Love Is Easy
Relationships are hard.
Posted December 15, 2017
Many of my patients are left bewildered when their hopeful romances fade away. They sincerely believed that each one had the possibility of long-term success, yet couldn’t fulfill that promise.
These legitimately discouraged relationship-seekers come into therapy looking for answers that they could not find themselves. They feel they’ve tried everything to choose the right people and to give the best of themselves to those relationships. Yet despite their vigilance and authentic commitment, things happened that they could not have predicted.
Many of them have gone through this same hope-to-despair process multiple times. Yet they don’t want to give up or let their disappointments limit future possibilities. They know that after a period of grieving and self-reflection, they will want to try again.
For most people, a new possibility eventually emerges. Once again, they feel the magical experience of near-perfect compatibility and the excitement of new discovery they had felt in the past — until that relationship also ends.
Falling in love does not seem to be the problem. Staying in love does.
These are some of the questions they ask:
- “What is it about new love that masks its potential demise?”
- “What causes authentic passion and legitimate confidence in long-term love to somehow diminish?“
- “How can I stay aware of potential warning signs?”
- “And even if I could, would I be able to stop those feelings from slipping through my emotional fingers?”
- “Are there guiding principles that could help me know in advance how to prevent these sorrowful endings?”
Over the four decades I’ve worked with people in intimate relationships, I’ve discovered six guiding principles that seem to help. They will hopefully allow you to approach love differently, rather than trying to fix it later when it is falling apart. When people use these principles to choose their next relationship, they tend to be more successful in forming the kind of partnership they want.
1. Falling in Love Too Quickly
The sweetness of new love is intense and thrilling. The combination of intellectual discovery, sexual passion, and emotional exploration is a heady mix that often makes both lovers unable to see what is ahead.
Unfortunately, the rapid ascent into this heaven-blending can mask potential relationship threats that can frequently emerge as any relationship matures. Because of too-often-unspoken challenges that both partners may have unwittingly avoided, their blossoming relationship may take a hit about the six-month mark. Unpracticed in recognizing or dealing with unexpected problems, the couple finds themselves unable to cope, and the relationship crumbles under their weight.
Long-lasting relationships have many dimensions, some of which are crucially important in the long run to that specific partnership. Those dimensions must be explored and any emerging conflicts dealt with early in any relationship. As a result, people who fall in love too quickly frequently do not do that crucial relationship work.
When people take the time to do that process well, they want to do whatever is necessary to learn everything they can about each other. Who are the important people in their lives? What do they need to feel loved? What can they give in a relationship? Do they have a guiding principle beyond themselves? What excites them to think about? The authentic answers to these kinds of questions have past, present, and future influence on the potential of the relationship.
When lovers fall in love too fast, they bask in the glow of their new passion and often put aside these explorations to guarantee that magic will stay undiluted. When those initial passions quiet down, as they are wont to do, the motivation to do the hard work simultaneously lessens.
2. Falling in Love With Love
Many relationship-seekers have predetermined ideas and expectations of how true love should manifest. Those expectations are created from and affected by everything each new partner has learned from past experiences. Too often, people come into relationships confusing the ecstasy of new love with the more serious nature of a long-lasting commitment.
Those rose-colored prior expectations too often cloud what may actually be happening in the current relationship. New lovers are anxious to please, and may inadvertently offer up what they feel the other might want, even if it is not what they really think or feel. They end up feeding each other’s unrealistic expectations and cannot sustain them over time.
When relationship-seekers think they already know what love is “supposed to feel like” with a partner they haven’t even met, they are setting themselves up for predictable disillusionment. A love-relationship script written wholly by one is less likely to be interesting or attractive to the other.
Of course, past relationship successes and failures can run the risk of clouding information and limiting new possibilities. But the more open two people are to the unique blend of thoughts and feelings they bring to each other, the more likely they will be able to go beyond their past limitations.
3. Attachment to Outcome
Working toward goals is part of a successful life. Getting an education, being on a defined career path, learning to live healthily, finishing tasks, and the like are ways of being that define healthy pursuits.
New couples do, and should, explore each of their predetermined ideals of what wonderful relationships look and feel like to make sure they are on the same path. However, life has a way of introducing situations and challenges that no couple can predict. Great couples practice flexibility and resiliency when their mutual goals seem unattainable within the resources they have. They help one another to find innovative ways to make things happen between them that neither could do as well alone.
Beginning with a pre-defined attachment to outcome can thwart the best of intentions. Though supporting each other’s individual goals is crucially important to all new couples, allowing their relationship to organically evolve into mutual dreams is just as important. Partners in successful, long-term relationships constantly re-create and innovate as their dreams evolve.
4. Fear of Loss
The fear of loss drives many relationship-seekers into reactive behaviors that are often counter to their best long-term interests. They might, for instance, leave a relationship too soon or stay in one much longer than they should.
Understandably, those who have loved and lost too often are more likely to bolt at the first sign of potential failure, intent on limiting the pain of future heartbreak. But others facing the same possibility of loss might opt to stay despite evident warning signs, fearful that they might lose more by being alone.
Some people express their fears of loss by giving double messages that both sabotage and protect at the same time. A common example happens when one relationship partner may have established a fear of intimacy and is conflicted when the other is either too close or too far away. Desperate to control that interpersonal distance, they alternately push their partners away when they come too close, or pull them back when they move away.
Every relationship is a new adventure, and past losses are likely to predict similar future failures if people repeat the same behaviors. Predictable security is truly an illusion, and those who learn to live with ambiguity do not let the fear of loss stop them from embracing new possibilities.
5. The Need for Continual Transformation
New lovers often give the message that the other partner is perfect exactly as he or she is, and will never have to change. Each new moment reinforces the concept that no transformation will ever be required for their love to continue blossoming. The words in the beautiful love song “Funny Valentine” so truly depict this thought:
Don’t change a hair for me. Not if you care for me. Stay, little Valentine, stay.
Yet, in my forty-plus years of dealing with intimate relationships, I have found that notion to be a potential death knell to successful relationships. Predictability and the mastering of all expectations eventually produce little challenge for long-term partners.
The desire for challenge and the love of discovery fuel the continuity and deepening of lasting love. Partners who opt for security to the exclusion of the avid pursuit of new dimensions will eventually lose the joy of finding new possibilities together.
6. Fitting Into the Bigger Picture
New lovers traditionally isolate themselves from the rest of the world. In the early glow of passionate hungers, they re-prioritize whatever other obligations they have in order to be with each other.
Many people evaluate relationships as potentially long-lasting by the way they emerge out of that love cocoon. For most, that happens in five overlapping stages: Going from dating others to becoming exclusive, introducing abandoned priorities back into the new relationship, connecting as a couple to friends and family, spending more time on future-talk, and eventually planning a long-term commitment.
These stages often show up as unexpected tests for each partner. New lovers don’t always think ahead about how well the other person will fit into the rest of their lives, and often face roadblocks they did not expect. For instance, old friends may not be as inviting, and family members may have other ideas in mind. Or recently discarded lovers may not welcome the intrusion of a too-soon new partner and may attempt to sabotage the relationship. And then, of course, there may be children from prior relationships who must eventually be part of the package.
* * * * *
The allure and seductive joy of new love may be worth experiencing regardless of any guarantee of long-lasting commitment. However, people who practice long-term commitment behaviors, whether or not that particular relationship is a potential match, have those skills down when the real deal comes along.
All people get better at what they practice every day. Those who prioritize short-term, love-and-leave relationships get better at those kinds of partnerships and are likely to continue forging them. That is not a problem in and of itself. But if the desire to eventually enter into a long-term relationship enters the scene, that sequential professional is often less able to navigate its requirements.
No one has a handle on predicting the future, and sometimes partnerships don’t work, despite the robust commitments of both people. Still, it is always better to create in-depth, authentic, and honest relationships from the beginning of every intimate adventure and live fully in that potential long-term space, regardless of what the future holds.