"Yes, through experience, sometimes through therapy," Person says. "Some people go away from home for college or a job and find out that not everybody is like the family they grew up in. What's great is that we can relearn, recondition, and see other possibilities."
Okay, but how do you preserve your hard-won sense of self and still experience the enraptured merging that most of us see as the essence of romance?
"In fact," says Person, "all love has this internal dynamic between togetherness and oneness, and independence and separateness. I think that for a love affair to flourish, there have to be independent interests that can be shared, as well as interests that are the same. One person described it well in talking about his parents. He said they were looking out in the same direction instead of always staring into each other's eyes. Intense physical passion waxes and wanes. Once you've had it, it can always come back. But what sustains you in between is having something that interests you both enough that you can share it, talk about it, do it together."
A confession: My husband and I have had some of our biggest arguments about which video to watch. Mention the Three Stooges if you want to see my hackles rise.
"Well, you have to pick your fights," Person says, confessing that she herself is perfectly capable of fighting to the death over the color to paint a bedroom. "Look, in any good relationship there have to be bursts of anger and disagreement. And in those moments, if somebody asked, 'Are you in love?' you'd say, 'Are you kidding me?' But those become part and parcel of the journey. We have the capacity to repair relationships—it's like having a scratch that heals. In other words, our psychological makeup has built-in healing mechanisms the same way our body does. You have to have enough conviction in the strength of the bond that you can risk some disagreement. You have to be able to take a hit."
A tall order if you're already one of the walking wounded. Having grown up with parents whose fights were soul shattering, I thought relationship was a code word for pain. Giving up that preconception felt like a giant leap into the dark. It took years of dead-end love affairs (and a healthy dose of therapy) to push me over the edge. I not only had to find someone who could love me, I finally realized, I had to take the risk of loving him back.
That's the kind of risk Ethel Person fully approves of. "People are so different in their ability to let go. They need to know in the back of their minds that if it doesn't work, it's not the end of the world. If I sorrow for anyone, it's for someone who has never rolled the dice, rather than for someone who has rolled the dice and lost a hand or two."
More love and romance: