You Are Not Supposed To Be ‘In Love’

Someone asked me recently why he should work on his relationship with his seemingly irretrievably resentful wife, when it would be so much easier to start over with someone new. I’m not a big advocate of doing whatever is easiest. It doesn’t usually result in my becoming a better person, or gaining any insight, and it seems unlikely to produce anything I will value. Easiest works well for inconsequential things like putting on shoes. My client had found out, slightly too late, that how you treat your spouse is very consequential. His behavior towards her for the previous ten years had resulted in her feeling angry and bitter. Now, mind you, she had contributed to the situation by putting up with him and resenting it, instead of telling him when he was doing things she didn’t like. He was pondering the value of spending some portion of his future figuring out what he had done that was so awful and changing himself so he wouldn’t be inclined to do that anymore. So his real question was; what is the value of examining my impact on other people?

First, I pointed out that it was quite possible that even if he moved on to a new non-resentful person that within a couple of years he would be facing the same question. Since he wasn’t planning on changing anything about his behavior it seemed likely his new partner would resent the same things his wife does.  I also figured he would end up choosing someone who was inclined to develop resentment by not complaining because his reaction to such complaints was so hostile that most people would probably either decide not to complain very much, or leave the relationship. This was how his wife ended up in her current predicament. He preferred to believe that his wife was a particularly petty, bitter person inclined to harboring resentment, rather than think that anyone might find some of his behavior objectionable. I pointed out that this falls into the category of believing that the only thing wrong with his relationship was his wife. We think that, of course, we are so wonderful that any problem that has developed couldn’t possibly have anything to do with us. This attitude alone is enough to irritate your spouse enormously. So, we had already identified two things that his wife might resent.  His manner of posing the question of how to fix this mess indicated that he didn’t recognize his contributions to his current dilemma. But, even more than that, he failed to see his wife as unique and worth the effort merely because they had shared ten years together. He now for the first time had the opportunity to learn something about himself while he also got to know her better than he ever had. On some level he was really asking; do I want to know my wife and myself more intimately?

In the first part of any relationship we tend to focus on the better parts of our partner, and we tend to present the best part of ourselves. ‘In love’ feelings filter out each other’s weaknesses, but time and experience together remove that filter, and allow us to truly see each other. People generally mistake this process for ‘falling out of love’ rather than a rare opportunity for intimacy and growth. It is when you fall out of love that a deep genuine connection can develop, because that is when you really get to know a person. When that time comes hope like crazy, that through luck or good sense, you chose a basically good person; someone with very irritating faults that you cheerfully put up with because you admire them so much.

Marriage provides special opportunities for growth and intimacy that are not available in short-term relationships. I think I should define what I mean by ‘growth’ and ‘intimacy’ because these words are tossed around constantly as if everybody knows exactly what they mean and I find many people mean something very different than I do.  Growth in my mind is the process of becoming a more mature person. That means restraining an impulse but still addressing the feelings that prompted it. It is learning to tell the difference between our thoughts and our feelings. When I talk about growth within a relationship I mean seeing that others, like our spouse and our children, may feel or think completely differently about all sorts of things than we do, and not feeling threatened by that. Growth is learning to manage our moods and feelings on our own. Intimacy happens when we share those feelings without expecting others to understand, accept or share those same feelings.  I think people believe that intimacy will make them feel safe, known, and loved, but it can also make you feel scared and vulnerable. We sometimes think we are being intimate when we share our feelings and thoughts with our spouse when really it is only a thinly veiled disguise for persuading them that they should think, feel, or do, something the same as us. That kind of ‘sharing’ doesn’t generally lead to intimacy because we have no real interest in what our spouse’s actual thoughts or feelings are; we just want them to be the same as ours. This kind of sharing usually leaves us feeling that we are not intimate with our spouse because so often they don’t agree with us. People will then say things like, “we’re not close anymore”. What they are really experiencing is that they no longer share the delusion they are the same. We delude ourselves into believing this because it is so reassuring to find someone who feels, thinks, or votes the same way we do. That is precisely why real intimacy can result in our feeling scared and vulnerable. We now have to face the fact that we are a bit more alone in our thoughts and feelings than we thought we were. Some people will find this so threatening that they will quickly scramble to find someone else to be their ‘soul mate,’ meaning they will look for someone else to share their ‘sameness’ fantasy. Intimacy is a connection with others that is based on who you really are, rather than whom you want people to think you are, or who they want you to be. Admitting your faults as well as your strengths to yourself and someone else can be a humbling, and at times humiliating, experience. Our partner isn’t likely to love our faults any more than we do but the slow realization that they still love us anyway can create a powerful connection over time.

Falling out of love is your big chance to grow up and stop looking for a reflection of yourself in your spouse. You will be required to change your perspective from ‘what can I get from you?’ to ‘what can I learn from you?’  If you insist that marriage is a place where you get things you want, rather than a place where you learn things, then the ‘fallen out of love’ portion of the relationship is not for you. The kind of love you find at this point will not make you feel all warm and sweet inside, but it will be exhilarating, humbling, confusing, and profound at times. You may also become a much better person as a result. If that’s not for you, then you should find a new non-resentful spouse. However, couples that get past this point together without giving up in despair, report their relationship reaches new levels they never thought were possible.

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