In our culture we put a lot of weight on the words “In Love”. We know he’s “the one” because of how he makes us feel. We know she’s not “the one” because we don’t feel like we’re falling off the side of a cliff every time she walks in the room. We know the marriage is over when we have “fallen out of love” and we nearly wet ourselves wondering about the couples that say that they are “still in love” after decades of marriage. And why wouldn’t we? Don’t we all wish that we could feel just that way forever? Don’t we all wish that our partner still gave us butterflies when he walked into a room after 20 years? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if those feelings were the crystal clear indication that we’ve met a person we’re willing to fight for through all the arguments and all the struggles? It’s a natural wish. Unfortunately, for many of us it is often just a wish. And to give those feelings so much power is often a very big mistake.
I read an article that I saw on Facebook a few months back where the author talked candidly about how her body knew when she agreed to marry her partner that he wasn’t the one, but she wasn’t listening. She summarized that sometimes our bodies know what we don’t. In her case, that meant that her body knew that they were destined to a marriage without emotional or physical intimacy. I have a great deal of empathy for this writer because she came to this conclusion as a result of the very same information we are all given. Unfortunately, she was probably wrong.
We’ve learned a lot about how the body and brain process information over the last decade. We’ve learned a lot about how the body and brain recognize love. And there’s some good news and some bad news—and it’s all included in the same news. The brain is trained to release all of those love chemicals when it recognizes patterns in others that remind us of our original attachment figures. (Yes, this is why we marry our mother or father) The tricky thing is that the part of our brain that recognizes this is the part that doesn’t know how to make sense of it. So someone may not appear to be anything like your narcissistic father or your smothering mother… but the part of your brain that primarily manages emotion has seen your mother and father before the rational part ever will.
So, that’s good news for those who have had pretty great original attachment figures. For those folks, your brain is likely to recognize love in all the right places. And, you will respond to love in many of the right ways. You will, for the most part, have healthy attachment patterns in your adult relationships because that’s the way your brain was wired to accept and give love. He may still give you butterflies every once in a while when he walks in the room.
Unfortunately, not many folks had ideal attachment experiences as infants and children. Sometimes this is true even when we feel we had amazing parents. Many parents didn’t give their kids the “goods” they needed out of not knowing what that looked like or not having the emotional maturity to give what they never received from their parents. Many parents were under such pressure that they couldn’t possibly manage it all and had no support. But, in my experience, there are a lot of folks out there who don’t have the greatest attachment patterns wired in their brains. So, the bad news is that, for those folks, all of those feelings that say, “you’ve found your soul mate!” are quite likely really a sign to run in the opposite direction—fast.
Of course, we don’t. I’ll save the discussion on why we don’t do what we know is best for us even when we know it’s best for us for a later blog post. But today, I want to give a different perspective for those of you who fall into and out of love again and again over the life span—and make decisions based on that.
If this is you, it is very likely that you may feel utterly underwhelmed when you meet a person you can truly spend your life in healthy partnership with. Of course, you should be interested in the person. You should be compatible in values and dreams. You should trust them and respect them and have fun with them. You should feel loyalty and joy in thinking about them. You should be able to talk to them about hard things and feel as if all of you is welcome in the relationship. But you may not feel the butterflies. And when that ex gets in touch with you and you say “She was awful and evil to me, but I’ve never felt that way for anyone before or since”, please know that this is not a sign that you don’t love your partner enough. Don’t take this as a sign that you must end your marriage because you’ve “fallen out of love”. And if you feel like you and your partner are great partners in life, but it feels like you are more like roommates… know that deeper intimacy can happen if both folks are willing to do their own therapeutic work.
If this feels resonant to you, I strongly suggest that you learn more. The book Attached is a great and accessible resource for this information. It will allow you to learn about your attachment style and have more information on yourself. But while information and insight are helpful starting points, I have come to believe that a long-term therapeutic relationship will help us to, over time, feel as if our feelings don’t control all of our actions. And this, in turn, may allow for a real and sustainable love: a love that turns the word “love” into a verb… not just a feeling.