The Architecture of Love


He does not love at all

who loves mankind only;

he does who loves this specific person.

- Karl Jaspers

e human beings love love. But love is a problem for us. It hurts us, eludes us and confuses us. We get fervent crushes, causing us to rush headlong toward the next potential hurt or perhaps instead to retreat into the safety of pretending we don’t care. And when we’re in relationships we blunder along hoping our significant other or children or best friend won’t realize how inept we truly are.

Love, arguably the most important aspect of being human, remains pervasively misunderstood and mishandled.

Why is this? Well, I have my theories. Partly, I think, our misconceptions are due to the fact that all of our philosophers and most of our poets have been men. While the topic of love may have been taken seriously by these smart men, their understanding of it was limited by the fact that they rarely consulted with women. It’s not that their assessment of love was completely wrong, it’s that it was only half right. You simply cannot ignore fifty percent of an equation then rest assured that you have drawn an accurate conclusion.

Another reason is that song lyrics about love are wretchedly misleading. Which wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t conjoined with the brainwashing power of music. Which wouldn’t be a problem if there were many excellent examples of mature and complete love in our culture giving us a more balanced view of this construct.

Third, our novels, movies and television programs all provide epic descriptions of the beginnings of love, which involve luck and timing and courage and courtship. When we get into the middle of an actual relationship where entirely different skills are needed, we have no guidelines to follow. And, confusingly, our range of feelings changes at that stage of a relationship leaving us to conclude naively that we are “in love” no longer.

Finally, the field of psychology has done very little to consolidate the available information about love into a workable model to describe the architecture of love. Among the writings of some of the existentialists, the feminists and the psychologists, however, are enough pieces of the love puzzle to allow us to create a better understanding of this most splendid of human undertakings. Let’s do it. Let’s hop on the existential, feminist, psychological train of love!

Love defined

Love isn’t a feeling that hijacks us. Nor is love magic. Love is a structure within which many, many different feelings occur, all of them messy and chaotic and, yes, some of them magical. And the more solid the structure, the more often we will happen upon those magical moments. In this way love is similar to classical music. Within a formally agreed upon structure, one can create thrilling and one-of-a-kind sonatas, concertos, operas and so on using unique specifics of pitch, meter, volume, etc. If music be the food of love, play on! Anyway, all humans are capable of understanding the engineering required to build a solid structure of love. And then the specifics of their zeitgeist, personalities and emotional intelligence will coalesce into a unique relationship that sings.

There is a little math involved, but I guarantee that it is worth the effort to learn how to construct love.

Building on the definition of love started by M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled, I’m going to define love using all the components that must be joined together to make a complete structure. You are probably going to groan when you read it. But when I repeat the definition at the end of this article, you will nod wisely to yourself because all the pieces will make sense to you by then. As is always the case with complex psychological constructs, you already know many of these components. After reading this article, you will know them all and how they fit together to create a structure that can create so many instances of intoxicating interpersonal music.

Love is an act of will to reliably extend oneself toward a significant other in order to create intimacy across difference for the purpose of providing comfort and challenge, and for facilitating the allocation of resources.

Not exactly a Hallmark card. Difficult to set to music. Not exactly the stuff of rom-coms. But this is how the magic gets made.

I’m going to use the Golden Gate Bridge as metaphor for the structure of love as we dismantle this definition and come to understand what each of the seven parts means. Love is:

An act of will

An act of will is, of course, a choice. When it comes to love, the choice is a political one about the governing of your social world, the setting of your boundaries and the administration of your interpersonal resources. To love is to choose to include meaningful people, activities and objects in your life despite the toils involved because the payoff exceeds the outlay. You have to expand yourself in order to invite more into your life, but the stretch seems worth it. Do you see? It may be dangerous and difficult to love, but the alternative is terrible isolation, emptiness and boredom.

To get our metaphor cranked up, way back when, politicians decided that Marin County and San Francisco needed to be better connected, that the peoples of both counties would be better off with greater access between them. The folks in the city would have country living within an easy drive. The people living in Marin County would be able to work or shop in the city. Resources were mustered, lives were risked and the bridge was built.

What this first component of the metaphor implies is that love is NOT a passive, fairy-godmother-wand thing. We don’t fall in love. We can fall into the feelings that accompany the discovery of good love options (aka crushes), but we make a decision where to build our love. True, there must be an attraction – notice that the Golden Gate Bridge was built toward beautiful Marin County. Attraction is the mathematical result of multiplying juxtaposition (Marin was also only a mile away from S.F.) and the likability factor. We are attracted to people who are physically close enough for us to get to know and for whom we can say: “I am liking what I am seeing, and I am liking that they are liking what they are seeing.” (More on that below).

As individuals, when we decide to love by building a bridge, we are deciding to struggle against the reality that we are each, biologically, islands. Because we are individually wrapped within our skins, unable to merge completely with anyone else, autonomy is our natural, incarnated state, making attachment a difficult and imperfect solution to the resulting loneliness. Please read that last sentence again. We need to understand that when we choose to love, we are deciding to risk the dangers of relating to another in the hopes they will want to relate back to us. We believe we have something to offer and we hope that they see it that way. But most of all, we are seeking to ease our isolation by trying to get as close to people (and things of meaning) as possible.

Since it is dangerous to choose to love, we would be wise to make a cost/benefit analysis about each possible attachment before we commit.

There’s a sacred concept in psychotherapy called “informed consent” which means a client should be provided with as much information as is both possible and expedient about what to expect from this therapist at this time. Only with that information should the client be expected to launch into the risky process of therapy. The same warning should apply to interpersonal relationships – here’s what to expect from this individual at this point in time if you pursue a relationship with him or her. Since we tend not to get that information up front, we have to, instead, take the time to get to know the person we are intending to love. However, the better we understand the engineering of love, the more effectively we can gather the appropriate data. Lest that sounds like no fun, another word for this process is “dating.”


The Dance of Intimacy

- Harriet Lerner

Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You?

- Margaret and Jordan Paul

Too Good For Her Own Good

- Caludia Bepko and Jp-Ann Krestan

Intimate Marriage

- Richard Schnarch


Is This Tomorrow

- Caroline Leavitt



Send your questions to me at:


We will “date” (i.e. gather data on) anyone or anything that we might be choosing to love, not just people of the gender to which we are attracted. The larger the role the person or thing is auditioning for, the more data needed. If we are “dating” potential people with whom to play tennis, we don’t need to be able to get along with their families of origin, their politics or their beliefs about money. We don’t have to care if our favorite co-workers are good cooks or if they recycle. And if we’re thinking about how much fun it would be to learn how to play the harp, we are completely free to rent a harp initially.

As you gather data through the dating process, it is helpful if you have a way to organize the data so that they can guide your decision-making. One way to do that is to understand three things: what the relationship is going to cost to execute, what the odds are of it being reciprocal and satisfying, and what the value of the attachment is, given the best of outcomes. Too often we rely on our intuition to evaluate a crush, and too often our intuitive process has been contaminated by the overly romanticized songs, movies and poets. Fantasy versions of love are very dangerous to use as litmus. Rather, we need to think practically in terms of cost, viability and value.

Cost: The cost of a relationship, be it with a hobby, person or object, is two-fold: the amount of energy that this particular relationship will demand and the value of everything else you are giving up to make the commitment. The first cost consideration concerns evaluating how hard the specific relationship might be to develop. We are very limited creatures when it comes to truly loving because the work of love draws from our finite allotment of both time and emotional energy. Therefore, we have to be realistic about how many bridges we choose to build and maintain. If we start bridges to too many places, we will likely find ourselves with many half-hearted projects under construction. (See the section “To create intimacy” below for a deeper look at this issue.) The second cost is harder to evaluate because it is nearly incalculable. What you are giving up when you say "yes" to one thing generally involves a ton of "nos." If you commit to learning the mandolin, you will not be learning the tuba or a million other instruments. To the extent you commit to a monogamous relationship with Margie, you will not have an intimate relationship with Susie, Joanne, Sophie or a billion other women. These are staggeringly difficult and vague losses to evaluate.

(N.B. Let me mention the concept of serial monogamy here. We are definitely entitled to move from one commitment to another over time. It’s okay, in other words, to learn the mandolin and then the tuba. But there is a cost to that choice as well, which is, obviously, the trade-off between depth and breadth. We can love many or we can love deeply.)

Viability: There is a specific type of data that addresses the question of reciprocity and satisfaction, and that is trajectory. The best predictor that a relationship of any kind is going to be a good one is whether or not it is moving in a positive direction, an upward trajectory if you will. To the extent that you and the mandolin (or Margie or the vegetable garden) are getting along better and better as you grow to know each other under differing circumstances, the odds are good that this trend will continue. After the initial flush of excitement, your relational deepening will follow a saw-toothed and not-too-steep upward line, as moments of success are interlarded with relational setbacks, and there will likely be a bit of a plateau in the middle where the improvement is very slight. But to the extent that the overall relationship is ever better, it’s a better bet.

Value: Oddly, it’s this last criterion that is most often overlooked when thinking about choosing to love. The value calculation can be difficult for people who have not grown up around good role models of commitment (or excellent examples of mastery) for they will have no positive examples of how wonderful mature relationships are. This deficit can leave them with a tendency to undervalue the payoff of the work of relationships because they have never seen how delightful a deep bond can be with a person, a hobby or even a place. Worse, they may have an extremely high tolerance for poor relationships. That tendency can leave them with a collection of unpleasant attachments that can sour them on the concept of putting effort into love. In order to assess the value of a relationship, you have to be able to imagine what it might look like down the road. There are practical reasons to put energy into things we attach to – peaches from our peach tree; a safe, sturdy home as the result of disciplined DIY projects; reliable tennis partners from joining a tennis league; improved writing skills by participating in a writing group; and so on. There are also, obviously, tangible positive rewards to be gained from attaching to people – the accumulation of adventures that can lead to the ease of togetherness, the gentle accountability of a forty-year marriage, stable sources of help, and so on. This means that it’s good to remember to include in your calculations an assessment of what your life will be like in the future both with and without this object of attachment. What will your future hold with this bond in place and what will you miss out on if you choose not to put your love here? A question to ask yourself is this: if you will need both the rewards and the emotional equity of an established relationship in the future (and, really, who doesn’t?), will these two gifts be there for you then if you don’t start putting the work in now? The bottom line on value addresses the question of whether attaching to this particular thing or individual will likely lead you toward a fruitful relationship in the future.

The first component of love is the decision whether or not to build the bridge in the first place. This act of will is necessary if you are planning to love a flower garden, a schnauzer, a Ford truck, a significant other or a child. You make the choice to love knowing that there will be dangerous work ahead but that the odds are good, based on the data you have collected, that it will be worth it.

The folks in Marin and San Francisco wanted to be able to travel to and fro at will, so the ferryboats with their reliance on good weather were replaced by the Golden Gate Bridge. When we intersect with people that we could love but don’t (ships that pass in the night), we are choosing to not extend ourselves in an effort to keep them attached to us. And that's an appropriate choice to make much of the time. But if we do choose to love someone who has come into our lives, we must maintain the connection. So we build the bridge.

To reliably extend yourself

To continue with our analogy, let’s think of each person in the relationship as one of the lovely, art deco towers that support the roadbed of the Golden Gate. Both must be stationary, agreeable to the prospect of working together to bridge the gap between them and capable of reliable extension. Let's look at each of these three requirements as if they were distinct, even though there is much overlap among them.

Stationary: Metaphorically speaking, you can’t build anything between one tower and one ferryboat. Or, more starkly, between one tower and one seal. All of us fall victim to the fallacy of wishful thinking that occurs when we pursue and pursue someone or something in the hopes that we can convince them to stop, orient toward us and commit. We can find ourselves twisted into a pretzeled version of ourselves in our attempts to force a relationship to happen. This is tragic when it happens in a primary relationship and rather silly when it happens in object attachment. If you are receiving a weak, intermittent connection in return for your romantic efforts, then, Dude, as they say, he’s just not that into you. Or, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, if another person tells you that he or she is not interested in standing still to form a deep relationship with anyone at this point in his or her life, believe that person. Take your precious energy and find someone else to love. On the silly, object attachment level, if the planter under your bedroom window receives bright sunlight most of the day, stop buying ferns and gardenias to plant there. Fall in love with other evergreen, fragrant plants that are willing to flourish where you plant them. There are many such plants out there waiting for your love.

Agreeable: Even when people, places and things are permanently situated within our world, many will not be interested in an attachment with us. Sometimes it is due to the fact that their bridge building capacity is exhausted. One woman I know and with whom I'd love to form a closer relationship has such a large and engaging extended family, she simply has no time or energy left over for me. I understand that, with her, this isn't a personal rejection because when we do manage to spend some time together we both are explicit about our enjoyment. But it is still an ongoing disappointment to me because I would willingly invest more time in my relationship with her if she had the time. Other times it is a lack of compatibility. I know another young woman that I would consider a strong attachment possibility for me, but for whom I am much, much too ebullient. I try to baffle myself down to a tolerable level of enthusiasm, but I can still see her girding herself when she's around me. This mismatch in relationship commitment is also a source of ongoing disappointment, but I understand that it is a function of how wide the gap is between us relative to our interpersonal communication styles. Whatever the reason, if the person you would like to attach to is sending you indications of a tepid willingness to proceed, it would be wise to take them at their word. Your relationship energy is an invaluable asset that is best invested in someone who is very pleased to be a co-investor with you.

Capable: This requirement is the hub of the tower metaphor. A reliable extension for a roadbed as well as a relationship is one that meets both horizontally and vertically. We are capable of both dimensions of extension only as a function of our personal integrity.

Like the need for strong back muscles to allow for the extension of our arms out from our body, people are capable of relationship horizontal extension only to the extent that they have the core psychological strength needed to support their reach. Core strength, or how solidly the tower is built, is achieved when the backbone of our psychological lives, integrity, is well formed. Integrity is the degree of integration of two aspects of ourselves that are always in flux: who we are and who we want to be. When who we are and who we want to be are closely and consistently overlapped, we have a solidly built integrity that will support us as we choose to extend ourselves toward people, places and things that matter to us.

Like the ability to see eye to eye, the height of our relationship vertical extension is a function of how tall the tower is, which is a function of the elevation of our integrity. When who we want to be is designed with ever-more-lofty aspirations, we grow metaphorically taller and end up with a tower of greater height. This is a lovely state of being. But sometimes we are attracted to people in compensatory ways and we try to build a relationship with someone who doesn’t want to rise to the same level of maturity as we do. This is almost always futile. Picture trying to build a roadbed between a 350-foot tower and a 175-foot tower.

Therefore, when considering extending yourself toward someone, it is prudent to remember that you cannot build a sturdy bridge if the two towers are dramatically different in size and strength. Healthy people instinctively warm to someone with nearly equal quality of integrity – meaning an equally coherent version of the self – as well as nearly equal levels of integrity – meaning an equally tall manifestation of the self. Only high caliber data input over time will inform you about how well matched you are integrity-wise. It's important to acknowledge here that we can only gather high caliber data when the integrity of the other person has been challenged in a boundary situation. There is more on that below and also in the article on trust.

When you find someone with the same maturational “height” as yourself, you start the building process by making a vertical extension. I reach out to you with friendship, interest, information, gifts, time, vulnerability, personality and so forth as we start to forge a bond between us. You return the favor. If the vertical extension aligns, we look to see if the horizontal extension will balance. For the most part, the extension should be fifty-fifty. If one of the two participants is donating more than about half, the structure will not be stable. The over-extended person will start to feel dissatisfaction due to resentment, insecurity or fatigue. The under-extended person will also feel dissatisfaction as they realize that their coasting behavior is low integrity, unkind and may be verging on despotic. We over-extend due to our fear of being unlovable – that someone will only love us if we give and give and give. We under-extend either because we have been spoiled (no one has ever set limits with us before) or due to our expectations of rejection (because if someone really gets to know us they will find us unimpressive). All of us oscillate between over and under extending to some degree (that’s what those nice expansion teeth in the roadbed of a bridge are designed to accommodate), but a pattern of imbalance predicts a poorly constructed bridge. A little book that explores this concept thoroughly is Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Intimacy.

The hallmarks of a sound second component of love are comparable levels of maturity and courage. If you find someone or something to love, check that they are a good integrity fit, establish that they are interested in being consistently effortful toward you and then commit to reliably extend toward them. And remember, commitment means letting something or someone matter, and when something or someone matters to us, our heart rate increases because attachment is both exciting and dangerous.

Toward a significant other

As mentioned, we can connect with anything that wants to attach back – model airplanes, a pet or a niece. But how do you decide if someone or something is potentially significant? You should be habitually looking for someone or something that is both rewarding and reciprocal because we need to reap some benefit from the attachment. That brings us back to that attraction piece – the indefinable quality that makes us like something.

We are never going to fully understand why we like what we like. We can describe the many reasons something appeals to us, but there always remains one small piece that cannot be explained. The closest we can come to understanding the concept of liking is to clear the weeds out from around it so we can at least observe it.

Two of the biggest weeds crowding the little plant of liking are the following myths:

1. “Real love is unconditional.”

This is a very, very harmful myth. It is not possible to have unconditional love, but, more importantly, it wouldn’t be a good thing for humans to strive for even if it were possible.

Here’s why.

Each human is in charge of his or her life. In order to handle that well, an individual needs to be at the center of her or his world, evaluating constantly. Are things going well for me? Do I feel happy, safe, loved, productive? Am I getting enough food, rest, warmth, work, play, love? Are the things I’m getting of a high enough quality? Should I strive for more?

At the top of our list of concerns will be the evaluation of our relationships. Are my needs getting met by the people in my life? Very often our needs will not be met, but that doesn’t always disgruntle us to the point of ending the relationship. For example, it is easy to say to our spouse “I love you and I wish you could cook.” or to our children “I love you and I wish you liked backpacking trips.” We love despite some conditions not being met. But should we say to our spouse, “I love you even though you beat me? Or spent all our money? Or ignore our children?” Should we choose to be friends with someone who never initiates contact, who gossips about us or who refuses to speak to us respectfully? No. Definitely not. There needs to be a mechanism in relationships for keeping a balance, which means a mechanism for keeping score. We should only stay in relationships that are comparatively in balance. That is a condition. As psychiatrist Irvin Yalom puts it: “One learns what one can get from others but, perhaps even more important, one learns what one cannot get from others.” For more reading about the healthy role of self-loyalty in relationship see the Pauls’ book Do I Have To Give Up Me To Be Loved By You?, Bepko and Krestan’s book Too Good For Her Own Good, and Schnarch’s book Intimate Marriage.

Let me recap this important point. All relationships create disappointment – lover, friend, parent, child. Our brains are very well designed to keep sophisticated statistical score on how our disappointments are balancing out in each relationship. I disappoint you. You disappoint me. Are we okay? These calculations include consideration for the type of relationship (we tolerate more imbalance in relationships with children), with the depth of relationship (we tolerate historical imbalance from close siblings), with the stage of the relationship (we tolerate temporary imbalance from old friends), and with the state of the relationship (we tolerate catastrophic imbalance from ill spouses).

When we choose to love someone, our intense desire for them collides with their very real limitations and vice versa. If their limitations are great enough or become great enough, we will not be able to continue to choose them without suffering unacceptable deprivation. And vice versa. So, we love conditionally, but happily most of us participate in relationships that meet our conditions.

And, and, and, nothing reassures us more than to be loved for the messy thing we are – conditional love. Who would want any other kind?

2. “There is one true soul mate/best friend out there waiting for us.”

And if we fail to find her/him, this idiotic myth informs us, our lives will be forever tragic. I feel quite strongly that soul mates and best friends are made and not found – earned and not waited for.

Here comes some of that math I warned you about.

My view is that we tend to get about 62% of our “wish list” when we meet someone who qualifies as special, and they get about the same if they find us special. What that means is that almost two-thirds of the time they seem perfectly wonderful. The 62% has to contain the nonnegotiable, critical ingredients such as the erotic spark (for romantic love), similar values, and being in agreement about core issues such as time commitments, having children, preferring a simple standard of living or committing to a devout lifestyle.

By the way, this 62% figure is called the golden ratio. It’s uncanny. It is found in many aspects of nature (the spiral shape of sea shells and the proportions of tree branches) as well as being the cut-off point for “crushing” on someone. If the level of satisfaction is much below that amount, healthy people will not choose the relationship because it won’t feel compelling. If the initial level of satisfaction is much higher than that, healthy people start to feel concerned. That last sentence may seem counterintuitive, but if you think about it, most of us know that if something seems to good to be true, it usually is. If a relationship seems too perfect, we start to wonder if there isn’t a significant amount of image management coming our way. As we will see in the next section, more than a soupçon of image management is a relationship killer.

But what happens with the remaining 38% is what makes us into soul mates or not. Best friends, or not. Again, it’s my sense that probably around half of the remaining 38% is composed of habits and traits that can be changed and probably ought to be. If both people in the relationship have enough integrity to follow the definition of love and extend themselves, then it’s possible to gradually change the proportions – to enlarge the 62% category (satisfaction with our significant other) and reduce the 38% category (areas of dissatisfaction). For example, if he claims that she always corrects him when they are in public and that feels shaming, she can choose to figure out why she does it and improve her behavior. When she does, she becomes more loveable to him because another of his conditions has been met. They argue over whether or not saving money should be a priority early in the marriage. He makes a compelling case and she comes to value his financial strategy. Absolutely nothing feels better than being on the receiving end of someone’s effort to change to impress us and to keep us. Over the years (decades) there can be a fairly steady movement from the 38% dissatisfaction category to the 62% satisfaction category, leading to an old relationship that is perhaps as much as 85% satisfactory.

Some things, however, cannot, ought not or will not change. For example, she may never be able to join him mountain climbing due to altitude sickness, she may always choose to go bowling with her sisters at Thanksgiving, and she may refuse to learn how to cook like his mother did. Again, how the couple handles these issues determines the soulful quality of their relationship. He can sulk or enact revenge, or he can find good, male friends to go climbing with, learn to tolerate bizarre Thanksgiving scheduling, and ask his mother to teach him her recipe for fried salami sandwiches. Of course, he is working hard to change for her, too. If she expresses her sadness that he doesn’t enjoy celebrating birthdays – including hers – he can either choose to hear that and explore it, or ignore it. If he is drinking too much, he can endeavor to correct that. And, sadly, he may never be able to teach his two left feet to tango, but he will support her hitting the dance floor with one of their friends. As I said, when this kind of effort routinely goes into a relationship, two people will gradually come to meet more and more of the needs of their beloved or best friend.

Eventually, as in the movie On Golden Pond, we will have gnarled, old loves with friends, spouses and family that meet most of our needs. And we each take responsibility for meeting or grieving over the remaining unmet needs. I highly recommend this place. The richness of an old love and the emotional equity that results from the work of changing and growing together, make the risk of both loving and being loved a lot easier to imagine taking.

Finally, to be in a worthwhile and balanced relationship we have to be in agreement about the currency of exchange within the specific relationship. For example, two women can feel well met if they play tennis together once a week with the currency of exchange being dedication to showing up on time, good sportsmanship, and a challenging game. If one of the two women starts to throw her racquet with some regularity, the balance in the relationship will suffer. If, however, they remain good sports or take turns exhibiting bad sportsmanship occasionally, the balance remains. Another example might be a man who is dedicated to having a vegetable garden. The exchange is labor from the man to keep the garden well tended in exchange for produce from the garden to nourish the man. If the man toils all summer for one lousy Brussels sprout, he will likely experience the garden as being emotionally draining. If he eats well for the summer months, he will feel reciprocated. A final example concerns my willingness to read works by the established existential writers. Some of these folks reward my efforts with enough regularity to keep me engaged (Jaspers), while others make it so hard for me to glean ideas that I often burn out (Nietzsche). So, we can engage with just about anything in our world but only some things will be willing to pay us back in ways that are meaningful to us.

A mismatch in currency, however, will devour a relationship. A common example of this is if men persist in using courtship behavior (compliments, occasional flowers and dinners out) as the only medium of exchange in a marriage. When this happens, the wife understandably feels rejected, ignored and disrespected. She is ready for the next currency in a relationship to develop between them such as passionate discussions about child rearing, an accumulation of deeper knowledge of each other and working together to design the relationship. Much of couples counseling is aligning the exchange of currency between the two people.

To select our stable of significant others, good friends and rewarding hobbies, we start by developing a comfort with Camus’ credo: To breathe is to judge. Humans are always watching and assessing. We recognize that we should evaluate all aspects of a relationship with some regularity – meaning our own behavior as well as that of the other. Are we in balance with respect to the coinage of each relationship? Is our satisfaction continuing to grow? The word that captures the intuitive essence of this step is “like.” When people or things are significant and continue to be significant, we like them. Plain and simple.

To create intimacy

Because we can’t read each other’s minds, there’s a lot of room in interpersonal relationships for guesswork and doubt. Did we say the right thing? Did we do the right thing? Do we look the right way? Is our laugh still enchanting or has it become irritating? If someone says they love us today, do they really mean it? What if we gain weight, lose our hair or get sick? What if someone comes along who is more successful than we are? Funnier? Better looking?

All this uncertainty generates never-ending insecurity. If we are in a committed relationship, how do we know how deeply they love us? And what about friends? Children? Do they really love us, or do they think we’re silly, strange or pitiful? What about our parents? Do they love us? Did they even like us?

We can only address these questions through our efforts to create intimacy.

But what is intimacy? At its most prosaic, intimacy is data exchange. The deeper the intimacy, the more completely we can reveal ourselves. The reverse is also true – the more completely we can reveal ourselves, the deeper the intimacy. Obviously, image management or guardedness impedes intimacy.

(N.B. It’s crucial to remember where this impediment to intimacy comes from. Shame is what drives the need for perfection that underlies guardedness because shame tells us we will only be loved if we are without flaws. When we have been socialized to believe this lie, our only choice is to frantically manage our image through cautious, over-defended and often dishonest interactions because we daren’t show how woefully short of perfection we really are. This is just the saddest of places because the surest cure for shame happens when someone loves us for being the wonky, work-in-progress fella that we are right now.)

Intimacy, therefore, is created by the exchange of data that happens when we are transparent with each other. Transparency as used here doesn’t mean being easy to read because of shallowness or simplicity. Existentially, transparency means being able to share authentic, inner truths because you have a deep appreciation of the fact that if you are not loved for who you truly are, you are not truly loved. The need for transparency, however, presents a terrible chicken-and-egg dilemma – for how can we dare to share who we are if we don’t know if the other person is safe. But how can they be safe unless they care for us, which is only possible if we can share who we are?

And then there’s a second dilemma, which is this: we can only share ourselves if we know ourselves. We can only know ourselves if we have had our sense of who we are confirmed by people outside of ourselves. In other words, if we didn’t have parents, siblings, extended family, teachers and so on carefully and generously reflecting back to us who we are to them, we will be less likely to know who we are. Lack of self-awareness can greatly hamper the development of intimacy.

Transparency is clearly risky. How do we approach this task then? What most of us do is use the old engineering strategy: Build a little, test a little. I show you a little of my insides and you show me a little bit of your insides and, if nobody runs screaming from the room, we both share a little more. I see your humanness and I still like you, and you see my sloppiness and still like me. We learn by being transparent that we can be likeable even with the flaws we have. Knowing this to be true is wonderful.

It is also extremely important to test a new relationship by setting limits because the best indication of integrity level is consistent behavior under stress. If we never push back against another person, how will we ever know if they are solid or not? This is a critical and complex truth about trust, which is covered in its own article.

Back to transparency – why is it that people’s faults make them likable? Liking is partly about the characteristics of the other person and partly about how we feel about ourselves in the presence of the other person. Sharing our faults enhances both these aspects of liking. To wit: Competitiveness eases up considerably when someone is willing to share their warty selves with us, meaning we can relax our guard around them. In that relaxed state we can notice how we look tenderly at them (warts and all), and that realization will help us turn the same gentle regard on ourselves. This sets up a lovely positive feedback loop in that we like ourselves better when we are around people who like us helping us like them a little more which helps us like ourselves a little more. But, maybe more importantly, self-disclosure makes the other person interesting. Since our job here on earth is to figure ourselves out, when someone shares their struggles, we can then compare notes. Like a good novel or movie, people’s stories give us examples of how others cope with the challenges of daily life. That is interesting. It is easier to like someone who is both safe and interesting.

(N.B. Like the Grinch at the beginning of the Seuss tale, some people keep their hearts small and eschew intimacy by choosing to be very stingy with self-disclosure. Why would someone do this? Underneath opacity are the following beliefs: in relationships you are either a winner or a loser, and information is power. People stuck here see relationships as zero-sum games where competition rules. If you talk, you lose. If you can gather more damning information on the other person, you “win.” The truth is, it can be terribly lonely in the relationship “winners” circle. To reverse this trend, one must learn to balance the completely appropriate tendency to be competitive with an equally robust ability to value interconnectedness and collective wellbeing. What I'm describing here is obviously malignant narcissism. People are not born this way. This malignancy is created when poor parenting leaves someone untrained in the balancing skill of empathy needed to keep narcissism at a healthy level.)

It needs to be said here that self-disclosure is best done thoughtfully. Inappropriate self-disclosure, i.e. blurting out an intimate detail when it is not socially fitting, can actually lower intimacy because it suggests that your social skills deficit may make you unpredictable and uncomfortable to be around. Also, transparency doesn’t mean lack of privacy. It is as important to protect ourselves from disclosing too much as it is to protect others from truths that we want to get off our chests for the wrong reasons. Truth, always, must be so very deeply respected that it is administered with the greatest of care. It is fine to have individual privacy within a relationship. We all have more than enough flaws to share with others, so keeping a few to ourselves doesn’t mean we are not being intimate. Everyone needs to decide for him or herself what amount of transparency is right for them and for the particular relationship. Just know that, without transparency, intimacy is impossible. For an interesting novel about transparency, I recommend Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt.

Now. What are we supposed to do once the transparency has allowed us to get to know one another? You’re not going to believe this – what you do next is judge. Let me explain.

In important relationships it is essential to be a work in progress, meaning that – in the ongoing theme of rejecting the concept of unconditional love – it is not good for us to be let off the hook by our significant others. Being accepted despite our flaws or our flawed behavior does not grant us permission to leave our flaws unexamined. Which brings us to the next mathematical component of love: the 5 to 1 ratio. Psychologist John Gottman, in his well-respected research on marriage therapy, reported that the most stable marriages maintained a fairly steady ratio of 5:1 positive to negative feedback. He made the point that the critical feedback provides one important anchor in healthy relationships and the positive feedback the other. In other words, both positive and critical feedback are needed to mark the outer boundaries of a relationship to allow us to understand the size and scope of the relationship project at hand.

It turns out that there are several things that make transmitting this ratio to our spouse, friends and family very hard to do.

First, most of us are very badly trained in terms of giving feedback, both affirming and critical. These two skills are such important aspects of love they each have their own article – Positive Feedback: Giveth and Taketh, and Assertiveness: Speaking Up While Staying Connected. I cannot over stress how much having finesse with these two skills will pay off.

Second, it is dangerous to our ego to tip our hand about our level of commitment if the other person is unable to do the same. And that is precisely what the 5:1 ratio implies – “I’m still very happy with you.” We run the risk of bravely and generously donating a 5:1 ratio to the other, only to have some miserly version of it returned to us, implying we are on some kind of probation or the value of our stock is slipping. Clearly, an imbalance in the skill of transmitting the 5:1 ratio can cause us to hold back on our feedback so as not to risk disappointment and hurt. This dilemma can be addressed with healthy communication skills and with regular tending to the relationship.

Third, the negative aspects of a relationship often get and hold our attention because they represent ammunition. It’s a rare person who doesn’t collect some of the missteps of a significant other to be used later as little argument hand grenades. And once flaws catch our attention, it can be easy to use critical feedback as a bludgeon to keep the other person off balance, which we wrongly believe will help us feel more secure. But this strategy only leads to a decay of trust. A better strategy is to put some time and energy into learning the skills underlying healthy fighting styles.

And finally, after the initial crush stage, we tend to weigh flaws in other people more heavily than we do their strengths. This is not wholly unreasonable because flaws in people important to us do present a danger to our tender, little hearts. If we can intentionally reconnect to our earnest wish to be a lovable person, we can strengthen our will to look for all the pleasing aspects of our intimates and, once a healthy 5:1 has been reached, share it consistently and carefully. When we can do this, we have given our spouse, friend or family member the exquisite gift of stipulation.

One way to better express grievances gently and in that 5:1 balance, is to practice uncovering the areas that need improvement first within ourselves and then within the other. That way we can avoid getting too smug about the flaws we see in those around us, or being, as writer Anne Lamott describes it, an ethical consultant at large.

Despite all these reasons NOT to provide our best friend or lover or sister with the generous 5:1 feedback, we must remember what the word “extend” means in the definition of love – and make the effort. It is difficult to donate a thoughtful 5:1 report to another, but a relationship will never flourish unless someone makes the attempt. What we have to fight within ourselves are barriers to initiating generosity within a relationship – the fear of looking foolish, bitterness and subassertiveness.

Let's look at each of these barriers we all have within us.

Most of us carry the imagined sting of appearing foolish from our junior high school days. Because childlike earnestness was ridiculed by those kids trying to appear older and “cool,” we get uncomfortable when we feel earnest. But earnestness is precisely the lovely attitude that fuels the positive side of our 5:1 feedback ratio. We should deeply and sincerely like our significant other, our family and our friends. This is not foolish. And so it is not foolish to tell them the ways we like them. Repeatedly. Yes, you will want this generosity reciprocated or it may be unwise to continue too long in the relationship. But positive feedback is a mature and powerful behavior.

Bitterness is a real relationship kill switch. We all feel it from time to time, but it is a very dangerous emotion to leave unattended. It is usually driven by a real or imagined imbalance in the allocation of resources within the relationship domain. If bitterness is looming in your relationship, start by reading the section outlining the final component of love below to understand the dynamics of sharing. Then look to see if you have been keeping current in your critical feedback in the relationship. If not, give a think to why you struggle to criticize other people or to stick up for yourself. Ongoing bitterness suggests the need for professional help for the relationship.

We tend to be subassertive when we underestimate the value of critique. Critical feedback within a relationship is precious. Absolutely precious. We all want to be better people today than we were last year, and sometimes we need both information and reminders. We know that we need to keep up effort in life, and the gentle complaints coming from our significant others help us remember to do that. In fact, one of the best things about being in an old relationship is coexisting with someone who has a long-term perspective on our areas for growth. A person who has known us for a long time will know how far we’ve come as well as how far we have yet to go. We also learn through old, stable relationships how good it feels to share our concerns, be heard and clear the air.

In the best of relationships, as people grow older together they also grow up together, hopefully at about the same rate so that the roadbed of the bridge they are building remains straight and level. This is a lifetime project, for each stage of life brings us new challenges. So, like the Golden Gate Bridge, there needs to be constant sanding, painting and inspecting to make sure the architecture remains sound. And if a relationship that was going well stops going well, we know how to trouble shoot our relationship because we understand how it was created in the first place.

Across difference

When the Golden Gate Bridge was built, engineers had to take into account the distinct challenges presented by the two headlands. It was tricky to join a colder, more rocky promontory with a warmer, more hilly one. Each tower needed to be individually stabilized and each roadway approach custom designed.

The same can be said for the joining of any two people. They will differ greatly in their family and cultural backgrounds (headlands) as well as their individual upbringing (personal bedrock).

Why does this difference rise to the level of concern such that we include it in our definition of love? Because from this difference arise many artificial incompatibilities that threaten the stability of an otherwise viable relationship. Every person is the product of hundreds of years of culture, economic and social status, family traditions and genetics. And every person has a unique childhood in terms of birth order, zeitgeist, personality fit with the extended family of origin, appropriate schooling, access to healthy adults and so on. What this means is that each person has a completely unique view of reality.


Where two people meet in relationship, these two differing views of reality also meet. Now this wouldn’t be a problem if we each knew that we had different rules for the many games of life and if these rules/games were obvious. But all the games that go on socially and interpersonally that drive our beliefs about how to proceed in life are very deeply hidden because we learn them so young and so indirectly.

Let’s take fighting style as an example. Fighting is important in a relationship because, as a demonstration of self-loyalty, it establishes the location of the two members around an issue as well as how meaningful the issue is to each person. A skillful argument clarifies the span that we need to bridge at this point in time between us. (Touchingly, often the further apart we feel we are during an argument, the louder we feel we need to speak. Hence, sometime we yell.) Now, there are many effective ways to present your side of an argument. Some people are lawyerly and present a verbally forceful case. Some are scientific and prefer arguments to be data driven. Some folks are relational and try to create empathic grounds for cooperation. Some people holler and some cry. Some fight cleanly and will stay engaged in the process until resolution is achieved. And then there are ineffective ways to argue. Some people use guerilla tactics and then retreat to sulk. Some love a good cold war. Some people bully and bluff. It all depends on how you were trained combined with what has worked for you in the past.

If you asked the average person to identify their fighting style, though, she or he would likely have to stop and think about it. Very few of us, I would say, could characterize the strategies or tactics we use to present an argument let alone the fighting style of our friends or spouses. This naïveté is true for way too many of the important activities that occur at that crucial interface between people. These crucial relational activities remain unexamined, meaning they are automatic and driven by an instinctive loyalty to our cultures of origin. And as it is with computers, default settings working behind the scenes can derail our life projects because we can’t see them to turn them off or to customize them.

Like the bridge engineers, we will build a much better bridge when we take the time to map the topography of our headlands. Rather than wait for an interpersonal catastrophe to get our attention, we could work more proactively to discover how culture and family background influence “where we are coming from” when we approach others. The better we understand the default settings that are running below the surface of our day-to-day attitudes, the easier it is to pull them up to consciousness in order to evaluate them, discard those we don’t value and merge those remaining with another person’s lifestyle. Self-knowledge, transparency and cooperation at that point of interface will help us avoid a cavalcade of misunderstandings and hurt feelings that mangle relationships. The seven articles in Section I of this website can provide you with a guided tour of many of these hidden influences. The article on the mythology of culture would also be a good one to read if you would like to build up some skill clarifying where your sense of reality comes from.


The second important aspect of the difference between any two people is the relative psychological stability of each of them. In our expanded metaphor, the bedrock upon which our tower of integrity rests is only as stable as our self-construction project has made it. Existentially it is our job, starting about age 11, to take over the project of designing ourselves. Unfortunately, we are neither encouraged to do so nor are we trained in self-construction. Therefore, we can get well into our adult years still being directed by sets of rules that, if left unexamined, can leave us childlike and overly defensive in relationships.

If our life is being run predominantly by the templates we were raised with, when our personal version of reality meets “real” reality, we will be hosed.

Here’s why.

When we trip up in life because our learned beliefs have been shown to be wrong or incomplete (e.g. hard work always pays off; you deserve nothing but the best; or only boys in this family go to college), we are being given the opportunity to reevaluate those beliefs. If we have habitually relied on closed-mindedness, self-referencing (consulting only our own experiences) and image management as our ways of coping with the differences between our reality and real reality, we will be slow to grow and change. If, however, we have come to appreciate being challenged, self-honesty and sharing ourselves with others, our personal growth will be more rapid. People who can change rapidly are resilient and flexible. The capacity to be resilient and flexible, it turns out, makes a sturdy psychological base (bedrock) to support our integrity (the size of our towers).

This may seem counterintuitive because many of us conflate stability with rigidity. We think we want the people we love to be stable due to solidity. But the truth is, what we need at the base of the other (as well as the base of the self) is the ability to roll with the earthquakes of life. This state is created with a combination of high self-esteem and resilience. Self-esteem means having confidence in yourself based on safe yet courageous internal conversations about your progress in life based on where you, specifically, are intending to go. The route to this important psychological construct is covered in its own article. Enhancing our resilience is, of course, the goal of this entire website.

People with solid self-esteem and healthy resilience are curious, conscientious, outgoing, cooperative and confident. Steady yet flexible, just what you want as the bedrock of each person in a relationship.

We each enter a relationship with a dowry made up of ideas about reality donated to us by our cultures and our families. The more aware we are of these in ourselves, the better able we will be to merge, renovate or remove them as necessary. Again, like the constant inspecting, sanding and painting that happens on the Golden Gate, we each must work to keep ourselves refreshed and reliable.

In order to provide comfort and challenge

There are many burdensome aspects to an authentically lived life. There are also many frightening encounters awaiting us along the routes through our day-to-day existence. And, to add to the load, each of us makes a fair handful of mistakes as we try to design our essence on the fly. It’s no wonder then that a huge benefit of being in a loving relationship is the promise of hearth and home at the end of each of our fraught days.

Like a base camp providing a life-saving retreat in the bitter cold of the high mountains, a love provides us with a comfortable place to rest, restock and resolve in preparation for another day on the trek. But a good love also reminds us that we are expected to head back out into the world to continue working on our life projects.

We enhance our ability to provide both comfort and challenge to folks in our life who matter to us when we remember to use the wisely yoked sentiments of “of course” and “and.” It is extremely comforting to hear the words “of course” coming at us when we describe a travail or a blunder, as in “Of course you snapped at the kids just now. They have been playing on your last nerve for at least an hour.” It is extremely challenging to hear the word “and” follow in lock step, as in “And we both need to work on trying to be more proactive with the kids to avoid just this kind of situation.” When we present both types of feedback, our words provide containment for our significant other in the existential sweet spot between encouragement and confrontation where the chance of personal growth is optimized. It's also good to remember that self-love demands that we provide this assist to ourselves as well.

Consistently intentional, dedicated effort needs to go into the design and provisioning of a satisfactory base camp. Wise couples understand that all the details of domestic life – from the way you stock the refrigerator to the balance in your savings account – contribute to the tenor of coming home after facing the difficult world. This base camp construction can be accomplished by churching the relationship with regular sessions of psychological housecleaning and redecorating. There is an article that addresses this important relationship skill in more detail. There are also 12 additional articles in this section on relationship skills that can help you reassure yourself that you are entering into all the relationships in your life with the best possible skill set.

People derive comfort from a domestic life that provides them with psychological safety after a hard day at the mental salt mines. Good enough love will provide each member with a sufficient domestic refuge to allow them to recharge and face the next day. Strong love will infuse each member with emotional supplies abundant enough for an expedition.

I think here is a good place for me to address the concept of longevity in relationship. Long term relationships, be they romantic, familial or friendship, are extremely complex and difficult to manage. There are developmental stages in every partnership that present us with different challenges every decade or so as we grow older together. Some of these stages may be difficult for one or the other or both members. There is also outside press that can strain a relationship as Fate delivers job opportunities in a different state, illnesses that leave us difficult to love, enviable good luck and so on. So I would say this: when your relationship hits a roadblock, try to avoid jettisoning it too quickly. There is simply nothing more valuable than an old relationship – a well-worn emotional couch that will provide you with reliable comfort, a place to address realistic challenges, a comprehensive, honest and gentle assessment of your progress in life, and an abundance of shared resources. You cannot maintain every potential relationship that life offers you, but please have some very honest internal discussions if you find yourself on the verge of tossing someone aside.

And to realistically facilitate resource allocation

Lastly and alas, our definition of love is complete only if we include in it an understanding that, because there is never enough of everything for everybody, love always involves ongoing struggles about resources. But romantic songs and movies don’t prepare us for ongoing struggles, and our rude awakening about the difficulty of sharing can leave us pretty disgruntled.

And when we’re disgruntled, the tendency most of us have is to try to attribute our unhappiness to something specific. That “something” in this situation is commonly the compatibility of the couple. If we are constantly battling over how to divvy up our time, energy, money, chores, closet space and so on, we fear we must be ill suited for each other. You can see how this could lead to a premature end to an otherwise viable relationship. Love savvy people understand that the compatibility issue is resolved in the 62% exploration. Ongoing fights over resources are due not to issues of compatibility but rather to naïveté about the concept of sharing.

Here are the difficulties with sharing: we don’t expect it to be a problem; we don’t know what exactly we are supposed to be sharing; and we don’t actually know how to share. Let’s look at these issues one at a time.

1. We don’t expect it to be a problem

When we approach something new that grabs our interest, we get lost in the delight of the 62% and we feel like this new relationship is going to be a breeze. But no relationship is a breeze because at the interface between two people is where those differing views of reality meet. Therefore, we must learn how to negotiate resource allocation across these different cultural values as if we were diplomats from two distinct countries. And, like it is with ranchers and wildlife biologists with different and legitimate views of the wolf, there is no truth to correctly guide us.

On the heels of our surprise about the continual work involved in sharing comes an equal surprise over the emotional baggage that accompanies the negotiation process. Negotiation involves boundary situations where two people encounter each other with two agendas, two egos and some emotional charge. A couple of very real and very legitimate types of antagonism can be generated by this encounter – annoyance and competition.


Everything and everyone is annoying some of the time. You could clone yourself and live with yourself and still your roommate would annoy you.

There are many sources of annoyance in relationships.

For starters, there are tasks that attend any relationship. Whether it is puppies, houseplants or sweet, sweet love, a part of every relationship involves service. When you’re not in the mood to walk the dog or water the houseplants or drive the kids to the dentist or remember to pick up your spouse’s dry cleaning, being asked to do so is irritating. This is why, although I am insanely intrigued by bonsai trees, I have never been able to own one. I just can’t be bothered to fuss that much over a plant.

In addition to service, a part of caring for another is putting up with idiosyncrasies. We all have quirks and habits that can become wearing. Again, the timing and frequency of how these behaviors manifest will determine our level of annoyance. When something occurs too frequently, it moves hiccough-like from being cute to annoying to torturous.

And then there are impositions. When someone asks you too often to entertain his children or donate money or be the designated driver, it feels like a burden because it is a burden. Impositions that have become burdens are annoying.

If we understand that all relationships contain the seeds of annoyance, we come to see that we can choose only between two things – we can either be annoyed or we can be alone. If you understand this dilemma, then annoyances become inherent challenges in every relationship that need to be addressed with integrity, humor and excellent communication skills. If you cannot see this alone-or-annoyed dichotomy as true, you will be condemned to serial monogamy as you search futilely for one of those mythical, nonannoying loves. Or you will be trapped in your need to lie to yourself about what’s actually going on in the relationship before you. (No. They’re not annoying. And I’m never annoying.) If, on the other hand, we understand where those seeds of annoyance come from, we can be alert to keeping them weeded out as soon as they sprout.


Relationships are a constant source of competition because they simply cannot supply each member completely. If we do not expect this, our surprise when we find ourselves activated can confuse us. What is the best way to handle competition in a relationship? First normalize it and then explore the cause – the two different loyalties that are at play in every relationship.

Of course there is going to be competition in a relationship. This is normal. Healthy humans have healthy appetites and will routinely squabble over the last piece of metaphorical cheesecake. The only relationship without competition is the master/slave relationship. Since none of us wants to be a part of that type of pairing, we all have to accept the presence of competition. C'est déjà ça.

When you are in a relationship two different loyalties clash – loyalty to yourself and loyalty to the relationship.

Self-loyalty means that, not only do you pay attention to yourself, you also fight for yourself. There can be no actual relationship with another without the ego strength to first be true to yourself. To participate in intimacy you need to know yourself and in order to know yourself you have to know what you want and why you want it. From that place, it makes sense that you would find your wants reasonable enough to fight for them.

Loyalty to the relationship means that you have made the commitment to do the work of love which requires that part of you understands what the relationship wants and why. If you cannot bracket your personal ego strength back sufficiently for a relationship ego strength to emerge, there will be no possibility for intimacy. All the skills described in this article are needed in order to create an internalized loyalty to the relationship strong enough to defend it from threats from without and from threats from within. If you are unable to create an advocate for the relationship within your head, you will not be a trustworthy person to love.

As the after-work rush hour approaches, workers on the Golden Gate Bridge troop out to the roadbed and reassign the lanes to increase the number of them going out of the city. People coming into the city give up one of their precious lanes, and that’s annoying. The folks going out of the city still don’t have enough lanes. Also annoying. When we love someone, sometimes we get a lane and sometimes we lose one. We never have enough lanes, but the bridge remains.

2. We don’t know what we’re sharing

It doesn’t take long in a relationship to identify the external elements that create friction around the sharing of resources. The vegetable garden is going to need extra watering just when you want to go away for a long weekend. The cat will need to go to the veterinarian when your cash flow is a trickle. It turns out that your spouse can’t stand your three favorite television shows and wants to watch something completely inane instead. The interpersonal sources of bickering for any relationship are just about endless for we have to share chores, responsibility, resources, risk, attention, vacation budgets, affection, status, thermostats, traditions, decorating, driving, and conversations just to start the list. While not easy to address, these concrete issues do lend themselves to repair strategies such as those described below.

A more insidious and difficult resource that haunts every attachment is the internal element – the intrapersonal limitations each of us have around simply being good.

We can each only be so good on any given day…do so many chores, be so thoughtful, resist only so much temptation, stay this empathic, maintain that much interest and so forth. The biochemistry that supports goodness, like that which supports willpower, is used up during the day and is replenished with sleep. But there are commonly days that drain us of good long before bedtime.

Some of our allotment of goodness goes to ourselves and some goes to the relationship, meaning we routinely struggle with whom to prioritize. When does a good mom, for example, put her need for rest before her child’s need for attention? Or what do you do when you simply cannot tolerate another one of your husband’s political rants? When the nice thing to do is out of our reach because we are spent, what’s to be done? We tend to believe that our lack of good is a shameful indication that we are an unkind person rather than the unavoidable result of being a spent person. The former belief is both untrue and unhelpful. The solution is to, without shame and with powerful self-awareness, acknowledge to ourselves and to our loved ones the truth that we have given all we can give today. With neither subtext nor coyness, we ask for leniency until tomorrow. Hopefully, over time, each of us contributes equal amounts of goodness to the common good.

Both external and internal resource management is done best when the limitations are recognized and both parties participate in the prioritizing of how these limited resources are best spent, including our limited supply of goodness. That is to say, we’re just little, struggling humans with inadequate emotional capacity, so we need to think together about how to share what little we do have.

3. We don’t know how to share

Unfortunately, we learned most of what we know about sharing in kindergarten. When we try to share as adults, we often get the squeamish feeling that the petulance and pique that surface when we are asked to give up something we want are inappropriate. We try to be “grown up” by taking turns or by compromising, but we are often left feeling unhappy. Compromise – concession with no one being happy – should be used sparingly, but for many it is the only tool in the toolbox. Elementary strategies for sharing are appropriate for playground-style conflicts, but in on-going relationships it’s wise to have a more profound approach to resource allocation.

A little geometric metaphor may help demonstrate the dynamics of a more profound approach.

If you take any two points on the outside of a sphere and draw straight lines from each point to the center of the sphere, the lines will connect. And the closer to the center you get, the closer the two lines get. This is a very graphic image to keep in mind when you are trying to agree on something because the deeper the level of conversation between any two people, like the lines in our metaphor, the closer the two people become.

At the surface of our lives, in other words, we may seem very far apart with respect to our issues. We tend to feel extremely unhappy when we try to force compromise when the distance between us is great. How much easier it is to work together when we can routinely move closer to each other with respect to our personal issues. At the deepest level of understanding, we free up a tremendous amount of respect and energy, the two elements necessary for the most mature cooperation strategy there is – synergy.

In order to move closer to each other, we deepen our conversations by exploring why we each want what we want.

What matters and why

We only compete over those things that matter to us, be they the classics like how we spend the weekend and control of the TV remote, or the more esoteric like whose spice combination will prevail in the family recipe for goulash. Conversely, if neither of us cares if the bathroom towels match, there will be no need to negotiate.

Humans are all different when it comes to what matters. That’s one of the clearest ways our uniqueness manifests. One person may be very concerned with aesthetics, someone else with spontaneity, and someone else with being kind to others. And most often there is no right or wrong – neither clutter nor tidiness are gospel.

What we are sharing in an intimate relationship is the joint decision about what matters. We must together set our priorities so that we know how to allocate our limited resources. We will always run out of those elements (thought, money, time, effort, goodness and so forth) long before all that matters to both of us has been funded.

But it is very hard to talk about what matters – what we want and why. We have often been punished for wanting things, so we resist being curious about our wants. We also will find it difficult to describe what we want and why we want it when we are feeling annoyed or competitive. So deeper discussions in relationships about what matters often hit the rails.

An immature person stays at the surface level of the issue and tries to hammer out a compromise. When a mature person feels that there’s a struggle emerging in a situation, she or he knows to do three things: shift from content to process, engage their best communication skills and balance their empathy and assertiveness. These three skills create the opportunity for synergy. Here are articles for excellent communication skills, and for balancing empathy and assertiveness.

Let me briefly describe the ability to shift from process to content.

These two terms reflect different frames of reference concerning a conversation. Content is the concrete topic of the conversation, i.e. what it is that you are talking about. Process is about the strategies you are using to communicate, i.e. what’s going on underneath. Examples of content are: should we buy a new car (a purchase), what can we do about Susie’s grades (parenting), whose turn is it to do the taxes (chores), or did you have a good time at the party tonight (socializing). Examples of process would be: talking openly and honestly, acting out a role (helpless friend), trying to bully someone into agreeing (haranguing), having a hidden agenda (disingenuousness), playing tit for tat, and so on. (An interesting website that explores some typical ineffective processes is

To take conversation off the surface of life and into deeper, richer territory, both people need to be able to shift from the content of their discussion to the process going on within each of them. A concrete example would be: a couple is trying to decide about whether or not to purchase a particular house. As the discussion gets heated and starts to bog down, the wife shifts the conversation from content (Should we buy this house?) to process (How are we each handling this discussion?). They were able to identify that she was getting activated by her fear that the house would take up what little time and energy he had left after work, and he was getting resentful that she didn’t seem to trust him that he knew what he was doing. Underneath those feelings were the old family rules. For her it was that husbands were in charge of the work around the house. And for him, the rules said that wives should always trust their husbands when it came to big decisions. When a couple can shift to the process of uncovering the hidden rules that are dictating their actions, a richer more nuanced discussion can almost always facilitate the resource management.

Here’s an example of the destructiveness of not shifting to process: Ryan and Emily have been good friends for a long time. They share an irreverent sense of humor and a joy of life. Emily has recently had a bitter experience with a hostile neighbor making slanderous remarks about her. When Emily shares her distress with Ryan, he listens for a moment and then quickly turns the conversation to a silly anecdote he had with one of his employees. Emily feels rebuffed and shamed for her sadness and cuts the conversation short. Neither is aware of the process that derailed them, which was this: Emily was asking Ryan to break the rules of their relationship and be serious for a moment so that she could feel supported by him. Ryan was trying to make her feel better by staying with the well-established rules and cheer her up with humor. Sadly, they both left the conversation feeling more distant, good friends who couldn’t move toward each other in this instance.

If two people can discuss the process underlying a conversation in an honest and clarifying manner, they will find themselves naturally moving from the surface where the distance is greater, to a deeper level of understanding where the possibility of synergy is much higher. Beatifically, the joy of feeling closer can then make it easier to take the conversation to even deeper and riskier places. Intimacy breeds intimacy.

Here’s a narrative example of what it looks like when you combine the three skills of conversation to create synergy:

Kate and Raven are close friends and have been for years. Recently, however, Kate has been making excuses to minimize their contact. Raven senses a shift and pushes to maintain their old routines. On the surface, they appear to be disagreeing about how much time to spend together (content). One afternoon when Raven has called to invite Kate to join her for a walk, the conversation gets stilted. Both women turn up their level of empathy and they start to talk about how off kilter they feel relative to the relationship. Raven starts a process conversation by talking about how manipulative she feels she has been lately because she recognizes she has been trying to force Kate into getting together by making her feel guilty. Kate responds by admitting that she has felt crummy in the last few weeks because she knows she’s been straight-arming Raven. The deepening conversation reveals the following: Kate is feeling more and more drained by the relationship because she is picking up on a low-level envy coming from Raven which leaves Kate feeling defensive (assertiveness). Because of issues in Kate’s life, she is low right now in her ability to handle feeling defensive (transparency). She wants a little distance (assertiveness, again). Raven has been picking up on the distancing and her reaction has been to try to get Kate’s attention back by trying to reconnect over shared dramas such as job worries and relationship disappointments. Inadvertently, Raven’s negativity has been signaling envy. So it turns out that what Kate wants a break from is the negativity, not Raven. And what Raven wants is more time with Kate. Once that difference is uncovered, the two old friends can work together to create a good solution.

In a nutshell, skillful allocation of relationship resources requires a deeper understanding of sharing and of what is at stake in a clash over resources; a willingness to talk about what is causing the clash on both the process and content level; and all the resilience skills known to humans to help each person deal with this ongoing relationship reality. With practice, we will start to understand how unproductive it is to say, “Why aren’t you helping me clean the house?” rather than saying, “This is why a clean house is important to me…how does that fit with how you see things?”

A word about trust

Trust does not come pure and unbroken with a new relationship like a crystal vase with a bouquet from the florist. It is created when each component of love is put in place. It is maintained when each component of love remains in place. It is repaired when a broken component of love is repaired. In other words, it is the ability to work together that is the basis of trust. If you think about it, trust in another person is the faith that they will continue to be safe to love. Someone is safe to love when they can be relied upon to keep growing right along with us, which we can learn about them only through time intimately spent.

In conclusion

Too often we pay attention to love only after we have experienced a break up or when a pervasive sense of loneliness suggests we may be inept relationally. It’s not that we don’t learn anything about bonding growing up, it’s that we learn truth, myth and untruth all intermingled. As a result, we don’t know which of the aspects that we have learned about relating are helpful and which are misleading. So a broken heart or an empty apartment will remind us that we may not be all that savvy with respect to intimacy.

If we are to have meaningful friendships, loving family ties, deep intimacy with our spouse and a life filled with interesting activities, we need to learn all the skills needed to build relationships from the foundation up.

I promised you I would repeat the definition of love at the end of this long and complex article. Here it is:

Love is an act of will to reliably extend oneself toward a significant other in order to create intimacy across difference for the purpose of providing comfort and challenge, and for facilitating the allocation of resources.

Do all the pieces make sense to you now?

When we choose to love, we are entering into a long, difficult process that will take everything we’ve got. We are not entering into a magical state of super potency that will overcome the odds and make all things lovely. Love is only love. But it’s wonderful.

© Copyright 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.