It’s a natural and inevitable stage of every relationship, whether with a friend, a partner, a child, or a pet: the zest and sparkle that characterize the early stages fade away; the ease and lightness narrow into more distance or tension; the openheartedness that elevates the two of you to a state close to divinity settles into the everydayness of real life. Sometimes it happens when fear pricks the heart. Other times it happens because conflict enters the relationship. Mostly it happens because of time and the hard reality that we’re not meant to live in the first stage of a relationship forever.
There’s no problem with falling out of love except for one thing: when it comes to partners and even children, we expect the bliss or ease of the first stage to last forever. As with so many areas of relationship, it’s the expectation more than the reality that creates the problem. If you’ve had a long run of the infatuation stage with your romantic partner, for example, and you wake up one day with the thought, “I’m not feeling overjoyed to see him or her,” your next thought will likely be, “There must be something wrong.” We’re deeply conditioned to believe that love is only a feeling, so when that magic of the butterflies and rainbows gives way to regular life, many people panic.
But it’s not only romantic relationships that pass through the stages of falling in love to falling out of love. I recently had a session with a client who’s a mother of twin toddler boys. She had been struggling with changes in their bedtime routines and had also noticed a change in their behavior toward her. “They look at me differently sometimes, like I no longer carry the moon. The other day I was driving and thinking about the boys and I just started crying my eyes out. I had to pull over I was crying so hard. And I had no idea why I was crying.”
“It sounds like you’ve started to fall out of love with your boys.”
“Yes! That’s it! That’s exactly what I was was feeling. It was like I was grieving but I didn’t know why I was grieving.”
“You were grieving the loss of the angel stage, when a layer of their God-dust falls away.”
“Yes! How come no one talks about this? I feel so much better just being able to name my experience.”
I’m not sure why no one talks about it this. Perhaps it’s because we simply aren’t educated about stages of transitions, which speaks to our cultural resistance to discussing topics like grief and death. For every time you fall out of love, it’s a small death experience. The relationship that had previously existed has transformed into a new stage, and the only appropriate response is to grieve. It’s the grieving, in fact, that allows you to accept the change and embrace the beauty and richness that the next stage brings. For it’s also a law of nature that where there is death, there is rebirth, so it follows that the new stage brings joys and riches of its own: a deepening of the relationship that only occurs when the divine layer falls away and you find yourself face-to-face with a real human being. It’s then that the real work – and opportunities for growth – begins.
And perhaps therein lies another clue as to why we resist falling out of love: culturally we don’t understand that relationships are work and and that it’s through this work that we can evolve in our capacity to face our fears and grow our love. We believe it should be easy. We believe that romance and sparkle should last forever (that’s how it is the movies, after all). We believe that having a baby will fill in the holes in our life (if only the newborn stage lasted forever). We’re constantly looking for the easy way out, the solution to our pain, the answer to our emptiness. And living in a culture that drip-feeds the message by media transfusion that the answer to eternal happiness lies in finding the perfect partner followed by having the perfect baby, it’s no wonder that most people hang on to these fantasies for dear life.
When are we going to stop setting people up to fall by jamming unrealistic expectations down their throats? When are we going to tell them the truth: that there is no “answer” to happiness, that relationships and children are not dangling carrots, but that the fullness of life well-lived comes from having the courage to attend to your empty places and address the fears that are most often unleashed through intimate relationships? As Linda and Charlie Bloom write in their fantastic book, “101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married”:
“From our experience, the deepest satisfaction that life has to offer comes from our most intimate relationships. By taking on the challenges of committed partnership we are prompted to realize the fullness of our being. More than any other relationship, marriage has the potential to awaken our deepest longings and needs, as well as our deepest pains and fears. In learning to meet all of these powerful forces with an open heart and authenticity, we can grow ourselves into wholeness, maturity, and compassion. In one of his workshops, Stephen Levine, author of Embracing the Beloved, called marriage the “ultimate danger sport.” People can, he said, learn more about themselves in a week in a relationship than by sitting in meditation in a cave for a year. Having tried both marriage and meditation, we’d have to agree.”
And as this wise couple also writes, “The sparkle of a new relationship is always temporary.”
Note: I’m expecting many comments along the lines of, “What if I never had an infatuation or in love stage; does that mean there’s something wrong with my relationship?” My answer is emphatically NO. If you never experienced the infatuation stage it only means that… you never experienced the infatuation stage! It also means that you likely began as a healthy friendship and grew the relationship from there. Remember that there are no right or wrong ways to have a relationship; there’s only what works for you. The moment you start comparing yourself to a preconceived template of how you think it “should” be, you’re likely to fall down the rabbit hole of anxiety.
* Session excerpt included with permission from my client.