“I love you but I’m not in love with you.” I can’t tell you how frequently I hear these words in my relationship counselling practice! I understand them to mean something like: “Is this relationship really over or does my unhappiness mean that there’s work to be done to shift us to the next stage?” Telling the difference between these two is important, but not necessarily easy.
What does it mean to be “in love”?
Being “in love” is a natural and delicious first stage of many romantic relationships. Often this is another term for “infatuation”, which one dictionary defines as “to cause to be foolish; to deprive of sound judgment.” When we’re in this state of infatuation or necessary illusion, we’re literally “out of our minds” because our brains and bodies are flooded with hormones and chemicals (like testosterone, oestrogen, adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin) that produce irresistible feelings, desires and behaviours. It’s the marvellous first stage of many relationships, when everything is new, exciting, magical. You’re both willing to do anything for each other, because it seems as if your partner is the answer to all your dreams.
Unfortunately we don’t want to know that this state is temporary. We can’t physically, emotionally or mentally sustain this heightened state. Nature has conspired to trigger these hormonal rushes to initially bring people together, not to remain connected for the long term. Attachment and connection take other brain and hormonal responses like (vasopressin and oxytocin) according to anthropologist and researcher Helen Fisher.
When the lust and attraction hormones recede, the inevitable second stage of relationship begins. In a matter of weeks or if we’re lucky, years, we are “dis-illusioned”. We start seeing the other person in a more realistic light, we see they’re not as perfect as we initially thought, we’re not as motivated to make an effort for them, a sense of laziness, disappointment and anxiety begins to creep in. We usually deal with this anxiety in two major ways:
1) trying to ignore it (by avoiding conflict so as not to have the necessary discussions about these changes in feelings)
2) having constant fights about minor issues (because we don’t have adequate conflict management skills), so the real issues of disappointment, boredom, discomfort or resentment are never addressed.
At this stage, the impulse to end the relationship can be powerful. We rationalize this by thinking that we’re not “in love” any more. We tend not to ask whether there may be other reasons for our dissatisfaction. We forget that good relationships are made, not made to order according to our particular desires, like a pizza. They need constant tending, just like a garden. Our culture often accepts the “easy come, easy go” attitude of serial relationships, rather than an attitude of putting time and effort into carefully choosing our life partner, followed by creating and building something of value. If we leave too soon, the love that we desire may actually be available just past this challenge.
In truth, there is no easy answer to the question “How do you know when to stay or when to quit while you’re ahead?” Naturally, there can be a time when it may be necessary to call it quits. If your partner has a problem with what Susan Heitler calls “the three A’s” – Addiction (to drugs or alcohol, or to a process like gambling, spending or risky behaviour ), Affairs (ongoing) and Anger (acting out, unmanaged mental health issues, blaming others), and they won’t address these issues responsibly, get smart and get out. I’d also like to add another A – Ambivalence, where your partner continually runs hot and cold and can’t commit to you or doesn’t follow through on their promises.
If any of these four A’s are present and you’ve really given it your best shot, kept your focus on changing yourself and not your partner and learned the lessons that your relationship has offered you, it could be time to leave. If you do so at this point it’s not a matter of quitting, but rather of letting go and grieving the loss.
What does it mean “to love”?
If the four A’s are not present, you can choose to stay and explore the third stage of relationships. It’s fairly safe to assume that if you haven’t given it your all (instead of expecting your partner to change), then it’s worth staying and making the extra effort that will be required of you. Athletes have a “second wind,” often just after they feel they’re on the edge of exhaustion. Being in relationship can at times feel just like you’re an endurance athlete. It may require the willingness to persist and go past the feeling of giving up so you can find the hidden resources needed to finish the race and get the love that you want.
If there is enough trust, respect, a genuine friendship, a basic sense of “ease” between you, and a desire on your part to become really good at relating, this is where you get to practice love. Mastery at anything takes practice. In fact, it takes 10,000 hours of regular practice to become a master at any skill. With practice you begin to realise that “love” is a verb, a result of actions and behaviours you consistently make which are often, but not always, reciprocated. You give without always needing to immediately get back. You explore and clarify the understandings and values you share, the previously unspoken agreements that healthy relationships count on.
It’s important to know what these agreements are, to identify them and to openly discuss them with each other. In this third stage you identify what it is that makes you both feel loved, valued and emotionally connected. And you often discover that this may be very different from what makes your partner feel loved, valued and connected with you! You learn to negotiate. You discuss your personal needs for excitement and ensure that these are a part your life together. You care about each other, you “love” (do actions for) each other in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling for your partner, not in the ways that would be fulfilling for you alone. You acknowledge that at times there may be a yearning for the euphoria of your early days or for the passion you think everyone else has in their relationship. You can talk about all of this with increasing openness.
Openness and honesty with each other about your feelings and experiences gives you a clearer understanding of yourself and your partner. Together you can then figure out ways of handling the reality of your relationship and not the fantasy of what it should be. You decide that it’s time to make your relationship more of a priority and you start dating each other again. Maybe you each make it your goal to discover the other and who they’ve become. Maybe you take up a joint interest to find new ways of connecting.
Consistent actions grow the love between you. These are the discussions of a more mature, deeper type of love. This is different than being “in love”. You experience a good and lasting relationship with someone you “love”, and in addition you also have delightful moments when that “in love” feeling flashes up and then goes again. When you know this and come to expect it to be that way, you can take the moments of feeling “in love” when they come and enjoy them, savour them, knowing that they come and go, but that the foundation upon which they rest is solid.
If you relate to your partner consciously and responsibly, this develops greater compassion and love which you bring to all those with whom you connect – at home, work and in your community. The gifts of real relationship, real love are abundant. They help us to grow in courage, commitment, imagination and compassion, and inevitably, patience. None of this happens overnight.
So if you’ve struggled with the “love versus in love” thing, take heart – you’re not alone. Know that what is required is communication, honesty, courage, vulnerability, persistence and the ability to soothe yourself and each other. Developing these abilities takes time. But the rewards are well worth it.
You deserve the best trained relationship coaches if you’re planning to invest time and money in your relationship. If you’re not ready to book an appointment, call us on 0421 961 687 to book a FREE 10 minute phone consultation to discuss how we may be able to assist you.