Excellence Reporter: Dr. Grey, what is the meaning of life?
Dr. John Grey: An answer to “What’s the meaning of life?” showed up unexpectedly, long ago, when I was suddenly gripped by overpowering sensations that I was dying.
A voice in my head screamed, “But I don’t want to die!” Soon another, more solemn voice asked, “Why not? So… What’s the point of living?”
A disturbingly long silence followed. Then I finally heard it. “Love. Love is the point!”
This shifted my life path. At the time, I was an experimental psychologist co-directing a prestigious Stanford University research center, studying how the brain processes music. But after that day, I began a deep dive to understand what kept me and others from our full potential in love. Leaving the dry, intellectual arena of academia, I jumped into the watery world of emotional processing and personal growth.
I wanted to know how we can love each other more, and hurt each other less. I took workshops. I gave workshops. I sought to see my blind spots and overcome my blocks. I wanted to experience love beyond what I had witnessed in my family or among my friends — beyond what I had personally known.
Where did this journey land me professionally? Looking back, it should be no surprise that I ended up working with couples. This felt like soul work. It always has been part of my personality structure to help people get along better. I am a mediator. I love to bring harmony to discord. That was my role growing up. I naturally did this with friends and colleagues. It seems to be in my DNA to help people understand each other better and collaborate to reach win-win solutions.
Given my scientific training, I soon started following research on relationship satisfaction, attachment theory, and neuroscience — and translated this into ways to help couples. My aim was to give partners practical tools to meet the inevitable challenges of long term intimate relationship and keep their love thriving.
About three decades ago I started developing an intensive couples retreat format. How this happened was almost accidental. Coupled friends would visit me for the weekend. The conversation would inevitably turn to their issues. I’d introduce them to tools I was developing and over a couple of days magic happened. Vulnerable feelings were exposed. Needs got attended to. As a result, they would choose to marry instead of splitting up. They would decide it was time to have a child. I watched in wonder and tracked how these sudden transformations reshaped couples to become more solid, connected, and trusting. Their trajectories switched from being blocked or hurting to feeling more love than they realized possible.
I have been leading intensive couples retreats ever since. By now I have coached thousands of partners to renew their love. The Beatles said, “All you need is love.” But many of us don’t have the right tools to maintain it.
Some lucky couples prosper over time. For them, love deepens. Happiness and fulfillment are abundant. What makes these lucky couples different from others, whose loving feelings can shrink under the weight of increasingly divisive issues and emotional upsets? It’s all a matter of the tools partners use to stay emotionally connected and happy together.
In the language of neuroscience and attachment theory, it’s about what makes a relationship function securely vs insecurely. Thousands of studies point to the elements of secure functioning, where couples maximize shared happiness. Such couples put each other first, treat each other as equals, make sure all outcomes are good for both of them, and quickly repair any upsets. They are emotionally vulnerable and get to the root of any issue, responding to each other with empathy and a willingness to make things better. This goes both ways. Hence, the more each gives, the more they both get.
Love is not a zero-sum game. It is a multiplier of shared happiness. It’s not a competition. It’s a collaboration. This includes engaging in mutual distress relief. In our culture that worships self-sufficiency, this is where I see many couples get lost. They lack the tools to quickly attend to each other’s distress, repair ruptures, and reconnect. Doing this is actually not hard if you use the right tools.
It is my joy to teach these tools. Working with a couple is like watching a compelling movie about two interesting people who fell in love in act one. But, typically, by act two their love became increasingly messed up as they misinterpreted and reacted to each other. That’s where I usually enter the theater. And it is just like a big Hollywood ending to witness love suddenly reawaken. I regularly see this as partners learn new lines, clear up negative misinterpretations about each other, repair old wounds, and overcome reactive patterns. Love, hope and trust re-emerge, and it feels like a miracle after years of darkness.
I love witnessing the miracle that no matter how long dark clouds have obscured the sky, the sun can still come out and light up the world. It gives me hope for humanity, seeing how, as you clear away the clouds, the light of love starts shining so brightly again.
~Dr. John Greyis a couples coach and author. For over 25 years, he has specialized in conducting intensive marriage retreats, or couples retreats. Having worked with thousands of clients, John is an internationally recognized couples retreat coach and pioneer in the field. His latest book is Five-Minute Relationship Repair.
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