When most people think of romance, they think of flowers and chocolate, candlelight dinners and sunset walks, dancing, poetry, and diamond rings. These types of romance happen most consistently during the falling-in-love phase of a relationship. Further into the relationship, once childhood wounds begin to surface, the romance often dwindles, and conflict fills in the space left behind. But this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, with the necessary knowledge, resources, and support, the romance can deepen and open into places you wouldn’t have thought were possible.
In order to deepen your romance, you need to know that your adult relationships will bring up the unresolved wounds from your childhood relationships with your parents or primary caregivers (for a deeper understanding of how this happens, learn more about Implicit Memory and Attachment Theory). In fact, subconsciously you will be attracted to people who behave similarly to how your mother or father did. Because the feel-good neurochemicals are pumping along in your brain during the falling-in-love stage of a relationship, you won’t see or be bothered by the difficult behaviours of your lover until later on in the relationship. When the wounds begin surfacing more consistently, you have a few choices. 1. You can attempt to ignore them. 2. You can play the judge and blame and try to get them to change game. 3. If you’re aware of what is happening and have the resources, you can go for the ultimate romance.
For the ultimate romance to unfold, you need to prioritize your inner work over changing your lover’s behaviour. In other words, taking full responsibility for your emotions, needs and childhood wounds comes first. This is easier said than done. In the thick of conflict, it often seems so clear that the problem is your lover. It can take immense resolve, courage and humility to look deeply inside and get help for your part.
Prioritizing your inner work allows you to open your heart in the midst of painful situations and to do as little harm as possible to those you love. Our closest relationships bring up our deepest wounds, so, without a doubt, opening our hearts and doing little harm are ambitious goals. Nonetheless, can you think of a more romantic gesture than intentionally doing the difficult inner work necessary to keep your heart open in the midst of conflict instead of blasting the pain from your old wounds onto a loved one?
The inner work necessary for integrating childhood wounds is rarely easy. Most of the time, it’s somewhere between difficult and very difficult. It requires us to open up to sensations and emotions that were not acceptable or safe for us to feel, and to examine and change the beliefs and behaviours we took on in order to cope and survive. Is it not then a courageous expression of love to venture into to those frightening places so that we can bring less pain and more compassion back to a difficult conflict with a loved one?
By now, you might be wondering if I’m suggesting that prioritizing your inner work means letting your lover get away with unhealthy behaviour. I’m not suggesting that. In fact, doing your inner work might move you to speak up more clearly for your needs and set some clear and necessary boundaries. It might even inspire you to leave the relationship. And yet, for me, these actions are still examples of deep romance: you are deepening your romance with yourself by being more loving to yourself, by taking better care of your needs; and, though your lover may not enjoy how you take care of your needs, with your actions you are supporting them to face what they need to face and thus find more love for themselves (if they are willing to do their inner work). There is no romance in helping others stay stuck in their poor behaviour so that they don’t need to face difficult things. If you’ve truly done your inner work, you will set your boundaries or leave a relationship with strength and compassion and without blame, shame, and judgment.
I imagine you might also wonder if I am suggesting you hold back your expression and not allow yourself to speak freely and boldly when your needs aren’t getting met. I’m all for full, authentic, bold, even fierce expression. As someone who had to hold back a lot in order to be safe and accepted during childhood, I couldn’t be more committed to my fullest expression. However, I’m equally committed to taking full responsibility for my pain and my emotions and my expression of them. So I save my uninhibited expression for my breath-work sessions, my punching bag, my empathy buddy, my therapist, the dance floor, the mountaintop, the forest, and the ocean.
Yes, we have busy lives, and there isn’t always time to get the support necessary to get to the bottom of our reactions and emotions. Absolutely, there needs to be allowance for going off the rails (we’re all human). But there is often time to walk or jog off some steam, to take some deep breaths, to do a self-calming process, and to connect to the emotions and needs underneath our reactions.
In further support of doing as little harm as possible, we can take a little time each day to learn and practice a process for working through conflict as responsibly and peacefully as possible. Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, the co-developers of Imago Therapy, almost separated after fifteen years of marriage because of their arguments. With help from their therapist, they committed to the daily use of a structured communication process for conflict as part of saving their marriage. If they, as couples therapists, needed support and a structured communication process, perhaps we all would benefit from those things. The internet is full of free videos and articles and affordable e-books that explain how to communicate collaboratively and without blame and judgment (have a look at my Tips for the Road page). Doing the inner work necessary to get to the root of the issue brings bigger shifts, more aliveness, and more love and compassion, but learning healthy communication and doing the things that release tension and bring more calm in the moment can be the difference between maintaining connection and spiralling into argument.
I am fortunate to have a few people in my life who dig into their stuff before addressing conflict with me. And I am always touched and grateful. Their efforts show me that our relationship matters and that they care about how their words and actions affect me. If romance is the expression of love, prioritizing your inner work can bring romance to all of your relationships, be they with lovers, family members, or friends. The exquisite icing on the cake is the deepening of your romance with yourself that happens from doing your inner work. Deep inner work is the gateway to greater creativity, inspiration, purpose, and self-love.