Originally featured on RoleReboot.org…
A few years back my husband and I went away for the weekend with another couple. We’ll call them Kyle and Shari. We had a great time, introducing each other to great music, enjoying grilled Brie and blueberry wine by the camp-fire, and talking intimately about our lives and relationships – or so my husband and I thought. Shari and Kyle were one of those couples who had experienced love at first sight and been inseparable ever since. They never failed to call each other by nauseating pet names and seemed to have endless patience for one another. We were shocked a few months later when they not only told us that they were divorcing, but that that weekend had been “the beginning of the end.” Seth and I were stunned. How could our impression of Kyle and Shari have been so wrong?
In the months that followed, Kyle and Shari each admitted that they had been pretending everything was fine, telling no one the true state of their marriage. I found myself wondering how many couples had looked to Kyle and Shari, and found their own relationships lacking in comparison. Why do we continue to put up the façade that our relationships aren’t hard, when they are? As a therapist, I know that even good relationships are difficult, and my own marriage has only confirmed this. I have completed a doctoral dissertation, spent two years caring for a dying parent, survived three months on bed rest and nineteen months as a mother of twins. Marriage is as tough as any of those things, and lasts way longer. I’m not saying it’s a bad experience, just a challenging one.
But these challenges are largely absent from media portrayals as well as personal exchanges with couples. While romantic love is such a focus of television, movies, and music, it is extremely rare to see the actual work of long-term couple-dom represented. We are obsessed with Limerence, the early stage of a relationship where our brains are swimming in happy juice. Limerence is “a cognitive and emotional state of being emotionally attached or even obsessed with another person, typically experienced as involuntarily and characterized by a strong desire for reciprocation of one’s feelings – a near-obsessive form of romantic love.” Our brains are literally doped up during this phase, bathed in extra high neurotransmitter and hormone levels. Even when we’re not in Limerence ourselves, we are like Limerence junkies, seeking out our next high, even if it’s vicarious. We sing about it. We are glued to TV shows or movies showing couples overcoming obstacles to be together, suffering if their love is unrequited, or enjoying those first months of passion, great sex, and feeling connected and understood.
Our favorite sitcoms typically jump the shark right around the time a couple finally enters the later, more stable stage of a relationship because none of us really has any interest in what happens then. We all seem to want to forget that the lustful cocktail in our brains is soon replaced by the hormonal equivalent of a wine cooler, promoting attachment and stability. But the reality is, Limerence lasts about a year and a half. Sex begins to feel less exciting or even burdensome. We wake up next to our partner, take a good hard look at him or her, and have the inevitable what was I thinking moment. We shift from noticing all the ways we are totally simpatico, to noticing all the ways in which our partner is inexplicable, unreasonable, and downright infuriating. The strong silent type is suddenly emotionally unavailable and rejecting. The passion and fervor we once relished in our mate now has us wishing she would just chill the fuck out.
But we don’t put any of that out there, because what we are all talking about, what we are all seeking, is that Limerence high. That other stuff is a dirty little secret, and we are all in on it. Perhaps we want to believe Limerence can last if we just find the right person. Perhaps we don’t want to disappoint others by letting them know it doesn’t. Perhaps we are afraid of finding out we are the only ones whose relationship isn’t all hugs and puppies anymore. Don’t get me wrong, Limerence is a wonderful thing. What’s not wonderful is walking around believing your relationship should feel like that all the time, and that everyone else’s does.
Now when I see a couple all goo-goo eyed and calling each other “babe” and “hun,” seeming to be utterly fascinated by each other’s every word after years together, I wonder why they are so invested in presenting themselves that way. Those are often the couples who were expecting a fantasy relationship that stayed passionate and easy, and fixed everything else in their lives. They may not just be lying to us, but to themselves, as Kyle and Shari were. They may also be in grave danger of throwing in the towel, because their expectations were so very far off from their or anyone else’s reality. But this is what we are all told – find “the one” and “live happily ever after,” but we never get to see what “happily ever after” looks like, and for those of us who’ve been there, it’s not all fairy tales.
We all bring to relationships a giant suitcase full of attachment baggage. Even for folks who had top notch parents, attachment failures are inevitable, and let’s face it, most of us had parents who were flawed at best. At a very early age, we internalize a blueprint for relationships based on our early experiences with caregivers. This blueprint is hard-wired into our brains and gets smacked on top of every lover we have, as well as close friends, bosses, and sometimes even that bitch customer service representative on the other end of the phone line. If our mom was inconsistent and our dad was overbearing, we are likely to experience others in those same ways. Just to muck up the works, we also tend to seek out people who truly have those same qualities (yes, the very ones most likely to infuriate us, break our hearts, and convince us yet again that all women are inconsistent and/or all men are overbearing). The hard truth is that what we experience as love at first site is often little sparks going off in our primitive brains when someone reminds us of a flawed parent whose affection we still long for.
That’s right, once Limerence is over, the bedroom gets very full, as the internalized early parental figures, former lovers, and that nasty bully from the 5th grade are all suddenly in bed with us and our poor, unsuspecting partner. Now, when our lover gets under our skin, we’re not only pissed off at him or her, but for all those earlier transgressions. We begin to feel utterly hopeless, not only about our current relationship, but our very ability to connect. Ironically, while our relationship provides us a refuge from the loneliness we felt when we were single, it brings us face to face with existential loneliness. It teaches us that as human beings, there are some spaces between us that can never be filled.
So while we’re grieving the fact that Limerence was just a doped-up fantasy, we have to deal with this partner who’s also grumpy about that, and likely taking it out on us, as we are on them. Add a screaming infant into the mix and you’re in for a real treat! On top of all that, everywhere we look, we see other people who still seem like they’re in Limerence! Now, rather than the realities of relating to other humans being the enemy, we conclude our partner is the problem. It shouldn’t be this hard, right? As we misinterpret our partners’ actions and feel ours being misinterpreted in the same ways, over and over, week after week, month after month – I become your domineering, bossy father, you become my explosive, emotionally draining mother – it’s easy to conclude we’ve just chosen the wrong person. How do we always end up here? If I could just get away from this asshole, I could have endless great sex and constant passion… like Kyle and Shari!
Real long-term relationships have wonderful aspects that not only feel good emotionally, but actually promote health on a number of levels – but you’ve already heard about the good stuff. What I want to tell you is that if you’re having the same fight over and over again, if you keep becoming someone you don’t want to be and your partner keeps becoming someone who really pisses you off, you’re not doing it wrong. You’re not necessarily with the wrong person, in fact, you’re with someone who’s providing you with a way out. It’s maddening and long and tedious, but if you can stick it out, the 12th time and the 83rd time, and the 145th time that damn fight happens, you might manage to do things slightly differently, communicate just a little better, and become a little more aware. By year 6, 15, or 23, you may start to feel like that blueprint is starting to shift, and some healing is starting to happen! You might look at your partner and instead of a fire rising up in your belly, you may say to yourself, you know what, this isn’t my father undermining me at every turn, it’s just my partner giving his opinion.
Hard doesn’t have to mean bad. Hard can be beautiful. How beautiful is it that for ourselves, for our lovers, and for our children and families, for stability, for consistency, and for the chance to experience true devotion and commitment, we are willing to walk through that same fire again and again, knowing we are going to get burned, and exactly how. We all know how the fight is going to go, but we tune in anyway, hoping one of these times, the ending will be different. We could all spend our lives in Limerence, switching it up every 1.5 years, but most of us don’t, and there are reasons for that, like being able to get work done, not freaking out children, and seeking out meaning in our lives. After all, what could be more meaningful than having someone who has seen all your demons, and seen all of theirs in you, still love you more than anyone in the world. What could be more meaningful than facing that very human loneliness that ultimately makes us separate beings, not with someone who loves us because they understand us completely, but with someone who loves us completely despite that separateness.
So let’s stop making each other feel like we’re messing this up. Relationships are hard! They are supposed to be! They’re not for the faint of heart, and the truth is, they may not be for everyone. They expose our deepest wounds, and often re-open those wounds many times before they help close them. But I think we’d all have a better chance of sticking it out if we knew everybody else was fumbling around feeling as lost as we are. If we all understood that romantic commitment is a long, slow healing process, our disappointment when Limerence ends might be less likely to send us rushing out to seek out the next high.
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