Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Falling Out of Love: Step by Step

Actually, it's more like sliding down the side of a hill.

“Love makes the world go around.”

No, it doesn’t. It’s gravity, or angular momentum. Something like that.

I would like to write about romantic love objectively, if it is possible to do so without hurting anyone’s feelings. It is a subject that people sing about and write poetry about and feel especially strongly about. People who have recently fallen in love tell me that “Finally, I met Mr. Right;” as if there were only one right person out of all those hundreds everyone meets in the space of a year or two. If I point out that paring off and mating is the normal and natural consequence of being an animal, that person is likely to get angry at me. I am belittling the very special character of this other person; and, along the way, I am making light of being in love.

It is usual that when someone feels anything very strongly, it seems as if that feeling will last forever. Grief has that character; and so does romantic love. It is pointless, and annoying, to tell someone who has just been jilted, for instance, that that feeling will go away in time. Everyone who has any experience of the world knows that is true; and yet this particular relationship, the person feels, was a little different. They had something very special. People romanticize their romantic relationships. Here are some relevant facts:

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

  1. People fall in love repeatedly. Sometimes they marry repeatedly.
  2. If a beloved person is away for long periods of time—in the army, or at college, or in jail—people tend to fall out of love, even when their love was passionate and all-consuming.

I might mention in this context a book I read quickly one day while I was taking a bath and got so angry I splashed water all over the floor. It was “Bridges of Madison County.” This immensely popular story was about a middle-aged lady in a sort-of drab marriage—not loveless, which suggests the couple hated each other—just drab and boring. Like a lot of marriages. One day, she opens the door and finds the love of her life wandering around outside. They enter into a passionate affair. They make love all the time, as I remember. (Since I destroyed the book, I cannot be sure of the details.) Then, out of respect for her marriage, they do not see each other for the rest of their lives! That is not the way people behave in that situation, as far as I am concerned. The man, at least, will attempt to convince the woman to leave her husband. He would not honorably and quietly recede into the distance.

 But that was not what bothered me. This passionate man stays away from this woman for the next twenty or so years, and because he cannot make love to the woman he loves, he remains abstinent for all that time! Not in a million years! Forget it! Some ascetic and phlegmatic men can be abstinent for long periods of time, but not someone who makes love day and night when he is otherwise in the mood.

  1. Romantic love—that exciting, passionate, enveloping feeling that can entirely preoccupy someone—serves a psychological/biological purpose. It is to draw two people together so powerfully that they do not see each other accurately. They do not see faults in the other person. They rush head-long into a sexual relationship which serves the evolutionary purpose of sustaining the survival of the species. I know this is not a romantic view of what is going on, but it is accurate. We fall in love in order to stay together—no matter what—until children are brought into the world. When that happens, there are many other psychological and economic factors that hold a couple together in a more mature love. In a family. This later kind of love is no less powerful and compelling than romantic love. One merges imperceptibly into the other.

By then the initial excitement of romantic love may have faded; but the couple will likely say that they are still in love. Maybe, even, more in love. But they do not call each other on the telephone every few minutes to repeat a joke or just in order to hear the other person talking. They do not make love at every opportunity. They are not preoccupied with each other. The critical importance of romantic love is at the very beginning of the relationship when the relationship is otherwise fragile.

  1. Romantic love does not always lead to a permanent relationship. A number of psychological factors have to be just right. It can fall apart for a number of reasons.

First of all, a romantic relationship will tend to fall apart if the timing is bad. One or both may not be “ready.” Although falling in love is still exciting, even enthralling, it does not outweigh the adventure of being independent. On the other hand, there are some who have detailed plans to start a career but  suddenly find that the appeal of being with this particular person matters more, even though, had they been asked, they would have said that they were not ready to settle down.

In the background are the opinions of others. A relationship that might have worked perfectly well when supported by others will not if there are family pressures or pressures from friends to continue dating other people. This is often a reaction to how old the couple is. In previous generations social pressures pushed people into marrying at an early age. Nowadays the pressures operate in the other direction. Except for certain religious groups, most college graduates are not expected to settle down until they get into the late twenties or early thirties. These pressures are subtle, but very real. Sometimes the same couple will meet again at a more propitious time and fall in love. More frequently, they will have moved on and fallen in love with someone else.

Of course, these social pressures change again when someone approaches and then passes a certain age. As women, and men also, get older, the possibility of not being able to have children becomes very real; and then everyone encourages falling in love and settling down.

Some people feel that meeting the right person should be left to chance. They take a fatalistic view, like the view of the sergeant in war movies: “You only have to worry about the bullet with your name on it.” This is an argument for not worrying. It is also an argument for not doing anything. Actually, it is an excuse. There is scarcely anything in life that is not made more likely by putting in an effort to make that happen. Just being in love is not enough of a reason to make a permanent connection with a particular person. Anyone can fall in love with anyone; but marriage should be reserved for those who are likely to fit emotionally and in other ways. People should make an effort to be around suitable persons so that falling in love is likely to work out.

But there are other circumstances that are likely to make a couple fall out of love. Although these are varied, the emotional reactions they elicit are similar. A couple who fall in love, and then out of love, tend to pass through certain stages. They tend to feel particular ways on the way out of the relationship.

Imagine a young couple, Timmy and Jane, who met just a couple of months ago at a college reunion. She was twenty-one, and he twenty-four. They both would have said that the first thing they noticed about the other was that he, and she, were good-looking; but each found the other interesting too. Timmy was poised and good-natured. Jane was bubbly and gay. (Other imaginary couples could have been different. A bubbly woman appeals to some men but not those others who might prefer someone who is demure and thoughtful, or shy, or sensitive, or restrained.)

Timmy and Jane see each other frequently during the first few weeks after they meet and soon enough are sleeping together. They become a couple. They get to know each other’s friends. They even meet each other’s parents. If they have any reservations about these other people, they are subdued. Everything seems fine. They go on outings together. They walk through the park together, watching the leaves change color. They are in love. But then little things begin to go wrong.

Two things seem to happen simultaneously (at least, it seems so to me as I watch from the sidelines.) Timmy goes off on a short cruise with family at a time when he could have been with Jane—who was not invited to go along. Jane starts to think and talk aloud about an old boyfriend. Both are hurt just a little. Timmy explains that this is an annual cruise paid by his parents. Jane says that bringing up her old boyfriend was a mistake. The past is past, she reassures him.

In the next few months, work seems to interfere with Timmy’s ability to see Jane even when she tells him she misses him. He does not seem quite as ardent as he did at first. He points out, like the song says, their love was “too hot not to cool down.” Jane is vaguely annoyed by Timmy’s not being around very much, but she too goes off for a weekend with a couple of friends. Timmy points out that she is not always available, despite what she says. He notices that occasionally when he wants to make love, she is too tired.

Both of them are distracted by issues at work and in their respective families. Each tries to be sympathetic to the other’s problems, but both feel just a little taken for granted. Jane purposely works one weekend, so that Timmy knows how it feels. Timmy comes to their dates late, as he always did; but now Jane complains. He apologizes, but still comes late. On a couple of dates, he spends the evening watching a football game. Although Jane does not complain (much), she has become discontented.

Timmy is resentful when he discovers that Jane went out to lunch with an old boyfriend. He makes a point of seeing his friends regularly after work at a downtown bar. Jane asks me if it isn’t immature for a man his age to spend a lot of time in bars. She also does not like the way he dresses, although he dresses the same as he has always done. For his part, Timmy complains that Jane puts her family first.

Nevertheless, in an attempt to save their relationship, they both go on a vacation for a week to the Bahamas. It does not go very well. Jane notices that Timmy looks at every woman who walks by. He accuses her of being jealous. It is not jealousy, she says; she just does not like to be treated rudely.

Also, she notices that he makes noise when he eats.

Both express feelings of dissatisfaction to each other, without getting any response.

And both are beginning to feel bored a little.

At this point, or at any point along the way, a separation for any reason for any length of time might  end the relationship. If either meets someone else, it can end abruptly. Otherwise, it peters out over months, until someone says, “We need a break for a while.” They may get together again briefly, but they have fallen out of love.

The things that I have attributed to Timmy might just as well have applied to Jane. For instance, I have seen men complain bitterly about their girlfriends being too caught up with professional sports. Either person can develop problems with their partner’s parents or friends. Either is just as likely to be jealous. Either can be the first to lose interest in sex. And these issues are only a few of all those than can make love dwindle.

Of course, most dating relationships are not characterized by falling in love. Most are not emotionally charged, and breaking apart leaves no mark. Someone who has been in love, however, can pine for the other person off and on for years. Sometimes I think they are remembering not only the other person, but the way they, themselves, used to be, when they were feeling exhilarated and exuberant and loving. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask questions at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr.-neuman-advice-column/

 

 

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

more...

Subscribe to Fighting Fear

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?