My wife Helen and I both knew we were not “in love” when we got married. We loved each other and we were definitely in lust. But we were not in that head over heels euphoric love that is so often idealized in the media. Now 34 years later I frequently gush gratitude to her about her being in my life. I do that at least several times a week. When she walks into the room I light up inside. She calls me her “soul mate” and swears to try to track me down to be with me if there’s an afterlife. So how did that happen? What happened was that we were both smart – smart enough to understand the real nature of enduring love and what was needed to grow it. We understood that we needed to use skill and discipline to cultivate our affection over time. No flash in the pan for us !
An interesting study took place in India in 1982. Gupta and Singh tracked two groups of newlyweds over 10 years and compared them on the Rubin Love Scale. One group married for love and the other because it was arranged. You can guess what happened. It was tortoise and hare all the way. The group that began in love started with high affection and the arranged group started very low. In 5 years they were about equal. In 10 years the arranged group scored in the 60’s on the Rubin Love Scale and the in love group in the toilet in the 40’s . Why was that? A correlation doesn’t prove causality but I would interpret that the in love couples started with a false premise: The early in love euphoria deludes a couple into thinking that future affection will come easily. They won’t have to work hard to cultivate and protect it. When the power-sharing begins and undisciplined couples begin to bruise each other then the the negative feelings accumulate. Blaming and shaming erode the relationship. Listen to how our English syntax implies irresponsibility. We “fall” in love. It’s outside of us. Perhaps it was divinely “meant to be.” This syntax implies that we’re not responsible for it. If Elvis has left the building then we’re out of luck.
Look at the reality of it. In the west about half of marriages will end in divorce. That doesn’t mean that the other half are in bliss. Many couples stay together for the children. Others feel trapped into staying because they can’t afford to separate. That means that only a minority of couples are keeping passion alive over the years. It’s a somber reality.
If “normal” means that you eventually wind up in an unsatisfying relationship then you need to be smarter than normal. Don’t assume that you can stay falling into a euphoric love state forever. Consider that it would be better to continually cultivate loving emotions. And what are emotions? The accurate but not so romanticized truth is that they’re brain-body reflexes. The emotion of love involves the release of oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine neurohormones. Neuroscientists have mapped out which parts of the brain are involved. The reason to get this geeky is that it gives us a model about what we need to do.
Think of it this way. You have a garden down in your unconscious. Most of your emotions grow from this garden. Your partner has one as well. If you want a bountiful crop of oxytocin then you will need to fertilize and irrigate both gardens. You will need to feed them experiences that evoke feelings of closeness and human warmth. These experiences may involve physical or sexual touch but most adults need more of a mental kind of touch. Your curious pursuit to know the personal meaning and desire in your partner’s mind is the richest nutrition to your partner’s garden. Curiosity is probably the most undervalued resource in a relationship.
But if you have a garden it’s still not enough to just irrigate and fertilize. You also have to protect it. Weeds and pests need to be kept out. In our intimate relationships there’s an unconscious force like a weed that can strangle love. It grows like ivy or kudzu if we don’t keep it cut back. It’s not well known by relationship authors but it probably accounts for more failed marriages than any other factor. Psychophysiologists call it “passive inhibition.” It works like this: If we’re so afraid of disapproval that we passively let our partner give us commands instead of requests, give us rules instead of negotiating with us, tell us what we think or feel instead of asking us, interrupt our sentences or make us perform a task on their timetable instead of ours…….then we will eventually be governed by our anticipation of what our partner expects instead of what we want. When that happens we start to be governed by our safety seeking unconscious. Our defensive system takes over. We become a safe routine robot and numb out. How many people have you heard say “I don’t know who I am anymore!” ? “I don’t know what I want.” “I feel like I’m suffocating!” “I feel like I’m drowning!” These are all end stage symptoms of what I call “relationship depersonalization.” Passive inhibition has completely covered the garden. Affairs are likely to start before this point because it feels as if oxygen and life are flowing back into the person.
It’s your responsibility to tactfully confront your partner when he intrudes on your boundaries. Partners who do this have better relationships. I have researched this with a survey that I’ve given to hundreds of couples. I ask each partner to imagine making blunt statements to give their other partner a refusal (e.g. “I refuse to go along with you on that” or “I won’t ever agree to that”). After imagining making such a refusal I ask them to scale their anxiety. The pattern is clear. Partners who have little anxiety when refusing their partner are the ones who have the closest relationships. They communicate the best. Partners who are anxious because refusing isn’t “nice” are the ones who aren’t communicating. It’s a paradox. Strong boundaries help to foster closeness. They keep out passive inhibition.
But wait. There’s something else to remember. There are two gardens, not one. Yes you need to keep the weeds out of your own. However, you can’t go stomping on the seedlings in your partner’s garden. If you confront your partner by dominating and humiliating him then you’re causing damage. When you’re respectful and tactful then the relationship is protected. I’ve trained many couples to practice what I call cooperative confrontation. This kind of confrontation involves one partner asking the other to practice correcting his boundary intrusions. Couples who do this often experience a dramatic increase in affection. I have seen separated couples regain their affection and move back together again by practicing cooperative confrontation on mock conflicts.
So there you are. You have a choice. You can believe that you fall into magic or you can believe that you can create something. If you fell in love at the start of your relationship then that’s fine. It’s a joyous and often temporary phase. I’m just suggesting that if your passion has wound down then don’t rely on falling back in love. You will need to be more deliberate and creative. I use the word “creative” not in the sense of immediate control but in the sense of nurturing, protecting and fostering love. The latter takes a lot of due diligence and self-discipline. But it yields a bountiful crop year after year, decade after decade. That’s what Helen and I are enjoying now. We hope you can too.