She settled into a chair in my office and looked at me with sad resignation. “I’ve been married to a wonderful man for three years,” she said at last. “And I know this probably sounds crazy, but here’s the thing: I love my husband, but I’m not in love with him anymore. I don’t know what to do.”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard similar sentiments from clients who are distressed that the sensation of being in love has vanished in the everyday realities of life together.
The excitement and wonder of early love, of mutual discovery, of delighting in fantasies and anticipating sharing so much in the years ahead is a memorable phase in a couple’s life together. But, as phases tend to do, this one passes as jobs, bills, children, conflicts, aging parents, and other realities of long-term love begin to push those fantasies aside. It’s hard to harbor glamorous illusions close-up, over time. While some view this relationship transition with dismay and wonder if it means that love is over, and the time has come to move on, others view it positively. For after the fantasies and illusions begin to fall away, it’s possible that what comes into focus is something much better: a realistic, sustainable love. It is a cause not for lamentation, but for celebration.
Because in most cases, reality is easier to live with long-term than lovely fantasies and lofty expectations. “It isn’t a matter of letting oneself go, but giving each other a break,” Ashley, married for eight years to Dan, told me not long ago. “When we were dating and first married, it was really important to me to look my best all the time. I’d race out of bed in the morning and do my hair and makeup quickly so Dan wouldn’t see what I really looked like first thing in the morning. Now, after having two kids together and juggling our lives, their activities, and our jobs, there isn’t time for all the small details that used to be so major. We’re both dedicated to staying fit and healthy—for our kids and for ourselves. But Dan has seen me through a lot more than tousled hair and no eye makeup—and we love each other, as is, more than ever!”
When you’re in love, you may be focusing on an idealized version of a person. There may be a lot of truth in your view of your beloved, but there can be a generous helping of hope and fantasy too. But growing to love the real person and accepting who he or she is, with both strengths and weaknesses, can make a wonderful difference in your relationship, helping it to become a lasting source of comfort, emotional safety, and a wonderfully sustainable joy.
Because when you see each other realistically and come to know each other well, you’re less likely to disappoint each other. There can be a lot of pressure initially to be continually attentive and cheerful and witty. As you relax into the relationship and accept each other realistically, there is a greater chance that those times when you aren’t so witty, when you’re a little cranky, or when you disagree will not be deal-breakers. When you’re in love, you tend to be on your best behavior and expect your loved one to do the same. When you’ve transitioned into a loving relationship, you know that there will be times when life together is not as much fun, that your partner has his or her faults as well as strengths, and you’re able to embrace and accept her or him during the challenging as well as the happy times. When you let go of trying to fulfill a fantasy, trying to change your partner into someone you had hoped he or she would become, when you accept the fact that you’re both imperfect and that some days will be better than others, you’re less likely to be disappointed and more likely to live in harmony.
Because letting go of old fantasies makes room for wonderful surprises. When you stop trying to change a spouse—or yourself—to fit each other’s fantasies and simply love each other, encouraging the other to grow in ways very much his or her own, wonderful surprises may be in store. When I married my husband Bob 41 years ago, I knew he was very bright, and I had this fantasy about him returning to college for a degree. (His academic career at the University of California, Berkeley was derailed by his youthful idealism and preference for protesting and singing in coffee houses instead of going to class). I envisioned a degree leading to a satisfying professional career. But Bob’s reality exceeded any of those old fantasies, and I let go of it in time. Because of his intelligence and work ethic, he built a career as a hydraulic engineer without that college degree. His curiosity and devotion to lifelong learning wear well in our relationship. And his lingering idealism led to his volunteering with Big Brothers for 22 years, enriching the lives of three very special boys ... one of whom has become like a son to us, bringing immeasurable joy to both our lives.
Because a lasting love thrives on intimate friendship rather than idealization. It’s good to have a friend who knows you well, likes you anyway, and loves you forever—and to be that kind of loving friend to another.
So what do you do if you find that feeling of being in love slipping away? Treasure the memories, but embrace what is. Make the decision and commitment to keep loving each other, day by day, as is, through all the years you will share together.