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CONSULT February 2019

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UMMC psychiatrist: Agape love key to relationship success

Published on Friday, February 1, 2019

By: Gary Pettus

Note: This story appears in the February 2019 edition of CONSULT, the monthly e-newsletter published by the UMMC Division of Public Affairs that focuses on cutting-edge clinical advances, innovative educational programs and groundbreaking research occurring at UMMC. To receive CONSULT in your email, visit to sign up.

For many couples on Valentine’s Day, that intoxicating cocktail known as romantic love promises to warm the heart like a hot rum toddy, or leave them with a stone-cold hangover.

The dual nature of romance – call it “romanti-schism” – brings to mind the famous "Whiskey Speech" by the late Mississippi legislator and judge, Noah “Soggy” Sweat Jr. To rephrase Judge Sweat: 

If when you say “romance,” you mean the wine of excitement, the ale of amorousness, the invigorating tipple of intimacy that puts a song on the lips; if you mean that fountain of cheer that lengthens the step in one’s stroll along the path to forever love; then drink up.

But if, when you say “romance,” you mean that gob-smacking brew of fractured hopes; that poisonous potion of distorted pipedreams – of diamond rings and dinners of duck a l’orange; if you mean that discombobulating blend that blurs the vision, jiggers the judgment and fosters chocolate-lust and rosy-eyed dreams of Belgium getaways (this means you, Hallmark Channel), then you might have a drinking problem.

Portrait of Dr. Mark Ladner

“Celebrating romance on Valentines’ Day is great, but it’s not the foundation of a relationship,” said Dr. Mark E. Ladner, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Healthy relationships are based on compatibility. Looking at marriage, it’s ‘how do we both feel about having children, about money, finances, sex, religion?’

“Communication is important. Maturity is important. It’s giving to the other person. It’s giving without any expectations: ‘Because I love you, I’m going to do this for you.’ When you have one who’s a giver and one who’s a taker, someone is suffering. Relationships are best when both people give.”

This is called “agape love.” It is the soul of a relationship. Erotic love is the body.

“Erotic love is great and can strengthen relationships,” Ladner said. “But if you base your relationship exclusively or largely on romantic feelings, they fade, and it becomes, ‘Who is this person I’m with? Are we screaming and hollering at each other all the time, now that the romance is gone and now that we’re dealing with each other?’”

Or, as the actor and comedian Will Ferrell said, “Before you marry a person, you should first make them use a computer with slow Internet service to see who they really are.”

Portrait of Shannon Lewis

That eagerness to discover who someone really is becomes like a treasure hunt that stimulates feelings of romance and adventure in a relationship, at least at the beginning, said Shannon Lewis of Madison, a certified life coach.

“You are excited, and the reason you feel that adrenaline rush, the reason you are so happy, is that here is something new,” said Lewis, who earned a Master of Science in Nursing at UMMC. “You’re learning about this person. Those feelings fade, I believe, because people start to get bored. They no longer try to learn more about that person; they no longer try new things together.

“People lose interest in each other because they’re lazy; because it takes hard work; because there are too many other things you are dealing with as well, such as work or children. People are obsessed with social media. So they don’t put the time and effort into each other anymore.”

But it’s worth it when they do, she said.

“A good relationship can provide trust, intimacy. It’s knowing you have somebody there to support you. That’s a good thing as long as it’s positive support.

“It provides fulfillment, especially when people do it the right way – when they see each other as two individuals who are separate but are also together. I’m reminded of a song by Alanis Morissette, ‘Not the Doctor.’”

Some of the lyrics: “I don't want to be the sweeper of the egg shells that you walk upon/And I don't want to be your other half, I believe that 1 and 1 make 2.”

“It means, ‘I’m not going to be the one who takes care of all your needs,’” Lewis said. “A healthy, romantic relationship means not being co-dependent, but being in love with each other more.”

Feb. 14 is a day to celebrate such a relationship, but it’s not the only day.

“So it’s important to put Valentine’s Day into perspective,” Ladner said. “Now I know in my life I better pay attention to it, though; there better be some roses at the door.”