AS TOLD TO
I don’t think that lust or the initial excitement of romantic love can necessarily be learned, but I think the sort of love that makes long-term relationships last can be. Not everyone has grown up in circumstances that have enabled them to understand how it works. I was raised by my mum and grandparents, until my grandfather (who I called Dad) died when I was 11. My mum and grandma were amazing, but without the dynamic of a romantic relationship to observe growing up, I was totally bamboozled by love, so I found myself interrogating everyone that I met about their relationships to try and understand them better.
One day, while I was travelling in Argentina, I met a farmer who had been married for 75 years. He told me that you should treat your relationships as you would your crops – you need to cultivate them. That is a phenomenal amount of time and I’d never heard anyone compare a relationship to a crop before. It occurred to me that other people might be interested to hear these stories too, so I started to document them. I then spent 10 years collating interviews and researching relationship science for my book We Need to Talk About Love.
Learning how to love involves understanding your own individual patterns of behaviour and how they might be unhelpful in relationships. Learning what those patterns might be, or why they might come about, is really helpful but intellectual learning alone isn’t necessarily going to create the change that might be needed. It’s also important to recognise that a relationship is interactive – it’s not just about you. I think one of the most useful ways to explore these patterns is attachment theory, which is one of the most important theories of human development of the last century. I explore this in We Need to Talk About Love and am now working on an Audible Original, We Need to Talk About Relationships, on the subject.
There’s something about intimate relationships that can bring about behaviours that may not be seen in less intimate ones. For example, if you have an avoidant attachment pattern you are likely to disconnect from your emotions and hypervalue independence. This is likely to be more pronounced in your intimate relationships – your independence is more at threat in a romantic relationship than it is with a friend who you only see twice a year.
There is some research in attachment theory that suggests that if you have an anxious or avoidant attachment pattern (which can be unhelpful in relationships) and you get together with someone who has a secure pattern then, over time, that will change you and you will become secure. It would be oversimplifying things to say that you need to become secure and love yourself before you can have a successful relationship, not least because ‘self-love’ is not a destination, it’s something you have to continually work on. It’s a combination of being prepared to look inwards at unhelpful patterns and choosing to surround yourself with people who want to, and are capable of, the sort of relationship you would like to have.
Whether you’re thinking about relationships, lifestyle or work, I think it’s also really important to think about what you value in life and who you want to be as a person. This can be applied to work, lifestyle and who you want to be in a relationship with. For example, if you decide that kindness is important to you and then find yourself in a work environment where kindness isn’t valued then it may not be the right environment for you, even if it ticks lots of other boxes like high salary, status, or intellectual stimulation.
Kindness was something that came up a lot in the interviews. For example, one lady who had been in a relationship for 17 years said her girlfriend had been kinder to their cat than she was to her. After they broke up, she realised that all she wanted, above anything else, was kindness. And in the International Mate Selection Project – a survey that studied 10,047 people across six continents – people chose kindness and understanding as the most important things in a romantic partner. If that doesn’t give you faith in humanity, I don’t know what will.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a branch of psychology that tries to help clarify what you find meaningful. Some of the exercises ask you to ‘think of someone that you admire and then explore why you admire them’; or ask ‘what would you like people to say about you at your funeral?’ and ‘if you won the lottery what would you do with the money?’ In the busyness of the day-to-day, I think it’s really easy to lose a sense of the bigger picture and to overlook the importance of your values.
It’s also easy to overlook the people you love. As the Argentinian farmer said, it’s about cultivating relationships as you would your crops. It’s about the little things. Relationships aren’t made up of birthdays and anniversaries, they’re made up of tiny little moments. Those moments are really easy to overlook when you have a lot on, but it is those moments that are fundamental to the wellbeing of a relationship.
Laura Mucha is a former lawyer turned award-winning poet and author. Her book We Need to Talk About Love (previously called Love Factually) combines insights gained from interviews with hundreds of people of all ages and demographics with science-backed research on the topic, and is published by Bloomsbury. Her debut children’s picture book, Rita’s Rabbit, is out this year, and she has just released her debut poetry book, Dear Ugly Sisters And Other Poems; lauramucha.com; @lauramucha