Love and the Illusion of Certainty

Be certain of your values, not your projections.

Posted Nov 06, 2019

If you're like most people, you rode into married life on powerful waves of affection and intimacy, waves that crashed occasionally into self-doubt and apprehension, only to rise again, stronger than ever. In other words, you married for love. That was the easy part.

Alas, 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 of any kind create an illusion of certainty, which makes them self-validating:

  • I'm angry; you must be doing something wrong.
  • I'm afraid; you must be threatening.
  • I'm feel 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 loved the most.

Strong feelings and sensations of any kind obscure our perceptions of what other people experience. When you have a terrible headache, it's hard to recognize that someone else has a back ache. 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 what we want to see in 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 that 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 by the second year of living together, even though 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 deceived me into thinking you were what I wanted and that I was what you wanted."

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 change; 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 that 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, 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 all our failings but loves us anyway, and who, most importantly, helps us realize our humanity by allowing us to love, support, and appreciate in kind.