A couple of years ago I was asked if I had watched Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, which chronicles the love affair of two characters who meet on a train in Europe. I had not, and was encouraged to view them, since my friend thought they provided an interesting commentary on long-term relationships. Since I’m more of a book reader, I’m embarrassed to say that it took me a while to get around to watching the films, but I’m glad I did! Each movie spans roughly a day in the lives of the two main characters and takes place roughly a decade apart. The first episode tackles the subject of love at first sight and the inevitable parting, due to Ethan Hawke’s character, Jesse, needing to catch his plane back to America. They vow to meet again at the train station several months later. Interestingly, the original movie could not even be made today since advancements in technology would have made it possible for the young lovers to find one another, and stay connected, online. But, since they did not exchange snail mail addresses or phone numbers, the audience gets two more movies.
In the second film, due to her grandmother’s death, Julie Delpy’s character, Céline, does not make the meeting. Instead, they reunite years later in a Paris bookstore, where Jesse is promoting his novel based on their initial romantic encounter. Again, he has to make a choice about whether or not to catch his flight home. The third (and my favourite of the series), chronicles their life together: raising their twin girls, having a relationship with Jesse’s teenage son from his first marriage, and the stresses that are a normal part of any long term relationship, and which could potentially end their marriage. When the couple argues in the film, it is heartbreakingly real and could be just about any couple on the brink of breaking up. They do not hold back and it gets ugly.
Dr. John Gottman does a lot of excellent research on couples. One of his findings is that, among heterosexual couples, husbands who care more about the relationship than their own agenda are more likely to stay married and be happy in those relationships – proving that the adage “happy wife, happy life” is true! Terry Real, whose work I have written about in previous posts, says, “Would you rather be right, or would you rather be married?” When a couple fights, each person is often trying to prove that they are right. This dynamic leaves both partners feeling unheard, disrespected, and disconnected. In this scenario, both people lose. If instead, we choose the relationship and our commitment to our partner over our need to be right by listening, respecting, and working collaboratively to find a compromise, both parties win and the marriage grows stronger.
Terry has also spoken about “normal marital hatred”. Normal marital hatred is a concept that helps people understand that it is not uncommon for people to dislike their partner from time to time. This concept normalizes the difficulties which often arise in long-term relationships, and dispels the myth of living happily ever after. It also affords us the opportunity to deal with these feelings in a mature way and helps us connect with our significant other rather than push them away.
I have heard Esther Perel state that most people have five or six marriages over their lifetime, even if they are with the same person. I think that as we age and have new experiences, renegotiating our relationship is necessary and healthy, although sometimes painful. Being in a long-term relationship is difficult and takes hard work from each member. Sue Johnson attributes long-term happiness to secure attachment – knowing that our partner is emotionally, physically, and sexually reliable. We can cultivate secure attachment in our long-term relationships by self regulation, so that discussions can take place in a calm space; by treating our lover the way they want to be treated so they feel appreciated; by taking the time to listen and understand our partner’s point of view, so they feel heard; and above all, being respectful, especially when we do not agree with our partner’s perspective.