What’s “falling in love” anyway?
It has two components:
- Part one: How the other person makes you feel about yourself.
- Part two: How you feel about the other person.
These two parts are inextricably bound up together, and, as a matter of fact, part two follows from part one. Here’s why:
The “falling in love” kind of love, not the familial love that you have, say, for your parents or children, is about receiving. The other kind of love—the tender feelings for children, or the compassionate love that you have when you’ve been married 50 years—is about giving.
So what is it you’re receiving when you fall in love?
You get a clear, bright, and shiny message of validation of yourself as a person. Many people can try to give you this message but it doesn’t work with other people. The one person with whom it works proves to you, in the course of being together, that he or she really gets who you are. Only someone who has plunged your depths and finds you amazing, special, and wonderful can offer this level of validation.
There may be people you have dated who feel as though they love you, but in your opinion, they don’t know you. Therefore, it’s impossible for them to validate you. Knowing the other person, genuinely knowing, is the cornerstone of intimacy. So you have allowed one person into your inner world, in the course of being together, and each step of the way you felt understood. This person, in return, continues to be intrigued by that process of knowing you, and wants more.
What could be a better experience than that?
That is part one (how your partner makes you feel). You feel exhilarated because after carefully letting down your guard to someone, this person has appreciated having been given the tremendous gift of you. Part two (how you feel about your partner) flows from this. As you let him or her into your private self, your partner did the same. And what did you find inside your partner’s heart and soul? A self that is very similar to yours!
Although opposites do attract, the fundamental, deep-down attraction comes from a reflection of oneself. Not only is this person validating you, but his very being (because it’s so much like yours) validates you all the more. That’s part two (how you feel about your partner).
(Incidentally, if you don’t see this, you do have to plumb the depths to find it. It is not on the surface. The surface includes a host of differences, but deep down you’ll find the sameness.)
So what’s “falling out of love”? The answer is: betrayal. You have opened up your soul; you’ve been vulnerable, and what did you get for it? You got hurt and betrayed. The betrayal doesn’t have to be as raw as cheating, although it can be that. But even ignoring a spouse when he or she is talking is betrayal. When this continues, the commonalities aren’t so apparent. Your spouse might be hurt, too.
Now, just suppose the two of you want to maintain the marriage. Maybe you’ve been married a long time. You may have had children together. How in the world can you get back to opening yourself up to someone who has hurt you? How can you possibly fall in love with such a person again? You are torn because it would be good to keep the relationship but the feelings just aren’t there. What can you do?
My answer is: Feeling can come back, but the process is backwards from the way it was the first time.
The first time, you just opened yourself up and there it was. You can’t do that this time. Even if you really would like to, your survival instincts won’t let that happen, and you must honor those.
Here are some steps that you both can take:
1. Your partner must prove to you, in every conceivable way, that he or she has changed. He/she must acquire the skill of patience. That is, your partner is so anxious to wish away all the bad in the relationship—which is understandable—that he/she may make you feel like he/she is more concerned with what he/she is getting out of it than what you are being offered. If your partner has truly overcome his/her hurtful behavior, then it must go along with an attitude of patience for your healing—and giving of himself/herself. It has to be about you, not him/her, this time around.
2. You must be patient, too—with your spouse and with yourself. His/her awakening to the fact that you have been deeply wounded in the relationship, and that you need to heal, will dawn on him/her slowly. Your spouse will realize that change goes way beyond no longer being ugly with you. This may take time, and perhaps help from outside sources. And you can allow yourself time to heal from the hurts of the past, because that is a natural process that cannot be rushed.
3. This is a wonderful step. It is akin to noticing how your child is improving in math or picking up a language. There is the dawning awareness that your spouse is growing. Because your guard remains up (that was number one in this list), your powers of observation are keen, and you can see that something new is on the horizon. Expected behaviors don’t happen and new, lovely ones are in their place: consideration, gentleness, sensitivity, generosity of time and effort. From this, respect and trust begin to grow. Allow this step the time it needs to unfold. The more respectworthy observations you make, the stronger your trust will be in your spouse.
4. Respect and trust will allow you to open up, little by little. You won’t have to force it; it, too, will be a natural process. There will be new things in the “you” that has experienced all this pain: guardedness, healing, and newfound respect. These are the new things that you will be able to talk about. Your spouse opens the door to intimacy when you know that he/she has heard you. You become willing to be vulnerable and open more and more.
5. In turn, your spouse will be able to talk about his/her dawning awareness of his/her past selfishness and hurtfulness and any regrets felt over them. In these admissions, he/she too will be vulnerable, and this will open the door wider to falling in love again.
What’s the upside of this difficult process? It’s more than falling in love and even more than preserving a family. It’s something rich and mature that you can’t feel the first time around: It’s a rock-solid knowledge of who this other person really is, leading to a much deeper bond, greater respect, and stronger trust than you could ever have with a new person.
© Copyright 2011 by By Deb Hirschhorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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