My grandparents’ courtship was a saga straight off the pages of a Nicholas Sparks novel. Constance — Connie for short — was an Australian nurse who, much to the chagrin of her parents, chased her aspirations with passionate defiance. Elbert — Al to most — was a World War II windtalker, utilizing his unique knowledge of the Navajo language to deceive the enemy. Al was stationed at Emirau Island, a small island in the South Pacific, while Connie was working and living at a boarding house/recovery center near Melbourne.

During a short respite from duty, he and his band of brothers journeyed to the boarding house with the intention of jitterbugging the weekend away, as the woman who owned the house routinely entertained troops indulging in “R and R.” As big band swing blared throughout the night air, Al entered the dance hall and locked eyes with Connie in serendipitous fashion.

Their connection was polarizing, and quickly became a landslide of lava-like attraction. When it came time for Al’s return to his station, the pair of lovebirds vowed to keep the fire aflame by scribing words of their affection to one another. This went on for several weeks until, in true manner of that era, Al sent the letter of all letters: a proposal. Nervously awaiting Connie’s response, the fateful envelope finally arrived, and his heart fluttered with the words that accompanied it. Connie said yes, and the first chapter in their love story was written.

LOST IN LOVE

Such tales are commonplace for the Greatest Generation, a demographic defined by a romanticized view of companionship. That pendulum, however, has since swung with the potency of a pirate ship amusement park ride. We have now entered a time of rapidly shifting social norms associated with relationships. Divorce percentages are higher than ever — according to the American Psychological Association, roughly 40 percent to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce, with the percentage of those who remarry climbing even higher. Even so, most men and women are still pining for the shiny, glossy version of love.

Amy Alkon, author of the book Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence and whom you may recognize from her syndicated column featured in this publication, has been providing relationship advice to both married couples and would-be romantics for quite some time. She offers up some sage insight into navigating the shape-shifting modern landscape of relationships and why many of us attempt, and often fail, to find a “soulmate” . . .  if such an entity even exists.

“Some people don’t necessarily look very well at the person they’re with, they just get together with them and just hope that it will work out OK. Maybe they don’t quite recognize that the person isn’t right for them, and they often don’t do the amount of introspection they need to do upon leaving a relationship. For example, thinking about what didn’t work here and what do I need to look for, or be careful of, in the future. So they just go on repeating the same mistakes.”

Alkon’s theory explains why many of us become dangerously complacent with our significant other, a mindset that typically breeds contempt in the end. So how does one combat this rote form of relationship and keep the situation fresh and vibrant?

“Novelty is exciting to us, and so as a relationship stops being new, it stops being exciting. If you can incorporate novelty, you can do things that make it new. One thing I suggest is that people plan date night as a surprise for their partner every other week so each person takes it and they plan something the other person doesn’t know is gonna happen.” 

This sentiment is exactly what Valentine’s Day negatively represents in my opinion — a charlatan form of commerce. Why do we need a designated day to celebrate loving someone? Why not express this sentiment as often as possible? As well, I believe the offerings of jewelry, flowers and chocolates, while pretty and delicious, to be somewhat disingenuous. If we all give and receive the same gift then how is it truly thoughtful? Part of intimately knowing someone is paying attention to the subtle details. Failure to incorporate these practices can be detrimental, a process that Alkon describes as “hedonic adaptation”:

“We acclimate to both positive and negative changes in our lives very quickly. And so this is what happens with relationships, that you basically find the person boring after a period of time. Unless you either take steps or they’re very intellectually exciting to you and always thinking of new ways to excite you.”

LOVE AT FIRST SWIPE 

With countless apps available that provide a virtual supermarket of love, the opportunity for companionship has become increasingly overwhelming. The propensity to choose a partner becomes less likely due to the sheer volume of likeminded individuals. I equate it to entertainment streaming hubs such as Netflix or Hulu, where patrons endlessly search for something to settle on yet never do because the list keeps providing options. This indecisiveness leads to a near insatiable hunger for something “better.”

Dating site connections are near the top of the list when considering how couples meet. According to an article in the Washington Post, the percentage of couples who met online currently sits at around 22, eclipsed only by meeting through friends and at bars/restaurants (28 and 24 percent, respectively). So if the social dating constructs have followed the advancements in technology, and the opportunity for interaction is more expansive, why are more people currently single than ever? A study conducted by the 2017 U.S. Census revealed that there were 110.6 million single individuals over the age of 18, which roughly works out to 45 percent of the population. (Single here merely means unmarried within the parameters of this study, not necessarily having no significant other.) That is a monumental shift from 1960, when approximately 72 percent of the population was married. So what happened?

One theory is that we do not necessarily need a partner to attain the basic fundamentals of existence. For example, throughout the evolution of our species, it was vital to have both parents present to ensure the survival of offspring and sustain the lineage of the family. But we are not residing in the 1300s anymore, and the current gender roles lack the level of definition previously formed in societal structures. A man is no longer needed to go out and hunt for food or build a shelter, as Whole Foods and Zillow have replaced such skill sets. A woman is no longer required to labor over household chores or weave clothes, as Rumbas and Targets now facilitate those needs. Even from a procreative standpoint the indispensability of each gender has decreased. All that is needed to bring a child into this world can be literally purchased. As shallow and sad as that may sound it is the reality, and if you don’t believe me just check the Craigslist “gigs” section. Alkon offers an interesting take on the reasoning behind the internal conflicts surrounding the gender role paradigm shift. 

“We have an antique psychological operating system that is perfectly matched for ancestral times when we lived in small bands of 50 people and ran around spearing bison for dinner. We now, in modern times with our iPhones, still have the psychology that worked to solve ancestral mating and survival problems.”

The concept that a conventional parental situation is required to raise children seems a tad murky these days. Among my own contemporaries, roughly half boast familial collections that still remain intact. The others have either remarried and/or transitioned to co-parenting — Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin famously coined this trending viewpoint “conscious uncoupling.” Where children of divorce were once considered unfortunate and tragic members of society, today there is less of a negative stigma. The idea that a couple must stay together for the family is becoming archaic. Alkon observes: “An intact family seems to be the best way to raise kids, unless there’s a high conflict situation. If the kids are going to grow up and be psychologically less well off, there’s no reason to stay with that person.”

THE LOOKING GLASS

I have been madly (which is a cliché yet accurate adjective) in love three times, with each ending in an explosive aftermath of emotions, like a Jackson Pollack-inspired splattering upon the canvas of my heart. That being said, I have absolutely zero regret in taking those proverbial plunges because each one served an invaluable purpose. After the tumultuous ordeals, I identified several character shortcomings that had previously gone overlooked. It is not difficult to convince oneself of being emotionally stable, but to convince the person who sees your every action is far more difficult.

For example, I was raised in an extremely progressive household where the open expression of love was encouraged. Because of this upbringing I automatically assumed that I would have a completely loving approach to relationships. Yet, when I fell in love for the first time I experienced some emotions that were far less pleasant. Jealousy. Spite. Possessiveness. These evil spirits crept out of my psyche like an exorcism had been performed, surfacing with the intention of laying waste to my relationship. They succeeded.

As the dust settled, I came to realize that I had seen these demons before within my family. They were by no means dominant behavior patterns, yet they were present enough to affect me. It was an affliction that had formed deep inside, like an emotional curse cast upon my lineage by some vagabond gypsy witch. Though I must specify that I place zero blame on my family because I know it was unintentional, and I whole-heartedly empathize with how they too battled the same inherited dispositions. As well, because my relationships had continually fallen victim to these traits, I believed any form of conflict to be unsustainable. Alkon, however, posits a different theory.

 “Conflict is an opportunity for growth and to make things more to your liking, or at least to have the other person show you that they care about being to your liking. So what people can learn to do is address conflict in healthy ways. One of these is to realize that we’re going to have little picky things that bother us, but you don’t necessarily have to think that your partner’s picky things are legitimate. Meaning that it’s loving to try and do the thing that they need to avoid repeated conflict. It could be something as simple as taking off your shoes before you come in the house, because [what] matters is that they feel you care about what’s important to them.”

I hesitantly discovered therapy as a form of confronting my own character flaws, which became a challenging yet worthwhile endeavor. I am now on cordial terms with two of my three ex-loves — which is a percentage that I can live with — and this restoration provides me with a sense of relief and security that only comes through learning emotional intelligence. Because falling in love can be like waltzing through a minefield: If you have a map, it is a hell of a lot easier.

LAST CHOCOLATE IN THE BOX

Though this article may read to some as a diatribe of sorts against love and relationships, that is not the intention. I am merely striving to understand at greater length these integral traits of human beings and what skills are needed to create a healthy relationship. As we head toward an unknown future of the planet as we know it and ultimately our species, perhaps cultivating a more vast knowledge of our relationships may hold the key to sustaining both.