I'm a relationship therapist and I work with many different types of couples in my private practice. The vast majority of the couples I see are in their late 20's to mid or late 40's. In the beginning I always ask the couple about the story of how they came together: what attracted them to each other, how each knew they wanted a long-term relationship with their partner, and why, if they've reached this stage, they married.
Of course, the word LOVE almost always shows up in that conversation, somewhere and somehow. Now, think about how freely we use the word love in general when we talk about people, things, hobbies, places etc. and how generalized we have defined the word love because of that. Particularly as it relates to my work as a couples' therapist, I started to wonder ... "what does LOVE really mean to two individuals in a relationship together?"
To add to the ambiguity of love, when I pay extra close attention to my client's language, I observe that in all of this talk about love with my couples, what they say, want and feel, is often times vaguely communicated and, often, contradictory to what they do in terms of their behavior and actions outside of the therapy room. There is no harm intentioned in this by either partner nor is this done necessarily by choice but rather and interestingly better understood as part of our automatic, instinctual self that regulates the vast majority of our functioning.
As a result, I've learned to be careful about using the word "love" when I talk about marriage or ask couples about their relationship. I find the word love tends to be utterly confusing, vague, and indecipherable when it comes to understanding a mature relationship. It simply does not tell me enough (or anything at all) about people's behaviors. This realization hit home one day when I was working with a high conflict couple that alternated between violence and passionate lovemaking. I had been seeing this couple for some time and the boyfriend was not able to move past his girlfriend's distance and lack of desiring closeness. He struggled immensely to see his own part in this dynamic; particularly, how he contributed to her distance with jealousy and the constant need for control.
During one session, the boyfriend went on a tangent about how he didn't understand why he stayed in the relationship, how he's simply an ATM machine to his girlfriend, how frustrated and angry he was, and why he kept going out of his way to care for her. This was going on for almost 10 years. My client's frustration was visible, legitimate and understandable – because he really did care for her. Or is there more to it than that?
I asked him, "how do you make sense of your contradiction of not being able to stay with your girlfriend but also not being able to be without her?" ... and "what does that say about you?"
He then went on to utter the words I SO often hear from my clients ... "it's because I LOVE her!!"
Other things I've heard from clients using the word love: "I do it because I love him/her" or "I love him dearly but I don't want to have sex with him", "I feel so guilty about hurting her if I leave" ... and so forth.
In these types of situations, I often become confused about love and its meaning. One word that comes to mind: dependence. How dependent (or attached) do we become to another for our own survival? When and where does the line between love and dependence (or too much closeness) become blurred?
In marriage, two people become intertwined. The longer the marriage, the more intense the tangle becomes. Homeownership. Mortgage. Finances. Children. Parenting. Emotional and material clutter. It all adds up, blends together into one thick sauce. Some call it love. Some call it marriage. Some call it bliss, while others call it hell. But do you ever think about this dynamic as dependence? Or that too much closeness may result in nothing being left to desire? How does dependence or too much closeness (the need for the other to survive) impact your choices and behavior in your marriage? What is the difference between love and dependence?
In an immature relationship we say "I love you because I NEED you."
In an immature relationship, your partner does for or to you ... meaning your relationship is mostly built on side-to-side energy ... you manage the bills, taxes, your partner does most of the household chores, cooking and day to day care of the kids ... or vice versa. Each does what they do best and you depend on each other (equally?). It's probably never totally balanced but it sounds like the perfect match, no? Yet the dependence in an immature relationship is more visible in side-to-side energy than nose-to-nose energy. In a less mature relationship, there is a high sensitivity to the other, meaning you want your partner to be who and how you perceive or wish them to be. In such relationships there is less availability, less of an open spirit, to seeing the other for simply who they are.
Often in less mature relationships there is little (or too much) emotional or physical connection present, much conflict (or, perhaps, none at all), or an over focus on the children. Another element that may be present is where one partner does quite well in life, standing in happy contrast to the despair and dysfunction of the other. One partner assumes more responsibility for the other and the relationship, allowing the other partner to underfunction to various degrees. This often gives the overfunctioner a false sense of competence ... a pseudo self. This dynamic can also reverse in the same couple; for example, when the overfunctioner starts coming down, the underfunctioner often steps up (or vice versa). Overall, the relationship is built more on needing the other to survive, financially or emotionally, or wanting to keep the family together because of the children. You will hear one or both partners describe being "unhappy" in their marriages, yet they most likely will not separate from each other. This type of closeness and familiarity prevents partners from creating excitement and novelty in the relationship. Safety and security are preferred but this construct often results in couples becoming emotionally or sexually unsatisfied or unfulfilled over time.
In a mature relationship we say "I love you because I WANT you."
In a mature relationship both partners operate as their individual self as much as they operate as a couple. There is side-to-side energy present to manage day-to-day life (which, again, is most likely not balanced equally but close enough), but such energy doesn't overly interfere with the status quo of the couple. Each partner has enough self to be their own thinking being, embodying their own beliefs, values, hopes and dreams, while leaving room for their partner to do the same. There is enough space and acceptance for each person to flourish, grow, and change in a ways that may not serve anyone but the individual (and not, necessarily, the couple).
Further, there is a deep appreciation for the other person, for who and what they represent in this world. You see your partner for who they are, not for who you want them to be. You want to be with that person because you love who they are, respect what they do (and not just for you, mostly for themselves and others). You may also be able to recognize your role and position in your own family of origin, elements that trigger some of your reactions and sensitivities to your partner and generally in your marriage.
In a mature relationship you can be a self in relation to your partner, maneuver and calm yourself while your partner changes and grows in and out of your marriage. You don't find the need to control or hold back your partner. You can come together ... laugh-love-joke-be serious-be passionate-be curious-be different ... AND put uncomfortable issues on the table and listen even if you don't like what you're hearing. All of this allows the presence for nose-to-nose energy to take place, and more importantly for marriages to last in healthy way.
Let's take a little detour and go back to the meaning of love in marriages ...
Most of us remember the honeymoon phase of our relationship. The excitement ... the thrill ... mutual attraction ... human endorphins being exchanged ... the butterflies in our stomach ... the eye gazing ... the shared agreements ... both partners bringing their absolute best selves into the relationship as your oxytocin levels reach high up to the sky. Love, and passion, at its best. And yes sometimes I have to remind couples that this stage will never be a long term solution; no relationship will sustain itself with the intensity it had in the beginning. I don't mean to sound like a Debbie downer but it's a realistic perspective and I think most in long term relationships would agree.
But we crave that feeling. We crave it again and again through periods of our own marriage and lives.
We work hard at recreating excitement and spark into our relationship – bringing wind to the fire – to spice up the parts that have gone missing or have become mundane in our relationships and marriages. Some couples manage this well, others don't crave the thrill enough to care, some have affairs, others create and explore new boundaries through means such as a threesomes or open marriages, and others simply don't make it and eventually part ways. Boundaries are continually negotiated in this ever changing dynamic, individually and together. The same way we muddle through life, we muddle through our marriages. And we inevitably make (many) mistakes along the way.
So, when clients voice to me ...
1. I don't love my partner/spouse anymore.
2. I've fallen out of love with my partner/spouse.
... I have different thoughts about such statements than I used to.
Let's take a closer look to understand the meaning and larger context of this phenomenon. First of all, how exactly do you go about falling out of love with your spouse? I understand the romantic idea of falling in love, being in love, and falling out of love, but realistically and factually speaking what does that all even mean?
1. Do you one day wake up and look at your partner and know in your gut that he or she is no longer worth your time, energy, kisses and affection? How do you know that feeling is not one borne out of reactivity to what you are not getting from your partner, but rather the result of a thoughtful process/decision that is still present when your partner is actually giving you the affection, attention and other things that you want from them?
2. Does "falling out of love" in fact mean that you no longer feel the butterflies in your stomach anymore or the electricity you felt when you first jumped into bed together?
3. Alternatively, does falling out of love with your spouse mean you don't like their character and personality anymore? How do you, or did you, decide that? And how do you make sense of that given those traits were most likely the exact qualities that made you fall in love with that person ... marry that person ... and possibly have children with that person, in the first place?
4. If you think you've "grown apart", does that mean your personalities, desires and goals have changed and are now no longer as compatible? Or does it rather mean you haven't been able to manage the differences between you and your partner, or adapt to your partner changing in ways that cramp you or have become an inconvenience to you?
What if not loving or falling out of love with your partner/spouse actually has more to do with YOU and not your partner/spouse? Have you ever thought about such feelings being about your inability, or difficulty, managing yourself in the relationship? Perhaps the real issue is that you simply don't like the person YOU have become in your marriage?
We are so good at pointing fingers at the other, blaming something or someone else for our own shortcomings. We rarely step back and look at ourselves, who we have become in our marriage, and why that may be the bigger problem. Overcoming such challenges requires a deeper contemplation than coming to the (easy) conclusion that our partner/spouse is no longer being the person we want to be with. If you can manage to take a good look at your marriage through your own self, not only at or through your partner, and understand the fundamental (and equal) role you play in the dynamic taking place, you will be able to distinguish the differences between an immature and mature relationship in your marriage, and you may be able to begin to think about love in your marriage with greater perspective and, ultimately, positivity and success.
If we can understand and respect that a long term marriage evolves into and is built more around friendship and partnership (not thrill, endless desire, excitement, and novelty), the fact (... now brace yourself) that marriage comes with a lot of routine, mundane effort, and, yes, a great deal of boredom too ... we may become more comfortable with marriage itself. If your marriage is based more on immaturity and evidences a lack of, or the complete non-existence, of a friendship, then you must seriously question the validity of your marriage. Perhaps you may need to gather the courage to move on and find someone who brings the best out in you; where you can become the best version of yourself.
So, if you had to describe the existence, meaning, and functioning of love in your marriage, how would you do so? Is this a simple question or more complex than you ever imagined? Whatever the case, I hope that when you think of love, you think of the many aspects, nuances and complexities this concept encompasses when it comes to marriage. In that context, love should never be limited to the warm and fuzzy feelings you experience (or no longer experience) in the fleeting realm of the romantic ideal.
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Dr. Olivia Schläpfer Colmer offers individual, couples and family therapy in Miami, FL. Her office is located at 4770 Biscayne Boulevard, Suite 1440, Miami FL 33137.
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