My experience counseling thousands of couples has taught me that the success of any romantic relationship depends more on what the smitten one expects to happen than what actually happens. People see depictions of romance on the big screen, and nothing in their life compares to those Hollywood versions of love.
So they think, Is my relationship okay? Should I be satisfied with what I have? Is it real love? They don't necessarily think what they have is wrong; they just wonder if it's right.
Recently, we posed some questions about love in a survey designed, conducted, and analyzed by Drphil.com, O magazine, and here on Oprah.com. An amazing 37,000 people responded. The answers ranged from the romantic (95 percent say they'd marry their true love rather than a billionaire) to the pragmatic (68 percent say you can have more than one true love; 85 percent say you can't have more than one at the same time). Here are some highlights:
Is This Love?
We describe the start of new romance as "falling" in love. Fall: verb, to go from high to lower ground, usually in an out-of-control fashion. Hmm, it's also a word we use to describe times when we've been suckered, as in, "I was so stupid to fall for that!" So can we predict early on whether we're headed for a soft landing or a rough ride?
I'd say no. I don't agree with the 68 percent who say that true love is recognizable immediately or within six months. It takes time and context to know whether a partnership has legs. Only after you've been through hard times—you've had a rip-roaring fight; cleaned up after him when he had the flu; met his brother, father, and mother (who didn't particularly like you)—and you still feel committed, do you know there may be roots to your relationship.
At the Heart of It
Not surprisingly, romance is central to our definition of love: Ninety-four percent respond that giving flowers, holding hands, or taking your partner for a night out are hallmarks of love (only 6 percent say those are signs of guilt or duty). Yet almost two-thirds also characterize mundane chores such as taking out the trash, bathing the kids, or doing the dishes as acts of love. What these actions say to your mate is, I want your life to be better, and I'll make personal sacrifices to ensure that.
Our respondents don't appear to be materialistic or superficial. As noted above, money isn't a factor, and appearance doesn't seem to matter, either—82 percent wouldn't love their partner any less if he or she gained 100 pounds.
Honesty, listening, giving, respect, and tenderness were words that those polled most clearly associate with love. And that seems right to me. Each of those terms has a strong sense of cooperation. The core element of true love is that you feel like you belong; romantics call it having a soul mate. To Cheat or Not to Cheat At first glance, it appears that our respondents take fidelity very seriously—an astounding 92 percent say they wouldn't be unfaithful even if their partner would never find out. But 41 percent say they have cheated on someone. The discrepancy has to do with the fact that people don't plan to be unfaithful. It's only after they get into a relationship and their needs aren't being met—they don't feel accepted—that they search to fill the void. Most people who have affairs are living an emotional divorce and just haven't filled out the paperwork yet. They become desperate, bitter, and liable to make a serious mistake.
Sex by the Numbers
Those of you who are having sex (more than four-fifths do at least once a month) give it a high rating (75 percent say totally fulfilling or mostly satisfying). I don't know about you, but I think that number is pretty darn good.
The jury's out on the question of love's longevity: A slim majority (56 percent) say that true love can die, but a significant 44 percent disagree. More conclusively, 94 percent say that the fading of sexual desire does not mean love is over. Listen, people change, and their needs change (perhaps that explains your lack of interest in reconnecting with your first love—68 percent would choose not to, if given the chance). The jury may be out, but if I'm the judge, I'd rule that absolutely, love can die. Planting the seeds of true love is one thing. But if you don't tend the garden, it will soon be consumed by weeds.
Prescription for a Flickering Flame
Almost two-thirds of those surveyed say if their partner is insensitive, it's because he doesn't know their needs. Well, then tell him what you need! Hit the eject button on the belief that "if I have to tell you, then it doesn't count." That's not true. Considerate behavior can still come from the heart, even though it may not have been your partner's idea. Give the old boy a chance. Get involved and ask for what you want. Be willing to seduce your mate, and be willing to be seduced again. What better time to start than Valentine's Day?