As a therapist, I’ve witnessed and facilitated my fair share of breakups and divorces. Sometimes, it’s blatantly obvious that my clients should go their separate ways. But occasionally, one particular complaint springs up that stumps me:
“I love my partner, but I am not in love with him/her anymore.”
At first glance, you might think this is a perfectly legitimate complaint. After all, why should you stay with someone if you aren’t in love with him or her anymore? But upon further examination, the reasoning becomes more dubious.
Love’s Time Limit
Many evolutionary theorists are fairly convinced that romantic love serves a time-limited purpose — and, surprisingly to some, it’s not to sustain flower businesses on Valentine’s Day.
Rather, when they look into the brains of those who are intensely in love, biologists claim that the basis of these individuals’ feelings is to stay together long enough to have a baby. However, the evolutionary purpose of mating and procreation eventually ends, and so does the feeling that led to it. That’s why so many couples feel like they fall out of love once their children are old enough to run around the house and knock over their precious Lalique antiques.
Then, there are those who believe that sex is the ultimate reward of love and that a decline in it (or lack thereof) is a good enough reason to fall out of love. This can be a dangerous mindset, as lust and sexual passion are thrilling pleasures much like cocaine and gambling. After a while, you simply need more to feel the same effect. In any practical person’s life, this has a limit.
I’m not saying that we should give up on feeling sexually excited; I’m merely saying that we can and should expect to feel some romantic boredom throughout our relationships.
Procreation and passionate sex appear to be the two most immediately apparent rewards of romantic relationships, but it’s unrealistic to expect these two motivations to provide us with lifelong fulfillment. We should seek additional rewards to grow our relationships.
What Keeps Us in Love?
When we begin feeling anxious about our relationships, sharing positive experiences, forbidden desires, and developing a deeper understanding of our partners will all help keep us in love.
Anxiety can both kill your sex drive and enhance it. So either address your anxiety first, or recognize that people who have more sex may not have a better relationship than you do. It may simply be a reflection of the anxiety in their relationship. You don’t want to consciously or unconsciously create more anxiety just to have more sex.
Intimacy can be a double-edged sword. It gives you a warm, connected, trustable feeling, but it can also kill your sex drive. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. One study shows that when couples share growth goals such as having more fun and sharing positive experiences, they often feel a greater level of sexual desire. So why not seek to strengthen your intimacy through the sharing of positive growth goals?
When people have positive growth goals, they have different motivations that fulfill their romantic reward systems. They realize that being married gives them meaning and purpose and perhaps that it upholds their religious or family values. For you, this meaning could be something completely different. It may be that you have someone to grow old with or that you have someone who knows your faults so well that there won’t be many more surprises. The key is to allow the initial excitement of new romance to give way to the comfort of long-term companionship.
In scientific terms, you need to make a clear distinction between hedonia and eudaimonia. The former is pleasure for pleasure’s sake, while the latter is pleasure that lasts longer because it means something. Ultimately, your brain can learn to prefer the rewards of meaning and purpose over the hedonic rewards that sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll provide. In fact, adolescents who are encouraged to appreciate meaning over pleasure generally feel less depressed later in life.
For this reason, it pays to consciously explore lifestyles that give you meaning. For some couples, this may be having more fun at a local bar. For others, it may be hiking or spending more time with family. Find lifestyles that help you grow by giving you meaning and purpose. It can definitely turn those sparks on.
If “meaning” sounds fine but bores you and what you really want is to spice up your romance, I would advise against adding romantic date nights to your schedule. In my practice, they only end up creating tension and performance anxiety. Instead, try this fun idea: Go out on an unromantic date night where physical touch is absolutely forbidden. It sounds crazy, but in stressful situations, our brains actually have a tendency to do the opposite of what we want them to do. So if you transgress on your unromantic date night — which you or your partner likely will — the outcome won’t be all that bad.
Prolonged intense feelings of love are highly stimulating to the brain, so it only makes sense that we panic at the very first sign of lost passion. In reality, however, this is just how we’re wired as humans. Acceptance also goes a long way, and it will help you focus on the strategies above before you spend too much on sexy lingerie that gets you nowhere.
You’re not always going to feel incredibly rewarded; you’re not always going to feel a mutual attachment to each other; you’re not always going to feel an intense sexual desire toward this person; and you’re not always going to obsess over his or her whereabouts, wellbeing, and opinions. Consciously, but gently, redirect your brain away from the panic of boredom and fear of never feeling intense romance again. Focus on the things you can do, even if they’re new and different.
Last but not least, live out your romance as you are — not as society dictates. Rules are guidelines, but your long-term togetherness can still be preserved if you have a deep appreciation for the fact that we’re wired funnily as human beings to crave deep, passionate love all the time.
All we can do is do our best, and if all else fails — and I do mean all else — you can try again.