Consummate Love: How Couples Keep Passion Burning
Like a crusader, I’ve dedicated the last 30+ years of my life to finding the holy grail of consummate love. Armed with a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, I realized success leaves secrets. This is why I went on my own personal journey of demystifying the elusive mystery of finding real and lasting consummate love.
While on this journey I studied happy couples (hard to find, but I did) and apprenticed with mentors, other psychologists and self-help gurus so I could find the secret dynamics that make love work. And in the end I was able to distill out four key practices that are crucial in keeping love alive.
These are the practices I’ve used in my own lab, my marriage, that have allowed my husband, Sam, and I to weather the family upsets, disappointments, setbacks, losses and other slings and arrows that most couples face. I’ve also used these powerful practices to help thousands of other couples create a lasting consummate love relationship.
What is Consummate Love?
The psychologist, Robert Sternberg coined the term consummate love to describe relationships that have all three elements of a successful, healthy and lasting passionate bond. These three elements are intimacy, passion and commitment. In consummate love relationships, the three key components grow over time and don’t diminish. The big question is, how do we get this process to come alive in our own relationships? How do we use action steps to put them into practice?
There are four action steps to a lasting passionate consummate love and to your own happily-ever-after: 1) Spending Time Alone as A Couple; 2) Holding Listening Sessions; 3) Planning for Sex; and, 4) Committing to and Actively Promoting Each Other’s Growth.
Consummate Love Action 1: Spending Time Alone As A Couple Builds Intimacy
Research shows that couples who report the highest level of intimacy spend the most amount of time alone together. This means no kids, no friends, no family, no long cell calls other digital distractions: just the two of you.
Sam and I were juggling private practices and running a therapy center and post-graduate training institute in the early years of our marriage. Needless to say, at the end of the day we were ready to fall into bed and it sure wasn’t for sex! Weekends were spent zooming around on errands and the kids’ play dates and activities. But we knew the dangers of continuing on this path.
How We Improved Our Intimacy
We permanently set aside Alone Time twice a week for us, once during the day and once at night. We hired a permanent babysitter and back-up for those times. And for an unbroken string of years, we have kept that time sacred, no matter what. It’s been the bedrock that holds us together as best friends.
Consummate Love Action 2: Holding Listening Sessions
Research shows that couples build intimacy through effective communication. And at the heart of effective communication is the ability to listen to your partner without judgment. When Sam and I met we were psych grad students, rivals for the same stipends and awards. We were young know-it-alls for whom listening was a foreign ritual. This meant we were drifting farther and farther apart.
What We Practice
We scheduled formal Ten Minute Listening Sessions with each other every other day. In these sessions, one person gets to talk, free associate, say whatever is on their minds while the other SIMPLY LISTENS with full attention. The listener does not speak. No matter what, we used a clock and honored a full ten minute session.
Anything that was said in that time was sacred and could not be brought up during an argument! Sam and I still use these sessions to get to know each other all over again. Mind reading doesn’t work. You never really know your partner’s world until you listen. Listening artfully and with dedication is a prelude to lasting intimacy.
Consummate Love Action 3: Planning for Sex Builds Life-Long Passion
Sex releases oxytocin, which is the cuddle or bonding hormone. This is the powerful hormone that triggers the nurturing instinct toward newborns. Sex also creates a shared endorphin release—so that the partners associate feeling good with each other. On the other hand, infidelity is the biggest love buster. So having regular sex builds life-long passion.
After we had kids, Sam and I made the same ridiculous choices that other young couples make, such as going to the Home Depot or Wal-Mart instead of making love. We rushed around until we had finally checked off our entire to-do list, except for the last item. The most important physical bonding activity of all. Then we wondered why we didn’t feel connected or passionate with each other.
What We Practice to Generate Lasting Passion
We set aside time when sex was moved all the way up on the to-do list, to number one. We made one of our weekly dates into a Regular Sexy Encounter where we played with toys, lingerie and videos, all in the context of having an affair–with each other. To get going on this path I would ask myself, “Would you be wearing this ratty bathrobe if you were meeting your new lover? What would you be doing or saying?” And Sam would do the same. If one of us wasn’t in the mood, he or she would start to fool around anyway. And sure enough, the mood turned around and heated up.
Couples expect spontaneous great sex to happen like in the movies. But after a couple has been together awhile great sex takes planning. Then the spontaneity happens. It’s like going to an amusement park. Just go online, buy the tickets, get directions and clear your schedules; then you ride the roller coaster. If you want a lasting passionate love relationship, make sure you are having an affair with your spouse.
Consummate Love Action 4: Committing to and Promoting Each Other’s Growth
Research on long-term couples shows that one out of ten can keep consummate love going for many years. The researchers nicknamed these couples “swans,” because, swans are mated for life. In fact, fMRI studies of the brains of couples who said they were still in love after an average 21 years of marriage showed the same in-love dopamine reactions as young couples. That is, their brains lit up as if they were young lovers when they were shown photographs of their Beloved. Not only did these older couples display the passionate “limerence” of newlyweds, but they did it without the newlywed’s chemical roller coaster of anxiety and obsession.
In consummate marriages, we’ve found that the partners do more than commit to stay together no matter what the challenges. And of course, that’s a bedrock of any long-lasting relationship. So as my Tai Chi master says: “Not so easy to do.” In our studies of the “swans,” we’ve observed that the partners also commit to filling each other’s deepest needs while promoting the spouse’s goals and personal dreams. Researchers have called this type of devotion, the Michelangelo Effect. In other words, like good mentors, they help each other become their best selves! Studies of these couples show that they sculpt and promote each other’s skill development, success and personal happiness. They perceive, affirm and help develop each other to be self-actualized, to be the best they can be.
This is quite different than the Pygmalion effect, where one partner decides that he/she knows better about what is “good for” for the other and tries to impose his or her will. Pushy know-it-all Pygmalion advice and nagging is destructive to both personal and couple well-being.
Consummate Love in Action: Promoting The Other’s Growth
When you put your attention on your partner’s best possible self, miraculous things happen. Here’s a beautiful story that illustrates this process:
When Nathaniel Hawthorne (yes, that Nathaniel Hawthorne) was fired from his job at a customs house, he went home to his wife, Sophia, in a broken-hearted state. He told her that he was a total failure. Sophia said, “Are you kidding? This is great honey—now you can write your book!”
“What? And what will we live on?” he asked. She pulled out a huge wad of money.
Nathaniel asked, “Where on earth did you get that?”
Sophia then exclaimed with delight: “I always knew that you had genius in you and that someday you would write a masterpiece. So I saved a little each week over many years.”
And thus was born one of the greatest American novels, The Scarlet Letter.
How Sam and I Commit and Re-Commit to Each Other’s Growth
Our own personal Michelangelo process starts with real intimacy as we practice it daily. Then we attempt to understand each other’s yearnings, callings, hopes and dreams. In other words, each partner understands and discovers all the different aspects of the beloved’s ideal self. The next step is that each of us actively helps the other move closer to becoming what he or she want to be, in personal health, career, or spiritual arenas.
For example, Sam helped me realize a life-long dream of giving psychological help to as many people as possible. Through our love mentoring program, we’ve given away 20,000 free coaching sessions to people around the world! I’ve helped him reconnect with his spiritual side so that now he leads a weekly meditation session with participants around the country. Each of us is so much happier and more fulfilled because we are following our own personal missions and dreams!
As the poet wrote:
I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me.
I love you for the part of me that you bring out. ~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning
How You Can Keep the Passion Burning
So many great things can come from couples focusing on each other’s best self identity, which is a state of mutual respect, appreciation, intimacy and dedication. There is an ever-increasing cycle of giving and receiving true understanding, care and support. Deeper intimacy and greater individual success is shared and celebrated by the loving partners. What a beautiful process consummate love is!
Partners who are growing through their relationship are automatically regenerating passionate feelings and chemistry over and over again! As they evolve their behavior becomes more novel and spontaneous. They say and do unexpected things. Funny, creative, thoughtful or intimate openings occur and create the opportunity to fall in love all over again. This is the essence of consummate, passionate lasting love.
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As a relationship expert, I've helped thousands of women get the love they want-even when it seemed impossible. I'm Dr. Diana Kirschner. You might know me from my PBS Special, seen me on Oprah, or have read one of my bestselling books.
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LOVE IT. Thank you for the great advice.