After Infatuation: When Relationships Get "Real"
If you have ever been "in love", you likely know what it means to say that someone can "bring out the best and worst in us". The initial infatuation stage of a love relationship--the "falling in love"--is a wonderful and important experience for most adults.
However, once it ends, which it must, couples experience their first bumps in the road. These are the many difficult realities of being in a relationship with another human being. You start to see your partner for who they really are, and not just who you thought they were.
If you're able to navigate these changes, you will hopefully be able to experience real, true intimacy, which is not possible during infatuation. Here are three steps I have outlined, which are involved in the process of any couple achieving true intimacy.
Step 1: Fall Out of Infatuation
The end of the infatuation stage is the first difficult transition in every relationship. At first you love everything about them, but then you really get to know them, and they get to know you.
It's never easy to learn the things you don't like about another person, especially when they were someone you were just recently feeling crazy about. Some relationships don't survive this process, and break up.
One difficult truth is that sometimes relationships end for good reasons. You are able to avoid a train wreck of a relationship before you fully hop on board.
Wouldn't you rather discover that the person you have fallen for is a chronic liar, sociopath, or adulterer who is unwilling or unable to change--before you get married or move in with them?
Thankfully, this is why we have dating, so that you can shop around a little before start a relationship or commit.
You Don't Like What About Me?
As you also become known to your partner, after the infatuation has faded, there may be parts of you that your partner cannot or will not accept.
Maybe they found out about that awful or embarrassing thing you did that time. Maybe you did something to lose their trust. Or maybe they just dislike your quirks that someone else wouldn't mind. If your partner says they absolutely love everything about you, and there isn't something they would change about you, they are most likely lying, or they afraid to tell you the truth for risk of hurting your feelings.
The Most Common Reason For Breaking Up
The main reason that relationships start to fall apart after the infatuation stage is that inevitably, your differences arise. The differences were always there, but they become clearer and the newness and excitement of a new relationship wears off. It's only natural. You are, after all, two different people, no matter how much you "love" each other.
Differences exist between people, but this does not necessarily mean that one person is better than the other. Sometimes people just have different values, lifestyles, personalities, and preferences.
It's not Me, It's You
If certain differences between you and your partner aren't that important to you, and you could accept them and learn to live with them. Or you and your partner could make some compromises for the good of the relationship.
If some of these differences are really important to you, you may not want to accept these differences. That is okay, too. Admitting this to yourself and your partner is usually the most difficult part. This is why so many people frequently lie during a breakup, saying "It's not you...It's me."
Step 2: Decide If You Still Want to Be With This Person
Darling, You Must Change
When you are unwilling to accept something about your partner, you typically have two choices:
1) You practice healthy conflict by asking your partner for change and/or compromise
2) You end the relationship
Is It Fixable?
Here are some common differences between partners, which may or may not be resolvable:
You love talking about your feelings, while your boyfriend hates talking anything "touchy feely"
Your girlfriend's extroverted, charismatic personality that drew you to her now seems really annoying
You like saving money, and have no debt, but your boyfriend loves spending money, and has a lot of debt
You are a vegetarian but your partner is a major carnivore who eats meat at every meal
Maybe you could find a way to compromise on issues like this, but maybe you do not want to, and that is okay, too. You may prefer to find a partner who is simply more like you or shares certain preferences. That is okay, too. Sometimes, however, differences are more extreme than just "preferences". There are also irreconcilable differences, or "dealbreakers".
The 4 Most Common Dealbreakers (for the couples in my counseling practice)
You have different life goals. Example: You want children, but your partner doesn't.
You want different lifestyles. Example: You want a lifetime travelling the world while your partner wants to stay in one place
You have different needs. Example: Sexual activity is important to you, but your partner is asexual or just does not want sex at all.
You have different core beliefs. Example: You and your partner have certain religious, philosophical, or political differences that one or both of you cannot respect or tolerate
There are infinitely valid reasons to end a relationship, and you are the only person in the world who can decide this for yourself. It is important to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being alone.
Wants vs. Needs
If you want to foster a truly intimate relationship, after the infatuation stage, at some point you will need to figure out what you want vs. what you need:
Identify your core, or essential values and "needs" -- the "dealbreakers" and "must have" qualities about a person that are essential from your perspective
Identify your more flexible "wants" or "preferences" -- what you feel you could compromise in order to make a relationship with the right person work
If you choose to be in any kind of romantic relationship, you are already making a decision every single day to be in that relationship. Although you have no control over whether or not someone stays in a relationship with you, you alone are responsible for your choice to stay or leave a relationship. Blaming a relationship failure on someone else for not being what you want them to be is unfair. You have the opportunity to get to know someone and decide whether or not you want to be with them. Looking at yourself--including the strengths and weaknesses you bring to a relationship--is a much more difficult task.
Beyond choosing a partner, one of the most important choices you will make is how you will act in a relationship. Should you choose to stay in a relationship past the infatuation stage, your chance to achieve real intimacy will be decided mostly by whether or not you choose to be vulnerable--really known--by your partner.
Step 3: Shed (Fake) "Closeness" for (Real) Relational Intimacy
Vulnerability and Risk-Taking
As the infatuation period ends, whether or not you want your partner to know your faults, they are going to start seeing them. You can own up to them or not, but it is always a better idea to take responsibility for your bad behavior, and accept the parts of yourself that your partner may not like. Of course, it may feel like a risk when you let someone really know you, because it is. By making yourself vulnerable, and letting them see the real "you", the reality is that your partner may not like the real "you".
Once you're truly known, your partner could choose to leave you, or you could choose to leave them. Many people avoid real intimacy for this very reason, only ever presenting "their best self". Alternatively, some avoid the perils of intimacy by jumping from relationship to relationship, never staying long enough to take the risk. Some people understandably never get close to another person for fear of judgment, criticism, or abandonment.
Okay, We're Not Infatuated Anymore... Now What?
So, maybe you have already stopped idealizing your partner. You may have already acknowledged their faults and you realize that they are not perfect. Or maybe you're not so sure yet if you can accept something about your partner. Congratulations! Either way, you have left the infatuation stage. You are starting to see them truly as they are--including what you like and what you don't like about them. At least you are ready for the possibility of real intimacy with your partner, if you choose to stay with them.
Real intimacy is about authentic closeness. Falling in love infatuation with someone early on in a relationship, when you barely know them, is easy. Fake, superficial "closeness" is what most people confuse for "falling in love" when they experience the rush of a new relationship or sexual partner.
Real love, on the other hand, is choosing to love someone once you've gotten past the initial rush and fake veneer of early infatuation. True intimacy forms from knowing both the best and the worst qualities about someone, and still wanting to stick around with them. If you have ever had the privilege of being loved unconditionally by someone who knows everything about you, and vice versa, you have experienced true relational intimacy.
You will have some major decision making to do once infatuation ends, about whether or not this is someone you truly want to be with and "work things out" with. After the infatuation stage, it's as if the relationship train stops, and you both unload from a wonderful honeymoon, but when you step off the train, your "baggage" spills out all over the concrete, glaring at you and your partner. Relationships can quickly crumble under this new vulnerabilty.
Love Is An Action
As trite as it sounds, real love is an action, more than just a feeling. Love means looking at your partner with eyes wide open. Despite all the awful things you know about each other, you both still both want to be with together and work through your problems. But sometimes the motivation to make things better just isn't enough. If you don't know how, you can learn.
Healthy Conflict Is Essential
No matter how loving a person you are, or how good your intentions are, you may not know how to maintain intimacy. Just as common as it is to leave a relationship because you don't know how to stay connected, it is just as common to stay in a relationship and yet still not know how to stay connected.
There are lots of unhappy people out there who are "lonely in relationships". It is difficult to know how to handle a relationship's evolution from the initial infatuation to real intimacy. This is why there are so many couples who stay together, live like roommates, and want to be connected, but just don't know how.
You need to learn how to successfully manage your differences with your partner through healthy conflict and compromise. Conflict is essential to any healthy, sustainable relationship.
In my next blog posts, I will be discussing destructive conflict, and what to avoid, as well as what to do in healthy conflict.
ABOUT: Stephanie Cook, LCSW, provides in-person and online counseling services to adults, teens, couples, and families; she specializes in working with young adults and couples on improving themselves and their relationships. Stephanie owns a small private practice, Counseling ATL, LLC, located in Decatur, an intown-suburb of Atlanta, GA, near Emory University. Her blog is dedicated to helping people improve their lives and relationships.