I've been an erratic reader during the past few weeks of the current heat wave. I've started and stopped reading several books; I even nearly finished one, but lost it. In spite of that, I finally found a wonderful book on love.
The Truth About Love: The Highs, the Lows, and How You Can Make it Last Forever, by Pat Love Ed.D., speaks simple truths about long-term romantic relationships. Her advice is practical and informative and it leaves you feeling fairly normal despite your imperfect love.
Most of us head into love without any information. In the media we see examples of hot sex and obsessive infatuation, leaving us to guess about what happens next. Ever notice how the story usually ends when the couple finally gets together? It's as if Hollywood doesn't even know what couples do after the first phase of love.
Unfortunately, many of us look at challenges in our relationships as a sign that were not "meant for each other" or we worry that we are headed for divorce if we are both not head-over-heals in-love all the time. This simply, is not true. Here is what happens after infatuation.
Since real love is ever changing and maturing over time, it's important to know developmentally where your relationship is. Here are the typical phases of monogamous love:
Stage 1 Infatuation:
When you first fall in love, your brain is on an amphetamine-like, neurotransmitter high, a high so powerful "that scientists now believe that the euphoria of infatuation is a bona fide, altered state of consciousness." Although it would be nice if we could choose who we were attracted to, we actually have little control over it.
Who you fall for depends on a few factors. There has to be an immune system match, meaning that a child produced by the two of you would be able to fight off most diseases. There is also the random chance of you crossing paths. Not much to it! Of course, you may be off put by someone's personality or physical appearance, but as long as he or she is not too repulsive or annoying you'll probably find yourself attracted to that person. This is why you can be in love with one person and still be attracted to someone else. There are many matches for you out there!
When you find yourself in the throws of love, be cautious. The definition of infatuation is:
1. Lacking sound judgment; foolish
2. Being completely carried away by foolish or shallow love or affection
3. Drawing conclusions from insufficient information
Now that scientists can watch a brain in action through imaging, they can see there is reduced activity in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain necessary for planning, organization, and impulse control, during infatuation. People in this phase have selective memories and often make excuses for the short-comings of their partner. Basically, you're a bit stupid when you're falling in love. You can expect this high to last somewhere between 6 to 18 months. Unfortunately that's just long enough for many couples to marry, start a family, and then realize their partner is not who they thought they were.
While this phase is fun and has a great role in attraction and pro-creation, it is a bad criterion for marriage on its own. One study found that couples who started with high intensity romantic bliss were particularly prone to divorce because such intensity is too hard to maintain. A hot flame burns out fast; a low burn stays for the long haul. Whether your relationship started off hot or luke-warm, looking forward to the next phase can help keep you moving together through the journey of love.
Stage 2 Post-Rapture:
Eventually the infatuation fades and what is left is a reality check, a lull in the relationship. Your brain has habituated itself to the love high and then you find yourself left on your own. You're in the relationship with no chemical help. This becomes a natural time to start focusing back on the part of your life you probably neglected while falling in love. You begin to notice that the two of you don't see eye to eye on everything. The once endearing habits of your partner start to become annoying. You don't feel like giving because you don't seem to get as much in return. You sense your partner is starting to pull away from you. And, worst of all, "you no longer give the benefit of the doubt; instead you jump to negative conclusions."
Even though this lull is a normal phase of love, many people give up saying, "I love you, but I'm not in love with you." And they leave in search of more infatuation. But Dr. Love (I know, ironically, her name is actually Love) says this is not a chance to break up, it's a chance to break through!
Here are 3 suggestions of things you can do to weather the Post-Rapture stage:
1) You no longer have the love cocktail inspiring you to be considerate, so you now simply have to motivate yourself without your infatuation. Your relationship will reap the wonderful benefits of kind acts, despite what motivates it. Be kind. Even if it's not coming naturally, act kind. If you want to feel romantic, be romantic.
2) Nature's libido boost has also worn off. Your sex drive now defaults back to your natural state, which is dictated by your hormones, not by your attraction or your love towards your partner. Know that a drop in libido is normal, but here is what you can do about it.
Have sex anyway. It's good for you. Sex releases a hormone that bonds you to your partner. Keep a healthy perspective on what is best for you, but also consider what is best for your relationship. Do what it takes to maintain a healthy attitude about sex. Make it a priority; communicate your sexual needs; and be willing to give and receive sex as a gift.
3) Write down 3 things negative traits about your partner. Then ask yourself, "How do these traits show up in me?" If you can't answer that question, ask your partner. He or she will gladly point them out to you.
When you see characteristics in your partner you don't like, take ownership of them. Then work on the negative characteristics within yourself. Most often the things that irritate us about another are things we don't like about ourselves.
At the very least, ask yourself what you can learn from your companion's "negative traits." Often we react harshly to the very traits in others we have a hard time achieving in ourselves. For example, if your husband has too many friends, perhaps you yourself could benefit from developing some new friendships.
Stage 3 Discovery: Information Gathering:
Now, with infatuation out of the way and the shock of the lull passed, the two of you can move on with real life. You will be able to see your partner's strengths and weaknesses with more clarity, assess life more clearly, and have time to get to know yourself better. If your needs aren't getting met in the relationship, learn to ask for what you need. If your requests are not being met, check yourself to make sure you are being clear, respectful, and specific. Check in with your partner about his or her needs. Your needs and your partner's needs are ever changing, so your clear communications and improved behaviors will need to be re-evaluated regularly.
When partners are not taking an honest look at their own needs, are not making appropriate requests for their needs to be met, and are not adjusting their behaviors to meet each other's needs, then problems arise. There will be "misbehaviors" in the form of criticism, withdrawal, defensiveness, and contempt. If you feel you are stuck on a negative image of your partner due to past issues, therapy can often help you overcome those barriers. Once you get adept at communicating and course adjusting, you and your partner will be able to negotiate changing roles, defining love, and building trust. All along the way your love will mature and deepen.
Stage 4 Connection:
An important part of connection is commitment -commitment to your partner, but also commitment to your relationship. Staying together because you feel forced or trapped will not generate love. Focusing on the positive, giving assurance of your love and commitment to your partner, talking about the future, and commemorating your anniversary will generate love.
Showing your commitment can be as simple as having sex when you're not in the mood, eating a snack when you want real food, watching a love story instead of playing a game, talking about your relationship when you prefer to sleep, or trying something different when you prefer to do stay in a familiar routine. Love stays strong through simple, consistent actions.
"True love has stood the test of time. It has weathered many storms and come through some rough times. It has proven itself strong enough to withstand periods of neglect due to other commitments. It is a love that can find sexual attraction not only in a young supple body, but in one that is wrinkled and showing age spots. True love has ripened with commitment and shows up in the privacy of everyday life in the little acts of kindness and intimate gestures." - Pat Love
Hang in there and put the effort in to cultivate true love-- it's more than worth it!
Stephanie Patterson, M.S., LMFT
Downtown San Luis Obispo and Downtown Atascadero