Remember Jeff Goldblum's line from Jurassic Park
? "Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that's how it always starts, but then later there's running, then screaming."
Romantic relationships almost always start out "oooh, ahhh." Of course, older and wiser people tell us that it's only hormones. Infatuation! But we don't believe it. It feels like so much more.
Well, it is more. It's also idealization. University of Iowa researchers concluded the following:1
- Romantic interest causes positive comparisons to self.
- Such comparisons to self cast love objects in a favorable light and also blind us to their shortcomings.
- Romantic interest leads to overestimation of similarities.
Then later, things change. Neurochemistry regulates. Infatuation fades. We stop idealizing our partners and start seeing their faults. Many are less sexually attracted, too. We feel like running and screaming. We are disenchanted.
How did we end up here?
Here's how romantic couples end up at this crucial fork in the road:
- Although infatuation is a normal experience, it is not a normal state of being. Thanks to temporarily enhanced neurochemistry - Nature's way of perpetuating the species - we believe that we are special and bound for romantic success. Infatuated couples (of any age) behave in ways that, absent the infatuation explanation, would be seen as delusional, obsessive-compulsive, and manic. Infatuation is exhilarating, irresistible, incomparable, and it does not last!
- Conventional wisdom embraces the perpetual infatuation fantasy. This is the belief that only the romantically inept let infatuation die. This myth is kept alive by couples' wishful thinking and by entrepreneurs who profit from perpetuating this fantasy. Think about it. There's money to be made convincing romantic couples to stop at nothing and spare no expense trying to rekindle the one-time-only experience of infatuation.
- Romantic couples choose fantasy over reality. Who wouldn't? We imagine that we can still have the fantasy, if only our partner goes back to being the enchanting person with whom we fell in love. The fading of infatuation threatens our happily-ever-after.
- When we feel threatened, survival instincts predispose us to behave defensively and/or aggressively. The no-longer-idealized partner is blamed, and we start in the direction of disenchantment. See previous posts: Your Spouse is Behaving Badly...and This Is Your Brain on Disenchantment.
Fortunately, there is another direction romantic partners can turn - toward mature love. Mature love has little to do with chronological maturity and everything to do with partners' emotional maturity. The foundation of mature love is self-responsibility. Self-responsible spouses:
- Commit to self-correction, "growing themselves up."
- Focus on behaving constructively, regardless of provocation by spouse.
- Recognize that partners are not renovation projects.
- Take command of their own negative emotions and insecurities.
- Understand that partners are not responsible for each other's happiness and unhappiness.
- Cultivate rational responses, despite defensive and/or aggressive first reactions.
The following comments not only show how far these clients have come but also provide real life examples of progress toward emotional maturity:
Client A, in her early 40s, sought counseling after divorcing an abusive husband then quickly establishing another relationship with an emotionally abusive man. The primary focus of her sessions has been increasing her emotional maturity. She ended the second abusive relationship and, currently, is in the first healthy romantic relationship of her life.
This is what she said: "This relationship is just so calm. I mean, there's practically no drama. In the past, I thought that drama, no matter how awful, was proof that the guy actually cared. Now, I think the opposite. The fact that we both stay calm and rational shows how much we care."
Client B, in his mid-30s, sought counseling because he wanted to break his pattern of unfulfilling relationships. The controlling and emotionally distant woman he was dating at the time told him that he was "too needy" and should get psychological help. The primary focus of his sessions has been increasing his emotional maturity. After a few months, he stopped trying to influence his partner's opinion of him and ended the relationship.
This is what he said: "Remember when you said that what one woman sees as needy another one sees as attentive? Well, I realized something recently. I think the women I've thought of as 'too nice' may be the emotionally mature ones. They seem 'too nice' because they aren't out to manipulate me."
For more about how to get to emotional maturity, see previous posts: The One and Only Marital Obligation, How to Train Your Dragon, and Walking the Path Alone: Self-responsible Spouse.
1. Shanhong Luo and Eva C. Klohnen, "Associative Mating and Marital Quality in Newlyweds: A Couple-centered Approach," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88, no. 2 ( 2005): 304-326.