The Autopilot Death of Love

We're prone to blame, deny, and avoid our way to relationship demise.

Posted Feb 04, 2018

One of the reasons that love relationships are so hard is because falling in love is so easy. Powerful hormones and neurotransmitters heighten our senses, activate primal drives, and lower our defenses; to a large extent they make us fall in love. Despite the enormous complications of modern relationships, the human brain really wants to love.

Alas, the biology that brings us together doesn’t keep us together. In fact, biology makes it more difficult to live together in happiness for more than a few years. That’s probably because the biological underpinnings of emotional bonds evolved at a time when humans were tribal, not pair-bonded. Maintaining communal connection was more important to survival than sustaining intimate connection. The focus of two individuals on each other was to reproduce, not to build a life together, as we now desire.

Of course biology is only part of the story. The social and cultural factors that at one time helped sustain long-term relationships have now become a hindrance to them. For instance, marrying for love is relatively recent in human history. Up until a couple hundred years ago, marriage was entirely a political, social, or familial arrangement. A higher authority would commit you to a union with a person you hardly knew. Sometimes you wouldn’t even see your betrothed until the wedding ceremony. “Lifting the veil” was often the first time the betrothed were face to face. Many people retain that tradition, along with not allowing the groom to see the bride on their wedding day, even when they’ve been living together for several years.

In the past, two people with very low levels of interest, trust, compassion, and love for each other agreed to form a union and build a life together. From such a low emotional starting point, there’s nowhere to go but up. In modern times, we start from very high levels of interest, trust, compassion, and love, unsustainable levels given the focus and energy they consume. For us, there’s nowhere to go but down.

The loss of infatuation is typically the first crisis of love relationships, occurring by the second year of living together. Unfortunately, many couples cope with this crisis with the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance, which are likely to increase the guilt, shame, and anxiety that emerge automatically as emotional bonds fade. In the Adult brain guilt, shame, and anxiety motivate improvement, appreciation, connection, and protection. In the Toddler brain, they turn into resentment, anger, and, eventually, contempt.

An unforeseen but devastating pressure on long-term love relationships came from the precipitous decline of the extended family in the U.S. As recently as a couple generations ago, the nuclear family—two parents and children living alone together—was a rarity. Typically, grandma was upstairs, Aunt Sally was in the basement, and Uncle Fred was in the spare room. If they weren’t under the same roof, they were next door or across the street. Extended families afforded couples much needed support with children and finances. Nearly as important, members of the extended family were often emotional confidants for beleaguered spouses. Unlike their predecessors, couples trying to maintain intimate relationships now are quite on their own.

Other cultural changes in recent decades have increased the pressure on modern intimate relationships, but those do not include the breakdown of traditional gender roles as is sometimes mentioned in the press. Egalitarian behaviors have proved liberating and beneficial in love relationships. The more egalitarian—shared power, choices, and control of resources—the more likely relationships are to be happy. Rather, the negative effects of cultural change come in no small part from the radical transformation of expectations that couples bring to committed unions, particularly over what intimate partners should do for each other.

The family historian Stephanie Coonz has written two excellent books on the social and psychological changes in marriage, The History of Marriage and The Way We Never Were. She points out, for example, that women of a couple generations ago would be appalled at the suggestion that they consider their male partners as emotional confidants. Women of years past generally regarded their husbands as the last persons they would speak to about anything emotional. Only after testing the waters with girlfriends, sisters, aunts, and mothers might they mention emotional issues to their male partners. They simply did not believe husbands could understand the complexity of their feelings.

Of course wives of those times didn’t understand their husbands any better than their husbands understood them. The cultural shifts since those times have produced major changes in roles and expectations, with only slight improvement in understanding

Partners can understand each other’s emotional complexity and form a more perfect union, but only when they replace Toddler brain habits of blame, denial, and avoidance with Adult brain habits of improve, appreciate, connect, and protect. The painful disconnection that modern intimate partners constantly confront rises from attempts to get their partners to do something—“meet my needs”—when both are in their Toddler brain. In the Toddler brain, they’re incapable of seeing, much less helping each other.