Is the love lost or just misplaced?
By Stephen J. Johnson, Ph.D.
A lasting marriage does not necessarily mean it’s a happy marriage. We all know couples that have stayed together for the children or for a myriad of other reasons.
But for many couples it’s not an option to just “do time” in a stale relationship. More couples these days want a relationship that is personally meaningful and satisfying as well as sustainable. And yet people appear to struggle more than ever today with long-term intimate relationships.
As with many couples, there is the initial high of falling in love. Over time, some of them somehow deepen their love and the relationship flourishes. Many other couples gradually lose their love and enthusiasm for one another. Everyone wants to stay in love, but why do some relationships make it, while others don’t? Why does the intimacy in some relationships flourish, while getting buried in others? Is the love lost forever or just temporarily misplaced? What are the secrets of a healthy, fulfilling and durable relationship?
Beginning in the 1970’s people gave themselves permission to leave marriages that were not satisfying. One out of two marriages these days still ends in divorce. The census data from around the world shows a huge peak in the divorce rate after just 6.8 years of marriage. Over the past 40 years that we’ve witnessed the pain and destruction stemming from estrangement, separation and divorce there has been a trend toward delaying marriage or opting out entirely.
What I see often happening in relationships of seven or more years, and especially where there are children involved, is that the partners are frequently tired and on the verge of burn out and they tend to direct their discontent at each other. What I hear expressed by many men who are in long-term relationships is a concern for the loss of passion and good sex. They tend to feel that they are working too much and too hard in supporting the family and are missing the rewards that they once experienced with their mates.
Many men in mid-life complain that their partners are not as young, energetic or attractive as they used to be. They become confused and disenchanted when they experience that their maidens have become matronly. There is a tendency for them to shut down and/or act out.
Infidelity is the leading cause of divorce and the next most common cause is psychological abuse and physical violence, which frequently has to do with infidelity. The lying and cheating, in other words, the deception and betrayal are very destructive to an intimate relationship. It has been reported that over 75% of men and approximately 35% (maybe as high as 50%) of women have been unfaithful at some time during a monogamous marriage.
A segment of the 20/20 TV show targeted how divorce affects children. It was indicated that the longitudinal studies on divorce reveal that children are affected far more drastically than was formerly believed. It may be said that there is only one thing worse than divorce and that’s a bad marriage; however, many marriages end not because they are bad but because they are dysfunctional and didn’t get repaired so that divorce could be averted. Couples can recover from infidelity and their relationships can blossom into new dimensions of expression and satisfaction.
Typically couples heading for marriage want their relationship to be full of joy, passion and great sex. Many want their relationships to last but also want them to remain the way they were when they first met, began courting and fell in love. However, contemporary relationships are different than the ones that our parent’s generation entered and often just endured. Modern couples are looking for an interesting partnership. They want partners who enhance their lives and that they can grow with over time. Caryl Rusbult, a researcher at Vrije University in Amsterdam coined the term, the “Michelangelo effect,” referring to the manner in which close partners “sculpt” each other in ways that help each of them attain valued goals.
Researchers at Monmouth University in New Jersey have studied how individuals use a relationship to accumulate knowledge and experiences, a process called “self-expansion.” The research shows that the more self-expansion people experience from their partner, the more committed and satisfied they are in the relationship. Dr. Lewandowski stated that, “People have a fundamental motivation to improve the self and add to who they are as a person. If your partner is helping you become a better person, you become happier and more satisfied in the relationship.”
In expansive partnerships couples do not lose themselves in the marriage; instead, they grow in it. Activities, traits and behaviors that had not been part of their identity before the relationship become an essential part of how they experienced life.
Research conducted at UCLA’s Family Studies Center on fifteen hundred couples that had been together for five or more years and who acknowledged having a strong, close deeply committed bond revealed six common characteristics: 1. There was a physical attraction between them. 2. They were in the relationship out of clear choice rather than out of obligation or fear of being alone. 3. They shared fundamental values, beliefs, interests and goals. 4. They were able to express anger clearly and directly and they resolved differences through communication and compromise. 5. They experienced laughter, fun, pleasure and play with each other. 6. They were able to express support for each other and support each other’s activities, interests and careers.
Let’s focus here on how to rekindle a waning relationship so that it becomes a good one again and divorce may be averted. In the relationships that survive, each individual is willing to make the relationship a priority, giving it time, energy and nurturance. The partners constantly re-choose each other and feed positive energy to the relationship. Instead of the tendency to play the gotcha-gotcha back game they make it a priority that each knows that their partner has their back and is looking out for their best interests.
Men want to be appreciated and admired by their partners. Women want to be nurtured and desired by their partners. Essentially women want to be cherished and men want to be honored. Men fear and resent it when their partners lose the sweetness and become brittle, bitter and “bitchy”. Women fear and resent it when their partners become disenchanted, disengaged and passive or controlling and domineering.
For women to remain vulnerable and open to their partners and to put out that attractive energy so that a man stays turned on, she needs to feel cherished and special. If she gets any messages that she’s not the number one person in his life, then she will start to close up that part of her, and then after a while he’ll stop being attracted to her.
For men to remain available to their partners and to put out that attractive energy so that a woman stays turned on, he needs to feel honored. A man’s sense of self is to a large degree determined by his feeling productive, useful and appreciated. It’s very confusing to men when they don’t know what to do to fix what’s not working.
What happens to a lot of couples is that the man stops being turned on to his partner. It’s often a slow process but before too long the man starts turning his attention outward. A woman needs to feel special in order to stay vulnerable. Both partners need to remain safely vulnerable so that they can be intimate with one another; otherwise their communication process breaks down.
Many marriages end in divorce because one or both partners can no longer communicate with the other. There is so much information in the form of feelings and thoughts that has been withheld from each other that the very life breath of the relationship gets snuffed out. When one leaves a marriage it is usually to find someone new with whom to communicate. The common belief is that someone new will be more able or willing to listen, more willing to understand, more passionate, alive and sexy.
Good healthy communication can be very invigorating leading to passion, vitality, and dynamic sex within a monogamous relationship. In fact, long-term monogamy is very doable if you have good communication skills. Without them, the woman ends up feeling ignored and unheard, the man feels unappreciated and unacknowledged for what he does in the relationship, and so neither partner feels loved. When you are not feeling loved, then you are not feeling turned on to your partner. Good communication creates arousal, passion and intimacy. Remember the importance of continuing to court each other throughout the full length of the relationship. Don’t take each other for granted, but rather recall how it felt when you were first discovering each other and were falling deeply and madly in love. It is possible to fall in love all over again!