Whether or not you were directly affected by the recent Ashley Madison scandal (thankfully most of us probably were not), if you’re in a long term committed relationship it makes you wonder about the mutual satisfaction in your own relationship. For most couples, there is some sense of how each partner feels about the other. That feeling could be mostly positive, mostly negative, or pretty stale. I think we all hope for mostly positive. Relationships can be so amazing when they’re first starting out. When reading any relationship advice articles, or when sharing the story with a friend, the story usually starts with, “It was all going great and then…..” It feels so disappointing, and in some ways, it feels like a kick in the gut when all of the fantasies, dreams, and plans for the relationship takes a turn, and you’re left wondering what happened, and how did we get here?
The Love and Romance in the Beginning
In the movie, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (the movie so famous for when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt began their real life romance), they met and instantly felt that emotional charge. Early in romantic relationships, we notice an intense, but often short-lived admiration of the other that is full of anticipation, freshness, and sexual desire. The emotional response to the interaction with that other person gets the dopamine in the brain moving in ways similar to how an addict’s brain responds to an addiction. The level of romantic and sexual attraction to that person is so excitingly overwhelming. You’re so infatuated with that person. Everything they do is so cute and such a turn on. Passion and intimacy continues to grow and before you know it, you’ve both made the decision to commit to one another. Very early in the movie, the characters, Mr. & Mrs. Smith decide to get married because they are each so enamored with one another, even though their closest friends question their decision.
In Comes the Conflict and Relationship Friction
As you spend more time with the other person and intimacy grows more and more, you learn things about the other person that you realize you don’t like so much. After all, we yearn to be fully understood and cared for in close relationships. The inner experiences of each partner (think of them as puzzle pieces), undergo a testing of fit over time and commitment through daily activities and interactions. Suddenly, certain things they do start to get annoying, or irritating. Those same things that used to be so cute or such a turn on becomes either too predictable or negatively triggering. Either way, those undesirable aspects of the other lead one or both partners to retreat from passion, intimacy, or emotionally withdraw. We generally recognize the signs when things start to go dull, or lose their spark. One or both partners stop caring about their appearance and lose the desire to impress the other, one or both partners get a little too comfortable, the compliments stop, one or both partners start to forget significant milestones like birthdays and anniversaries, each are having fewer and fewer shared pleasurable experiences, and lastly, there is much less compromise. You’re spending more time at work, more time with your friends without your partner, and/or investing more energy into the children, as opposed to time and energy with your partner. This sort of emotional friction brings the realization that you’re no longer happy in your relationship. Even if you’re content, you’re not happy. For some, feeling content is enough. Content was enough for Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but it was clear they weren’t happy.
Relationship Fork in the Road
When our romantic relationship becomes a source of stress, we start down a path of all sorts of questions and emotional processing. “What will it take to get me back to a safe emotional space where I feel I’m in control?” “Should I stay, or should I go?” “Should I have an affair to get what I feel like I’m missing, but still maintain my relationship?” “Do I really want to do this relationship process all over again?” “At least I know this person.” Sometimes it feels like that special person has been such a long time coming and so the idea of having to start again may be overwhelming and/or depleting. Some people start plotting their exit strategies and choose to bail because it feels easier. The emotionally mature couples seek problem-solving strategies. Relationship experts in articles, books, and podcasts will tell you to revisit the initial attractions to get the spark back, or suggest you start exploring other interests that will get your partner interested in you again. But how are these quick fix tips effective for long term relationship satisfaction? This strategy isn’t addressing the underlying challenge or daily interactional patterns.
Choosing to Grow in Love
Spoiler alert! Mr. & Mrs. Smith had to decide if they were going to kill or be killed. Fortunately, our decisions in our relationships aren’t that complicated, or intense. Ultimately, they decided to grow in their love. There were so many important aspects of themselves that their partner didn’t know, so how could each of them fully accept or understand the other? Their relationship, understandably, became predictably stale. They’d lost all passion and intimacy, while choosing to stay together, making their love feel empty and hopeless. I think more of us have been able to relate to this feeling, at some point. The realization of who the other really was triggered a powerful surge of passionate feelings, followed by forceful floods of truthful storytelling creating deeper connection and intimacy. This is the goal when we choose to grow in our love. We want to be fully understood by the other and feel accepted and loved. We want to build compassion for our partners and create a space where they can feel compassion for us. This takes each partner being vulnerable. Falling in love can be easy. Staying in love takes more work. That work includes daily acts of consideration, continued building of anticipation, constructive resolution of conflicts, and healing past emotional scars so that we can better manage our difficult emotions.