Are you starting to feel worried that you are growing apart from your spouse or long-term partner these days? Are you concerned that the passion that you once shared is dissipating and that you are becoming bored and dissatisfied with your life together? Are you beginning to think that you might love your partner, but aren’t feeling “in love” with them anymore? What if you were told that all of this is not necessarily the end of your happiness together, but can actually be quite normal?
This is not to suggest that these concerns are not red flags, because they are certainly concerns to which one should pay attention. Nor is this suggesting that couples should not strive to improve these aspects in their long-term relationship, because any relationship should absolutely include times of passion and excitement. However, it is suggesting that we often have unrealistic expectations about what romance and passion should look like, and that we should not give up on our relationships when we start to feel these fading. Our long-term relationships are inevitably going to have ups and downs, and it is quite common to feel this way at some point in a long term relationship. So many couples break up or divorce when they go through these difficult seasons, when there is still so much good left to build on. Sadly, after some time has passed, some of these couples end up regretting this decision to walk away so easily. Many couples have found that when they choose to do so, they can often not only work through these difficult feelings together, but can surprisingly end up happier than ever.
Our culture has done a disservice to us all. We are inundated with steamy romance novels, movies in which we watch “soulmates” who are destined to be together share a love story that moves us to tears, syrupy songs on the radio that have us wanting that “once in a lifetime love,” and commercials that make every relationship look perfect. Even social media has allowed real life couples to portray themselves as living the dream life together. It can sometimes seem as if every other couple in the world is living a more exciting, passionate life together than we are. The harsh reality is that much of what we are exposed to is largely a fantasy. We are only seeing a glimpse of the whole story, characters who aren’t real people, and an airbrushed highlight reel of exciting moments – and are being made to believe that this is what we should expect in real life, year in and year out.
We are, as a society at large, buying into the fantasy; we are believing that since everyone else seems to have a “larger than life” love story, that we should, too. It is very easy for us to start to think that the grass is greener somewhere else and that we are “settling” if our marriage doesn’t look like what we see on the big screen or even like what our Facebook friends appear to be living. What we need to know is this: any long term relationship is going to have cycles of highs and lows, sometimes very low lows, and this is expected and NORMAL! No one really prepares us for this. Even as children, we are shown fairy tales where the couple finally ends up together and go on to live happily ever after…right?
Happily ever after is certainly possible, but not without a lot of hard work. As we got older, we may have been told that marriage/long term relationships can be hard, but we never really understand how hard they can be, or that those difficulties will happen to us. We can’t begin to imagine how busy life can be with work, children, and all of our demands, and just what that can do to our romantic life. We can’t understand how tough it can be when the little annoyances sometimes turn into big resentments. We all start out believing that we are invincible, and that our love is one for the ages. However, even the strongest couples can lose the spark without putting in the hard work and doing the little things to keep connected. We just can’t comprehend that we might one day be that couple, looking at one another, asking what we ever found attractive about him/her in the first place.
Emotions are fickle. Feelings come and go. However, increasingly our culture is telling us to follow our emotions if we want true happiness. We are being told to “follow our heart” if we aren’t feeling “in love” anymore. We are being told that our relationships, just like our shoes and our clothes, are disposable, that if we are not feeling happy, we should just throw our partner away and find a new one. Again, this is not suggesting that we should not listen to our hearts or to our feelings. However, we need to also listen to our minds. We need to be aware that our feelings and emotions can become very clouded and can change, week to week, year to year. It is important to consider more than just our feelings when making major decisions about our relationships.
This is proposing a concept that goes against much of what pop culture teaches us: we need to sometimes CHOOSE to love our partner, even when we don’t feel like loving. Much of the time, if a relationship has a strong and healthy foundation with two emotionally healthy people, we can push through these times because romantic feelings and passionate encounters CAN and DO come back. There are certainly extenuating circumstances (such as when there is abuse in any form, repeated infidelity, untreated and ongoing addictions, etc.) that are simply not healthy. In these instances, the toxic relationship would need to be seriously re-evaluated. However, when we do have a relatively healthy partner, there are ways to love with intention that can transform a relationship into something extremely powerful. This can create an emotional safety that inspires amazing things to happen.
Here are a few examples of ways to love with intention:
- Try to invite your partner into closeness once a day – even if only for 15-20 minutes. Spend this time sharing about your day and your feelings about things going on with you (NOT discussing logistical concerns, kids, etc.) During this time, turn off the TV and cellphones, and give each other your full attention. Take this time even if you are tired or busy – find a small window of time and just do it.
- CHOOSE to do something loving for your partner even when you don’t FEEL like it (rub their back, cook them their favorite meal, hold their hand when they are upset, buy them a small treat that they love.) Falling in love does not require intention or maturity – it just happens, and it is easy. Once that new love shine has worn off, taking the time to do something nice for our partner, even when we don’t FEEL like it, can get us through the very hard times.
- Even when time and money are tight, carve out date nights regularly, at least once every two weeks, but hopefully more often. It doesn’t have to be a night out – it could be feeding the kids and putting on a movie for them while you have a candlelit dinner in the dining room. Take turns planning it. These nights are an investment in your relationship that pays dividends. Even when you can barely remember what it feels like to feel desire for your partner, sometimes a night out or a long weekend away can ignite a spark of something unexpected.
- Start thinking about some aspirations that you have and encourage your partner to do the same. Then share your dreams and goals for the next year and try to think of how you can support your partner in his/her goals. Do this even if you aren’t feeling all warm and connected to your partner. Making plans and sharing goals creates a sense of unity that encourages growth in a stagnant relationship.
Ideally, we can work on and address our relationship concerns before we get to the point where we feel hopeless about our future together. The hope is that we will work hard at maintaining our romantic connection, before it all goes completely off the tracks. As stated previously, there are many things we can do to on a daily basis to prevent our relationships from deteriorating. However, many times we don’t pay attention to problems in our relationships until things get quite bad. If you realize that your relationship has spiraled out of control and you are unsure how to even begin to get it back on track, please know that there is hope. There is no question that this is an incredibly difficult concept to embrace when you are going through a tough time as a couple, but there is professional help. There are good counselors who can walk with you through this hard time, and they can help you learn how to better communicate, and how love with intention and to choose one another – even when you don’t feel like it at all. It is not always an easy endeavor, and this can be a long and arduous process.
As tempting as it is to give up and go seek out something new, many couples who take this path have paid the heavy price of regret. The grass ends up not being greener on the other side. The fantasy that we end up chasing might feel good for a while, but in the end it is just that – a fleeting fantasy. Real, lasting love is not always easy, it includes a lot of mistakes, and it is messy. If you ask, many couples with longevity will tell you that at some point or another, they have felt like giving up. But they will also tell you that the reward of pushing through that dark winter season when they just “didn’t feel it” is absolutely worth it. Ultimately, if we choose to love and we learn to love with intention, we are investing in something real, and even better than we could possibly imagine when we finally do come out on the other side.