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Love is a Mystery, Not a Problem to be Solved
By John Bradshaw
Author of such books as Parenting and the Roots of Violence and Forgotten Secrets

John Bradshaw is one of the primary figures in the contemporary self-help movement. He has a nationally broadcast PBS television series and a syndicated TV show, The Bradshaw Difference. A professional counselor for 20 years before writing his first book, he is the author of five bestsellers.

John Bradshaw photo

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A favorite poem of mine states. . . "Their relationship consisted in discussing if it existed." This statement sums up what seems to me to be a frightening state of confusion in current discussions concerning relationships.

A plethora of self-help books claim to tell us how to get love right (a strangely moral term), and advise us that if we are not successful in love it is because we do not know the right techniques, or understand that men and women speak totally different languages.

However well-intentioned these books are, they have severe limitations. Most are devoid of any real clinical evidence, and are based on the underlying assumption that a significant relationship is a "problem" that can be solved. In short, these books present themselves as "salvation systems," even though several of the authors have bought degrees and are unlicensed, and one has been married five times. Most alarming is the fact that many of these books negate the drama, difficulties, and living mystery that forms the core of human love and relationship.

There are excellent clinical studies available which offer extensive research on what factors constitute well-functioning relationships. These studies have also predicted with 94% accuracy what factors, when chronically present, will lead to misery, separation and divorce.

Stable relationships are characterized by people who understand that love is something you don't get "right." It is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. The studies on stable, well-functioning relationships point to the fact that the people in these relationships understand that as humans they are imperfect and that there will always be some limitations to their happiness with each other.

People need to understand that there are problems inherent in all relationships, some of which can be solved and some of which cannot. I can think of several such relationship problems:

Covert beliefs about the nature of love
These beliefs result from our most significant way of mattering in our family of origin. For example, "she always tries to take care of everybody's needs," or "he always acts like a spoiled child needing attention."

The Hatfields and the McCoys
In other words, the two sets of family rules that have to be negotiated regarding: money, parenting, sex, work, play, etc.

This one is a biggie. . .her family was penurious, his extravagant. Her family believed in spanking, his in "time-out;" she wants sex occasionally, he wants it all the time; she believes in working till you drop, he believes that enough is enough; she wants to go to the opera; he wants to go to the baseball game.

The nature of language
No one understands the same sentence that same way. The problem of communication, which is rooted in the nature of language wrecks havoc in marriages--at work, in raising children and in caring for aging parents. This can be a horrendous problem until a dialogue that fosters love can be learned.

This is an easy one to explain: people want their own way.

The wounds each person carries from the past
These wounds contaminate the present. For instance, she is a "Lost Child," he is the family "Star."

Sex differences and idiosyncratic differences
These are responsible for a lot of issues.

The level of solid selfhood
In other words, the authentic presence each person has achieved.

Familiarity, boredom and routine
The philosopher Hegel once said that the more familiar something becomes, the less we know it. Two hundred years ago, the average marriage lasted fifteen years. Today they are twice as long, since our life span is so much longer.

The mystery of each person's unique self
At the deepest level we do not even know ourselves fully. There will always be a space in our journey to know each other. There are things we can do to achieve healthy relationships. We can challenge our unconscious beliefs about love, change or compromise our family rules, learn new communication skills, grieve our un-grieved childhood wounds and move past them, work on our sexual issues, creatively deal with fate and commit to some spontaneity and renewal.

In the final analysis though, love cannot be defined because it exists between two utterly unique beings. I personally believe that "in the evening of life we will be judged by love alone" and I think that this belief can help us to face these relationship challenges courageously and with hope.

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