If you have ever “fallen in love” with someone—and had the good fortune of being loved back—you have probably felt one of the most, if not the most, powerful of all human experiences. In our western culture, the relatively new phenomenon of modern dating has rapidly evolved in the past century, allowing us to find a partner of our choosing and even possibly "fall in love" somewhere in the process. And it can even happen more than once.
Not everyone wants a relationship or even wants to fall in love. You're probably thankful for the freedom to fall in love with whomever you choose. However, if you're like most modern young adults, you do want to fall in love, and you do want a long term, committed relationship.
The majority of the twenty- and thirty-somethings I see in my counseling practice are either looking for a relationship or are already in a relationship. Both types have a lot of concerns, questions, and philosophical pondering. Understandably, most of my clients are concerned about their romantic life, as the decision-making in this area can be the most critical--whom to love, and how to love.
The most frequent question I hear is, "what are you are supposed to do after the honeymoon is over?" This is when the really difficult decisions are made, such as whether or not to commit. If the infatuation ends, what does that even mean, anyway? Does a change in feelings mean that you have “fallen out of love” with your partner, or that your relationship is over? Not necessarily!
Most therapists agree that the initial infatuation stage of romantic love—the "falling in love"--is an important developmental milestone that can happen anytime in a lifetime, but usually by adolescence or young adulthood. The idea is that as a healthy adult, you should be growing in your ability to share intimacy with other people, form meaningful relationships and create intimate, sustained love.
Today, most young adults I see in my counseling practice are placing a higher importance than their parents on having a fulfilling relationship, even more so than having a fulfilling career. Many of them saw the ways their parents failed in their relationships and are looking to not make the same mistakes, but are not sure about how to go about doing this.
Whether or not you are willing to admit it, you probably have your own expectations about romantic relationships, including what it means to "be in love". You probably not only want to fall in love, but you want to find a committed partner for lifetime.
You probably not only want a lifelong, committed, monogamous relationship, but also a soul mate, best friend, amazing lover, good parent, productive worker, etc. These are some pretty big expectations, and it seems like the list continues to grow over the years. Hopefully you understand that no one can live up to every one of your expectations. When the honeymoon is over, disappointment will be inevitable if you do not challenge any unrealistic expectations you have for your partner.
Infatuation is Biological
In the beginning of every romantic relationship, it is normal and healthy to idealize your beloved. You and your partner start off with the lovey dovey, “goo-goo ga-ga” gaze of adoration. These “love goggles” are a special form of rose-colored glasses, in which your beloved is idealized. This whole process speeds up and intensifies the bonding process. Infatuation makes you want to be around someone all the time, and to feel quickly close to them. And thankfully infatuation exists--no one would probably commit or have babies without it.
When you are in love, you get flooded with the bonding neurochemical I call “love crack”, oxytocin. Lovers experience this ecstacy-like chemical while staring at one another, holding hands, or having sex. And yes, this is the same love potion that mothers and babies experience during breastfeeding, which also facilitates their bonding.
Infatuation Cannot Last
A big part of falling in love is the experience of loving what is new and exciting. The rush. Idealization makes the other person seem "amazing" or "perfect" for a period of time. During infatuation, you don't really know the other person--not really. Being blindly, "madly in love" is called that for a reason.
This stage can last a few weeks up to a few years. Neurochemically, the brain cannot perpetually withstand the same deluge of love chemicals. Many evolutionary scientists have argued that the human brain evolved to only withstand up to 2 years of infatuation in order to keep a pair bonded long enough to raise a child to walk (thus giving it a better chance at survival).
It may sound harsh to claim that the initial thrill of love will end. Everyone seems to know an anecdotal couple who seems to have maintained "being in love" for a lifetime. I would argue that they have a great relationship, but they exited infatuation a long time ago. Though inevitable, leaving the infatuation stage is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a necessary ending to one phase of a relationship that opens up a new, more intimate, and fulfilling stage in a relationship.
Infatuation Has a Necessary Ending
Most of us have been strongly influenced by fairy tales and Hollywood movies. We have been led to believe that the infatuation stage of a relationship should never end, and that “happily ever after” means that Cinderella and Prince Charming never fight, or if they do, it’s just a fun form of foreplay. I believe that this is a horrible set up and leads to unrealistic expectations, disappointment, and avoidable suffering.
At some point in the lifetime of a relationship, when the infatuation ends, the rosy-colored glasses fall off, and we see our beloved in the unflattering daylight, warts and all. Despite what commercials depict, no one is perfect, and we are all flawed, imperfect human beings.
When Infatuation Ends, True Intimacy Can Begin
In a healthy relationship, growth happens when idealization ends and true intimacy begins. You now have a "real" relationship that is no longer skewed from the incorrect lens of infatuation. Two people really see each other’s failings, but they don’t run for the hills. They are able to keep loving one another despite their faults, and real trust is built when a couple stays committed and gets more experienced at working their differences out. Some people who are more in love with being in love, rather than in actually loving a real person, cannot withstand any long term relationship because it requires a maturity and acceptance of another person's faults.
Seven Essential Steps For Relationships to Survive the Initial Infatuation Stage:
1. Drop the idealization by acknowledging that neither of you is perfect, and gaining awareness of the imperfections in yourself, your partner, and your relationship.
2. Embrace vulnerability by sharing your imperfections, such as admitting when you're wrong.
3. Accept imperfections in yourself and your partner, while also pursuing growth.
4. Manage differences through healthy conflict (more to come in future blogs).
5. Let go of your own shame about your imperfections.
6. Don't pretend to be “perfect”—it's "false advertising" and will only hurt the trust in your relationship (likewise, don't expect your partner to be perfect).
7. Mange your own fears about “losing” the feeling infatuation. Remember that it is a normal and healthy part of a growing relationship to see each other with eyes wide open, and does not mean that anything is wrong with your relationship.
Finally, if you need help with this topic, or with any related topics, please feel free to reach out to me and schedule a session. Also, if you have any topics that you are interested in learning about, please contact me, and I will consider writing about it.
In my next series of blog posts, I will be discussing the bad behaviors that destroy any relationship, and how couples healthily navigate conflict to experience true connection and intimacy.
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.