new one, and you will still bring all of your brokenness into the new relationship.

So staying is difficult and painful.  Leaving hands the bill to the kids and doesn’t really fix the problem.  You know where I am going, right?  For therapists, it is a regular part of our experience wherein we see extremely distressed couples find relationship healing, and greater emotional safety and closeness than they ever had before.

If this song sounds like wisdom to you, reach out and push the button with the big “B.S.” on it.  Get yourselves into therapy.  If your partner won’t go, then you go by yourself.  That is a much better path out of the pain.

[1] Which at least was intended to be tongue in cheek.

[2] He may still say it, but he’s retired now so I haven’t seen him a long time.

[3] The Greek word for love here is agape.  This is a love that is about acting on behalf of the other.

[4] The research is in The Case For Marriage by Waite and Gallagher

[5] With a nod to Patsy Clairmont’s book of the same title.