How Can Romantic Love Transform Into Long-Term Intimacy?
What new lovers need to know to make a long-term relationship possible
Posted February 10, 2013
In my forty years of counseling couples, I have faced many intimate partners as they were trying to hold on to loving feelings that seemed to be slipping away. They had once completely adored one another in a romantic connection they felt would never end, and couldn’t understand how a bond so intense, so passionate, and so real, could have diminished. Why wasn’t a deeper love emerging to replace it?
The tragedy of diminishing love is built in to the nature of romantic relationships. Every romantic poem, song, greeting card, and movie promises that it will last forever exactly how it is. New lovers are promised that their blissful connection to each other will never fade and that no other love will ever replace it.
History is replete with beautiful love songs that illustrate those tenets. Many never lose their romantic message over time. Jo Stafford’s “No other Love “ is one of the beautiful songs dedicated to that promise. The lyrics are written to a Chopin’s Etude and are as beautiful today as they were when Paul Weston and Bob Russel wrote them over sixty years ago:
No Other Love can warm my heart
Now that I’ve known the comfort of your arms
No other love
Oh the sweet contentment that I find with you
Every time, every time
No other lips could want you more
For I was born to glory in your kiss
I was blessed with love to love you
Til the stars burn out above you
Til the moon is but a silver shell
No Other Love
Let no other love
Know the wonder of your spell.
Romantic love based on we-will-never-change-the-way-we-feel is, sadly, doomed to lose its bond. People change. Feelings change. Dreams change. Life itself, changes. Unpredictable circumstances bring unforeseen experiences. A love that must stay fixed in its original bond cannot weather those unexpected challenges. Unless new love’s passionate connection can transform into a deeper kind of intimacy, the partners will become increasingly disappointed in each other as time goes by. “The honeymoon is over,” is a very real phenomenon.
Why then do new lovers continue to believe that their present exciting infatuation will last forever?
The answer challenges the very concept of romantic love which promises a fantasy forever. Most new lovers resist facing any thoughts or experiences that might interfere with the magical, unconditionally loving world they have created. Yet, if they were to embrace the concepts of necessary transformation from the beginning of their relationship, they might have a real chance for long-lasting intimacy.
The Romantic Dream
The core of romantic interaction is a combination of a symbolic parent/child bond intricately mixed with lustful fulfillment. The goal of a romantic entanglement is to reenact the relationships both partners ached for as young children, while simultaneously being engulfed in adult-appropriate sexual passion. When new lovers promise to never abandon, always support, unconditionally love forever, they move dangerously into a no-win future. No adult can give another what they still long for in times gone by.
If they feel that unconscious promise of unconditional love and security and add to it physical attraction, proximity, and chemistry, they offer each other a seductive package that is exhilarating to the mind, heart, and soul. That promise of forever connection with unending sexual excitement produces an obsessive compulsion to meld into the delusion of one combined being, never to be separated again.
After working our way through the maze of childhood, most of us enter adulthood searching for the romantic partner who will symbolically re-create the family relationships we have left behind. Depending on what combination of nurturing and trauma has created those expectations, we unconsciously seek out that other half to make us whole again. Without deeper understanding of what drives that search, we are likely to unconsciously yearn for that parent/child bond to re-emerge.
Unfortunately, that kind of innocent blending of symbolic parent/child caretaking, no matter how sweet and satisfying cannot bear the challenges that lie ahead for any long-term adult relationship. A fusion-driven relationship is, by its very nature, one-on-one focused. The partners must put each other at the center of their mutual world, de-prioritizing anything or anyone, else. They must also ignore any present disappointments or future relationship-destroying behaviors, and focus only on that which surrounds and supports their current involvement.
But, because most people come from an incomplete childhood desire to make that fusion recur, we are very likely to seek a fantasy that is not sustainable in present time. If we try to maintain the illusion, our romantic relationship will eventually die. In order to move to a more mature intimacy, we must leave behind the promises of re-creating a perfect parent/child partnership.
The words that describe romantic passion are very similar to those used in the descriptions of the relationship between devoted parents and their adoring children. A child, describing his beloved parent(s), will use phrases like:
“I love my mom so much. She says I am the best kid in the world.”
“I feel safe when my dad holds me.”
“My mom knows everything. She is amazing.”
“My dad is more powerful than anyone. He can do anything.”
In short, children who were well-loved describe their parents as powerfully impacting creatures, more God than human. A parent, describing his or her cherished child, uses phrases that talk of devotion, affection, responsibility, worry, obsession, “foreverness”, treasure, cherish, unconditionally beloved, forgiven for faults, and seen as perfect.
“I would do anything for him.”
“I love to hold her close.”
“I worry about him all the time.”
“I treasure everything about her. She’ll always be my sweetheart.”
“Nothing could make me not love him.”
“It wouldn’t matter if she has faults, I’ll always adore her.”
The similarity in all of these phrases is the absolute certainty of continued unconditional devotion and unbreakable fusion. Romantic love promises that both partners will remain in this state of mutual adoration forever, no matter what comes. The affective terms like “baby,” “sweetness,” “doll,” “pooh-bear,” “love of my life,” etc., fill a romantic lover’s affection vocabulary, and promise that the beloved will always be described that way.
Most children were not loved perfectly. Grown into adulthood, they often eulogize the way they were raised to compensate for what actually might have occurred. These inaccurate or more even hurtful memories often give romantic love a perplexing and mystifying twist; the object of one’s affection must also be somewhat out of reach and occasionally unavailable. Without that enigma present, the unconscious memories would conflict too much with too perfect a present connection.
The partners in a new love relationship are always trying to out-think and out-please each other’s every desire before it is even expressed. Each must put a best foot forward, never failing to give whatever might be wanted, and with every ounce of one’s capacity, less feelings of disappointment might occur. They bask in what appears to be forever safe, while simultaneously knowing that they could do something wrong and lose again what they have created. The innate knowledge that everything eventually ends drives them to pretend that their love will never perish.
Because of love’s mystifying nature and ever-threatened demise, romantic lovers must be bigger-than-life heroes and heroines, able to make time stand still. Recall commonly descriptive words of the arduous swain: charming, amorous, enchanting, infatuated, passionate, rapturous, yearning, heroic, mischievous, risk-taking, sacrificial. Then, his “seductee”: erotic, captivating, mysterious, desirable, forbidden, in need of rescuing, yearning, innocent, beautiful, confused, and waiting to be carried away. The art is in the hunt and its magical ending, when happily ever after ends the tale. There can be no aging, no future challenges or losses, no disappointments, and no transformation of the original script. It is an affair of fantasy, a fairy tale adventure that must never change or it will fall apart.
Recall the famous stanza from “My Funny Valentine” written by Rogers and Hart in l937. It is still a favorite today.
But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine, stay
Each day is Valentine’s Day
Sadly, these romantic entanglements most often end. When real life interrupts with its predictable problems and challenges, other priorities re-emerge and conflict with focused devotion. The lovers, once consumed with satisfying the other, must now face other demands, bringing to life the most feared of all results to a romantic couple: abandonment of unconditional acceptance and commitments in favor of more important demands. Because the lovers have professed that they cannot live without each other, they must break the illusion of their perfect tryst, or let it die.
Hope for Transformation
True intimacy makes no other promises but the promise of heroically facing together whatever comes. Both partners vow to risk more when they are afraid, and reinvest in their relationship even when they feel discouraged.
If the goal of new lovers is to transform their passionate romance into true intimacy, they cannot stay in a parent/child fantasy fusion. They must eventually mature into real-life grown-up people who are capable of long-term commitments which include the acceptance and devotion to this transformation. The very goal of intimacy is the ability of both partners to be open to a non-possessive love that ensures freedom within commitment, yet totally devoted to their faithfulness to their relationship. In order for their love to continue to thrive, it must also make room for personal fulfillment and a parallel, shared devotion to others.
Many of the words that describe long-lasting intimacy are also used to describe romantic liaisons in their inception. However, those descriptions fade over time in romantic relationships. Partners who create a long-lasting, intimate relationship describe their connection in phrases less likely to change over time: a combination of deep friendship, soul-connecting, emerging purpose, and tender empathic support without indulgence. They use phrases that underscore their resilient devotion:
Our significant interactions open up new ways for us to be together because we don’t let misunderstandings build resentments or close off communication.
We understand each other to the core. That doesn’t mean we have to like everything we know, but that doesn’t stop us from sharing it. We’d rather be open to whatever is there than not be able to vote for what is possible.
We’re there to help each other face challenges in life, but never with indulgent comfort that could weaken either of us when the time comes to act.
There is an ease between us that comes from knowing there will be no negative surprises. Our relationship is our sanctuary.
We respect each other’s emotional and physical boundaries and don’t invade without permission.
Our emotional and sexual passion is quiet and deep. We can resurrect our memories of romance but they are always underscored by the reality of who we really are for each other.
We trust each other to act as we have promised or to renegotiate a new contract. That applies to everything from money to fidelity.
We never separate when things are hard, but encourage disconnects for privacy and for reflection.
We fight for truth when we disagree and look for new options that can include both of our needs.
When couples achieve true intimacy, they know how to bring back their initial romantic feelings, but imbedded within the depth of the heart-sharing history they have created over time. The difference between how they felt when their love was new, and how it has grown over time is in their ability to shift into a team with a unified purpose. From that place of earned respect and deeper love, they can simultaneously live in a larger interpersonal world while still holding the sacredness of their commitment to each other intact. They are no longer keeping their love alive by intertwining themselves into one, but are synergistically now more than the sum of their individual parts.
It may seem as if only more mature people can achieve intimate relationships because lust is such a powerful driver in young people. My experience does not bear that out. I have seen beautiful romantic relationships transform into deeper intimacy in very young people, and not get off the ground in those who have much more experience. It is true that life experience may give older people an edge on understanding what is demanded of any long-term couple, but that does not guarantee they will make the time and commitment to build true intimacy. It also does not guarantee that partners already in long-term relationships will devote the extra energy needed to revive a relationship that has lost its passion.
A beautiful stanza from Leonard Cohen’s “Humbled in Love” l979 album illustrates:
Do you remember all of those pledges
That we pledged in the passionate night
Ah they’re soiled now, they’re torn at the edges
Like moths on a still yellow light
No penance serves to renew them
No massive transfusions of trust
Why not even revenge can undo them
So twisted these vows and so crushed
And you say you’ve been humbled in love
Cut down in your love
Forced to kneel in the mud next to me
Ah but why so bitterly turn from the one
Who kneels there as deeply as thee.
“As deeply as thee,” heralds the importance of realizing that your partner is your best chance to transform your romantic relationship into long-lasting intimacy if your love is still viable.
New lovers who understand what they must simultaneously plan while being passionately engulfed in their fantasy of fusion and joy, have a much better chance at a long-term intimate relationship. But, if they continue to expect their romantic love to last without that transformation, they will doom themselves to the sorrow of love lost, often a tragedy that could have been averted. Most people, unfortunately, tend to repeat patterns rather than transform them into more successful connections. The past only defines the future when it is repeated.
Are you drawn towards romantic relationships?
The next time you fall into the ecstasy of romantic fusion/passion, can you and your partner ask these questions of yourselves early in the relationship and be willing to share them with each other when the time is right?
Do you remind me of someone from my childhood whose love I still want?
When I’m in your arms, do I feel comforted as if I were a safe child?
Do I feel that I would die were you to leave me?
When we are apart, do I feel incomplete and unable to function until you are back with me?
Do I think of you every moment when we are not together?
Do I always wonder if you’ll come back when you’re gone?
Do I feel like I want to hold on to you tightly and never let go?
Are you magical to me?
Do I wonder how I ever lived life without you?
Do I fear that you will find fault with me?
Do I wait by my phone to just hear your voice?
Do I want to spend every waking moment with you?
Do I feel insecure and threatened if you want to be with anyone else but me?
Do I want our relationship to never change?
If you find yourselves answering yes to most of these questions, you are probably in a fusion/lust connection and are not creating the dimensions that could keep your love alive in the future.
Are you seeking to transform your romantic relationship into a long-term intimate one?
If you and your partner can begin to say “yes” to most of the following questions, you will be able to make the transition from romance to intimacy.
Can I can share my deepest vulnerabilities with my partner and know I will be understood?
Do I want the best for my partner, even if his or her choices might challenge our relationship?
Can my partner trust me with whatever he or she needs to share?
Will I support my partner’s dreams even when they compete with mine?
Can I trust my partner will always tell me the truth even if it may cause us to re-think our commitment?
Do I feel easy and confident that my partner and I know each other’s needs and we’re fair in sharing our resources?
Do I most always respect my partner in the way he or she is with others?
Even though my partner and I have each other’s backs, are we able to challenge one another in the decisions we make?
Will we be there for each other when times are hard?
Can we accept the validity of each other’s desires, even if we can’t always meet them?
Can we keep our promises, or renegotiate if we can’t?
Will we consider our partner’s wishes even when they are not with us?
Can we cherish our history together including the hard times, and be proud of how we’ve changed for the better because of our relationship?
Can we let our partners be free enough to be themselves without being possessive?
Will we check in with each other regularly to redesign our relationship and make certain it is still on track for both of us?
Can we share the same values, ethics, and dreams, and make sure they are current?
Many of both romantic and intimacy questions may not be answerable too early in a relationship, but they should always be present in each person’s mind until they are. The sooner the answers are shared, the greater chance any new relationship has of becoming a long-lasting commitment.
Not all people want or seek long-term intimacy, nor do they need to. Romantic fusion is so exhilarating, so sweet, so heady, and so rapturous, that many people would just as soon experience it sequentially without needing to make it anything else. The powerful seduction of strangers who can only see the fascination in each other is a compelling force.
Each partner should know what he or she is giving up in order to choose that way of being. Some people live a lifetime that way, while others stop seeking romantic fusion because they feel too lonely in between trysts. Some want intimacy, but cannot hold to the principles that keep it alive, and must suffer hard-to-endure losses. Increasingly, there are partners who stay committed to their intimate relationships while simultaneously creating clandestine trysts, hoping to experience both fusion/lust and long-term security at the same time.
Whichever a person chooses, he or she will be more successful with the knowledge and wisdom to make intentional choices and to be accountable for them. Life does not always cater to our wishes, no matter how carefully one plans, but knowing what is true and what is not will give any relationship seeker a better chance to achieve what he or she desires.