If you're like most people, you rode into married life on powerful waves of affection and intimacy that crashed occasionally into self-doubt and apprehension, only to rise again, stronger than ever. In other words, you believed that you married for love. That was the easy part.
Lots of research shows that love is more effective at bringing us together than keeping us together. You may have heard the saying, "Love is easy; relationships are hard." The truth is relationships are hard because love is easy.
Strong feelings and sensations of any kind carry an illusion of certainty, i.e., they are self-validating:
If I'm angry, you must be doing something wrong.
If I'm afraid, you must be threatening.
If I'm in love, you must be wonderful.
With the exception of anger and resentment, no emotional experience has more illusion of certainty than love. The need to feel certain is at least part of the reason we come to resent the most the people we love the most.
Strong feelings and sensations of any kind override those of other people. When you have a terrible headache, it's hard to recognize that someone else has a backache. If you're resentful, you cannot appreciate the vulnerabilities of others. If you feel excited or euphoric, you are less likely to notice the homeless sleeping on the street. Love makes us less sensitive to the subtleties of our loved ones' emotional worlds in the rush to project our own onto them.
Half the Story: Your Partner Changed into Someone You Like Less
When the intensity of love wanes, we stop projecting and begin to see some things in our lovers we don't like. It's not so much that we don't like who they really are, it's just that it had seemed, in love's illusion of certainty, that they were everything we really liked. This disillusionment is what couples fight about in the second year of marriage, although they think they're fighting about money, sex, jealousy, in-laws, housekeeping, or something stupid. Most of the arguments that couples have in the second year of marriage take the following form:
"Why can't you be what I want?"
"You made me feel that I was what you wanted. So you have to be what I want now!"
The Whole Story: You Changed into Someone You Like Less
Falling in love made each of you a better person. You became more appreciative, caring, loving, compassionate, and tolerant. Those qualities—not your partner—made you feel lovable and gave you a false sense of confidence that you knew how to make intimate relationships work. Your partner didn't make you a better person and then selfishly changed; your appreciation, care, tolerance, and compassion made you a better, more loving person.
When the intensity of love wears off, caring, appreciation, tolerance, and compassion tend to fade with it. As a result, you no longer feel lovable and adequate as an intimate partner. If you blame these core hurts on your spouse (or your childhood), your marriage will fail. It may even become abusive. All abuse is failure of compassion. And in love relationships, failure of compassion feels like abuse.
When you feel inadequate or unlovable, as we all do occasionally, blaming your spouse (or childhood) can only make it worse. The only way to make it better is to do something that will make you feel lovable.
What Makes a Person Lovable?
Take a moment to think of the qualities that make a person lovable—an adult that is; children are lovable just because they're cute.
I'll bet you didn't think of things like resentment, getting your own way, or having to be right. You most likely thought of appreciation, care, tolerance, and compassion. If you want to feel lovable and adequate, you have to return to the appreciative, caring, tolerant, and compassionate person you were when you fell in love.
If You Want to Love Big, You Have to Think Small
Large waves of love and romance are nice, but all waves of strong feeling, with their inherent illusion of certainty, must crash into reality.
Everyday sensitivity to our partners' vulnerabilities and strengths, in a steady trickle of small attitudes of appreciation, care, tolerance, and compassion, will cut through the illusion of certainty that blinds us to the real value of relationship: having someone who supports us through joy and turbulence, who sees beauty amidst our warts, and who, most importantly, helps us realize our humanity by allowing us to love and support in kind.