What is Love? Dr. Ariel Rodriguez on How to Build a Lasting Relationship

The Southern Virginia community gathered Friday for University Convocation, where Dr. Ariel Rodriguez, professor and coordinator of Southern Virginia’s Family and Child Development Program, taught about love and the creation of lasting relationships.

The Convocation capped off Southern Virginia’s Healthy Relationships Week, which included educational events throughout the week sponsored by the Student Life and Title IX offices.

In his presentation, Rodriguez discussed what it means to be “in love.” He began by differentiating between attraction and long-term attachment.

“There are a lot of confusing messages in love songs and in romantic comedies; you get a lot of really weird ideas about what love is and how it works,” Rodriguez said. “All of that leads to people making mistakes and having regrets.”

Although he noted that there is nothing wrong with the feeling of attraction, Rodriguez warned students not to confuse it with something more meaningful, since attraction can simply be the result of things like proximity, frequency of interactions or extended eye-contact. “It’s a magical feeling, but scientists can reproduce it in a lab,” he said.

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“Attachment lasts indefinitely, so it’s the one you really want to have in a marriage,” Rodriguez continued. “[It will] produce feelings of security and peace and emotional connection, and that’s a different kind of experience than the euphoria of attraction.”

Rodriguez then outlined five steps to building an attachment kind of love in a relationship.

One: Accept Differences

According to Rodriguez, research shows that 70% of things married couples fight over are actually unsolvable differences, such as family and cultural differences or being a night person versus being a morning person. “The answer to this is that you need to learn to accept differences,” he said.

“If you can start understanding that your goal isn’t to fix everything, but to actually fix the things that are fixable, a bunch of the conflicts are just going to go away,” he said. “You’ll learn to live together and grow together and you’ll be happy.”

Two: Practice Mindful Optimism

Rodriguez explained that negativity surrounding unresolved conflicts can spill over into other aspects of relationships. “It starts to color everything that happens,” he warned. “So you’re less likely to see good things that your partner is doing and you’re more likely to emphasize negative things.”

The process, however, also works in the opposite direction.

“If you have a very positive view of your relationship, then it starts to color everything you see, too,” he said. “You can sit down [every day] and think about all the good things about your spouse, why you fell in love with them and all the things you admire about them.”

Three: Practice Verbal Optimism

Beyond thinking positively about a significant other, Rodriguez emphasized that we need to communicate those feelings as well. He referenced the research of psychologist John M. Gottman, which demonstrated that the ratio of a couples’ positive and negative interactions is a key predictor in the success of the relationship.

“If you can hit at least a 5:1 ratio [of positive communications to negative communications], you’re pretty safe from divorce,” Rodriguez explained. “If it gets lower than 5:1, your chances for divorce increase, so you should express positive feelings very freely.”

Four: Speak the Right Love Language

Rodriguez explained that the idea of “love languages” comes from therapist Gary Chapman, who argues that people’s preferred methods of expressing love fall into one of five “languages” or categories: giving gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service and physical touch.

“We all have a preference for how we want people to show us love; we tend to assume everyone else has our same preference, so that’s the way we show love to others,” Rodriguez said. “What you need to do in a relationship is learn how your partner wants to be loved and start speaking that language.”

Five: Be an Intentional Couple

Rodriguez compared relationships to riding in a canoe down a river: if we do not intentionally paddle in a certain direction, the relationship will be under the control of the forces surrounding it.

“If you have a dream for the kind of relationship you want to create, get intentional about that, talk about it as a couple and make it happen,” he said.