Do you (still) love me?
You say you love the rain,
but you open your umbrella
when it rains.
You say you love the sun,
but you find a shady spot
when it shines.
You say you love the wind,
but you close the windows
when it blows.
This is why I’m afraid,
– you said
that you love me too.
(anonym. Turkish poem, “Korkuyorum“ [“I Am Afraid“])
When the question “Do you (still) love me?” is asked, says German psychologist and couples therapist Ursula Nuber, there are actually deeper questions behind it, such as “Why do you love me?”, “What is it about me that you love?”, or even “Why are you with me?”.
For loving beings – hence for us and our loved ones – it is therefore important if we may not only “hear” a positive response, but experience and feel it with our whole being.
Because in the hectic pace of everyday life, everyone has probably received answers like the following: “Of course…”, “Sure, otherwise I wouldn’t be here right now…” or even “Why are you asking, you know that!”
Such quick “appeasements”, which are often answered without much thought, can be tricky, because if the person asking the question was really sure about it deep down, he or she would most likely not have asked…
This is also the view of Ursula Nuber, who was editor-in-chief of the German magazine “Psychologie Heute“ (“Psychology Today”) for many years and, as a practitioner, also focuses in her work¹ on attachment styles in relationships and on the dynamics of long-term couples.
I can underline all of her major insights here on this bLog for ethical multiple relationships, since their manifestations have been regularly encountered by me in the last few years on my journey through the spheres of Poly- and Oligoamory as well.
In addition, however, I have noticed that multiple relationships apparently have the ability to act not only like a magnifying glass in relationship matters, but also in a certain way like an accelerator, so that certain circumstances in romantic multiple-person configurations occasionally come to light more clearly – but above all much more quickly – than is the case in conventional couple relationships.
Interestingly, one of the major variables that contributes essentially to the “magnifying-glass-quality” is precisely the presence of multiple participants, since this diversity is, in a way, a “stressor” for us as human beings as the psychotherapist Dr. Dietmar Hanisch explains in my Entry 83. At the same time, thanks to modern stress research, we know that “stress in itself” does not allow us automatically to determine whether we experience it as stimulating and positive in the sense of “eustress” – or as overwhelming and burdensome, as the word “stress” is predominantly used in everyday language: as negative “distress”.
Stress research thus also provides an answer to the question of how it can be that some people, under the same stress, rise above themselves and are even capable of altruistic acts for their community, while others become the notorious “hoarders” and lone wolves who only have their own well-being and survival in mind.
In her recent book “Tell me, do you actually still love me?” ¹ the author Ursula Nuber features the Swiss psychotherapist and couples researcher Guy Bodemann, who explains:
»While experiencing [di]stress, one neglects the nurturing and maintenance of love. People devote too little time to each other, become careless, lose positivity, ignore their own needs and those of others. [Di]Stress causes people to become self-centred, intolerant, and domineering.«
However, Mrs. Nuber adds that in relationship matters it is not primarily a question of stress generated “from the outside”, which puts the participants under pressure, but of stress generated “at home” in the relationship, which can be much more corrosive – and ultimately decides on the breakdown or continuance of a relationship.
In my view, the two most important aspects that are relevant here, which also continually appear throughout Mrs. Nuber’s report, are the following:
Probably the most frequent complaint I have heard in numerous personal conversations – but also recurrently in social networks – regarding unfavourable progressing multiple relationships can be reduced to the point “lack of appreciation”. This is no small thing, but the relationship poison No. 1 par excellence; after all my favourite quote on this bLog says:
»Thus, intimacy is a cardinal process, defined as feeling understood, validated and cared for by partners who are aware of facts and feelings central to one’s self-conception.
Contributing to this perception is trust (the expectation that partners can be counted on to respect and fulfil important needs) and acceptance (the belief that partners accept one for who one is).
Empathy is also relevant because it signals awareness of an appreciation for a partners core-self.
Attachment also contributes to perceived partner responsiveness, notwithstanding its link to interdependence and sentiment, because of the fundamental role of perceiving that one is worthy of and can expect to receive love and care from significant others.«²
In addition to the above-mentioned “neutral stressor” of the multiple-people-configuration, it could possibly also be a problem in such relationships that we take the enamouredness or love in them for granted, because it is apparently brought in so abundantly from several sides. As a result, it is tempting to take the “sustainment” of this shared treasure perhaps too much for granted as well – and thus to neglect it.
As the hallmarks of such neglect, psychologist Nuber identifies five aspects to which anyone who has ever been in a relationship can probably relate:
The first factor is a rapidly diminishing appreciation for the “core self” of the other participants cited above. For the exact opposite, which is strengthening each other’s ego and not being taken for granted (or, as actor Anthony Hopkins once put it, being treated like a mere “afterthought”) is one of the most important pillars of any relationship.
Secondly, Mrs. Nuber mentions the “missing gestures of love”, by which she does not mean gala dinners or dream vacations, but the simple signs of solidarity; especially the small shared rituals that symbolize closeness in everyday life.
Thirdly, she uses the term “lack of understanding” to describe the unwillingness to change one’s perspective towards the famous “moccasin of the others”, in whose shoes one should occasionally place oneself. This would be an important tool not only to practice empathy (which is not easy for all of us), but above all not to fall victim to one’s own self-centredness (!).
Fourth, she lists “lack of respect”, expanding on the lack of appreciation mentioned as first factor – explaining that within a relationship, certain respect boundaries are often very quickly dropped which one would never transgress easily in the face of more distant friends or even strangers (both verbally and in behaviour).
This leads to point five with the phrase “too many injuries” which are often inflicted and accumulated in this way even after a brief period. In this way, the original feelings of closeness, trust, and friendship in a relationship may evaporate for the parties involved already after short time, giving way to an intensifying “psychic smog” (a concept of the Australian psychotherapist Russ Harris). This phenomenon describes a state in which I have already experienced quite a few Polycules in turmoil (including my own!): An insecure and desperate search for real contact, in which however the participants move in a dense fog of self-induced thought carousels, rigid mindsets and fear of injury, thereby colliding more and more often with each other in a painful way.
As a result, the sense of self further decreases, the atmosphere changes from a place of closeness to a place of mistrust, and the isolation of those involved progresses.
Now, at the latest, it becomes clear how the question “Do you (still) love me?” is an indicator that the people involved are struggling with themselves, whether they are still seen in the relationship, whether they are still important – or even whether they are still “ok”.
The key at this point is whether those involved in a (multiple) relationship succeed in finding a positive and empowering answer for themselves to the question of what constitutes their identification with the overall relationship:
According to the three authors of my quote introduced at the beginning of this section, Cohen, Underwood and Gottlieb, closeness and intimacy – that is, “to feel loved” – means that one receives respect, that there is an atmosphere of openness where we experience resonance for our concerns, desires, joys and fears, where we are comprehensively “heard.”
Psychologist Ursula Nuber also mentions five aspects here:
First of all, the appreciation that serves as the headline of this section, in the sense that it is and remains important in every relationship why someone is loved – and that this important question is as little banal as any of its possible honest answers. The decisive factor is rather that the question may be asked – but even more so that it receives an individual answer – aimed at the core self of the other – time and again, even without being verbally expressed.
Secondly, that it requires attention that signals true and authentic interest, for which the famous honest and active communication of speaking and listening to each other has to take place.
Third, as Cohen, Underwood and Gottlieb also described, we should support each other in our strengths. This may sound like a weak tool – but it is not, since this is precisely what guarantees our experience, when we are supported, that we thus recognize ourselves as definitely more than “just an afterthought” for the enjoyment of others.
Fourth: As an extension of point three, Mrs. Nuber lists “solidarity”. This refers precisely to what I consider to comprise the most important (multiple) relationship qualities of commitment, predictability and feeling safe. This bLog would make no sense without these values.
Fifth and last: empathy, which Mrs. Nuber uses above all to describe “emotional closeness” and which she puts into words with the sentence “Here, with you, I’m always ok and welcome.”
2. Permit Change
Next month the Oligoamory project will be five years old, your author Oligotropos just turned 50 some days ago…
On the home page of this bLog I once wrote a few lines about the choice of the Oligoamory symbol consisting of a heart and a double spiral – but since I have not written nearly as much about the effects of that double spiral in my entries as I have about the effects of the ubiquitous heart. The double spiral that I have chosen as a symbol for time and finiteness also stands for change, which, according to Ursula Nuber, we often assign too little significance to in our relationships – if at all.
In a conversation with journalist Ben Kendal, who made his interview available to the Einbecker Morgenpost³, (among others), the psychologist explains why we therefore far too often still approach our relationships with an unhelpful, romantically dressed-up, static image regarding the other people involved.
For on the one hand, this can lead us to reject certain traits of a person, which we once appreciate at the beginning of a relationship, at some later point as annoying or inhibiting quirks. Famous examples are, after all, the ” steady rock in the surf” who will one day be perceived as a mouthless communication refusenik. Just like the counterpart of the lively “social animal” whose animating actionism and extroversion melts away over time into a distorted image of restlessness and annoyance.
On the other hand, and here Mrs. Nuber names a irrefutable fact – perhaps sometimes forgotten by us: People change throughout their lives – and they also change in their relationships, which means that these relationships change as well.
The psychologist therefore recommends to strive for acceptance of one’s differences and not to react to them with “rescue fantasies” or “demands for continuity”. It is important to review the expectations towards the relationship in this respect, because relationships must be “allowed to be flexible” in order to be able to exist.
Literally, she says: »Just because we’re happy now doesn’t mean that’s always going to be the case. You have to expect that there will be challenges. […] Everyone has to adjust to the fact that partners can develop in ways one would never have expected. […] At the same time, one often ponders in such a situation: Do I want to live like that with this man or woman for several more years?«
Drawing on the research of U.S. psychologist Judith Wallerstein, who during her time had been investigating countless long-term relationships, Ursula Nuber explains that “happy relationships” are able to assess their situation realistically, revelling in the “good times” – but also acknowledging the “bad times”. It would be precisely these relationships that were able to hold on even in difficult times and to believe that there was an opportunity for development in them. “Happy relationships” would never take their togetherness as a “completed masterpiece” or as a self-evident fact; knowing that love is constantly in flux and not a static entity.
Mrs. Nuber sums up that the meaning of a love is thus not what is socially generally advertised as “happy”, but rather the joint development of those involved in a relationship. If the participants would be aware that the meaning of a common life would be to grow together (even sometimes under pain), they could face every possible further hurdle with more strength.
If such a (long-term) relationship were to look back on its crises at some point, the people involved would no longer want to know “Are we still happy?” but would answer “Yes!” to the question, which would be “Does our relationship still make sense?”. Because this would be the question that most likely would provide meaningful guidance on how to move forward into a joined future.
When the sun shines.
When the wind blows.
And as long as love lasts.
¹ Ursula Nuber: “The attachment effect – How early experiences influence our attachment happiness and what we can do about it”, Piper 2020 and “Tell me, do you actually still love me?”, Piper 2022
² S. Cohen, L.G. Underwood and B.H. Gottlieb in “Social support measurement and intervention”- A guide for health and social scientists”, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Initially posted in Entry 14, but also Entry 46 (on self-knowledge), Entry 62 (on relationship skills), and Entry 71 (on Polyamory).
³ from Einbecker Morgenpost Kompakt, Wednesday February 8th 2023 – “Above all, appreciation counts”; by Ben Kendal
Thanks to Rebecca Scholz on Pixabay for the photo!