Have I married the wrong person?

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Twenty years ago I was invited to speak at a women’s retreat and on the first day someone began their question with, “You know how sometimes you wish your husband could die so you could just start again?”  While I don’t believe she was actually considering homicide, it was a gutsy idea to express all the same.  Especially surrounded by her peers.

I think she was trying to communicate something extremely important: 

  • I’m worried that I’ve made a mistake.
  • If I’ve fallen out of love, should I stay in the marriage?
  • Can I have a second chance at this important decision?

Of course divorce is all about second chances for many but for those who do not think divorce is a good option for a ‘change of mind’, daydreams like this might occur.  In fact, I’ve heard these concerns voiced many times in a variety of ways over the intervening years.  I think these are not only daring thoughts but important ones if we’re going to navigate the rocky pathway from young love (baby love) to grown-up love.

Research (how wonderful that people are researching this stuff) reveals that when we first fall in love, we are strongly influenced by a cocktail of chemicals (including dopamine) that marinate our brains and make us… well… psychotic.  This brain bath causes familiar, crazy behaviours like: going shopping with the Love Of Our Lives when we absolutely never deliberately go near a shop; splashing out on an expensive meal when we’d normally choose to spend as little as possible on… anything; going to watch The Game with our Sweetheart, when we usually complain loudly about all elements of team sports.  These are samples from a very long list.

We can suddenly see things like eating and sleeping as trivialities and work as an annoying, time-wasting exercise.  The chemicals also help us maximise all the similarities we have with our Chosen One while ignoring or minimising all the differences.  “It’s amazing!  We like the same music, the same movies, the same take-away food, literature, rap-artists, indoor plants …!”  The awareness of our astonishing connection often carries us right to the point of committing to spend our lives together.  (Sometimes we’ve even begun a family while in this stage but, as often as not, we might actually choose to start a family as a desperate attempt to regain some of this hormonally-inspired ‘completeness’).

We’ve moved beyond the early stage of relationship – often called the romantic stage – when we begin to notice the awarenesses about our partner are changing.  “You always talk while I’m trying to watch something”; “You never hang up your wet towel”; “You never talk to me”; “You never ask me about my day”; “You don’t do stuff with me anymore”; “You’re always so miserable”; “I can’t believe you eat like that”; “Will you ever want sex again?”   For some of us this kind of awareness is a bit slower in arriving and/or stays underground for many years due to a strong investment in relational harmony, aka not-rocking-the-boat, aka compliance-at-all-costs.  Regardless of the timeframe, the romance brain-bath is gradually replaced with a different mix of hormones and the result?  We begin to minimise the similarities and maximise the differences.

Our druggy haze dissipates.  Love seems like a fading hope or distant memory.  In fact our sad heart might have forgotten it altogether.

The overwhelming, blood-pumping, brain-hazing, electrifying feelings that are a normal result of those chemicals flooding our brains were never actually going to last. 

Never. Going. To. Last!

If this sounds like a cruel design element for creatures built for long term relationships, please consider that we can’t stay in baby love forever.  Firstly, our systems wouldn’t survive the giddy intensity but also, the longer we actually spend with someone in ‘real life’ the more we learn about them.  The more we learn, the more we know and…well you just can’t un-know the stuff you know.

Over a relatively short period (the romantic stage is touted to last from around 9 – 24 months), you start to notice the number of times your Dearest Love lets you down, makes thoughtless comments, complains about you in private and in public, becomes distracted while you’re trying to talk, ignores your hurt feelings and criticises you for… being you.  You eventually might find it really, really, really challenging to say the words, “I appreciate you” or “Thanks for all you do for this family” or “I’m glad I chose you”.  To voice the once effortless “I love you”, becomes too much like giving up a part of yourself and frankly, somehow, is no longer quite accurate.

Dr Pat Love (professor and educator), explaining this “biology of desire” (in her article, What is This Thing Called Love?)says pithily, “Romance has no legs”.  It was clearly never going to carry us off into the sunset. 

If the feelings of overwhelming attraction and hormone-spiked desire are never going to assist us to feel loved and loving over the long term, how can we ever hope to deliver on our sincere commitment to stay with another person?  Is it realistic to even make those vows to love and cherish, for better or worse… till death parts us?  If this is the general biology of all long term relationships, won’t we find ourselves back in a similar situation once we’ve passed the romantic stage of the next relationship?  There must be something elsesomething important that our relationships are trying to teach us. 

I think of that ‘something’ as how to grow up.

Growing up allows us to participate in grown-up loving.  We can no longer rely on the old ‘love cocktail’ to effortlessly lead us to desire our partner.  Those chemicals are no longer available to us.  The challenge instead, is to acknowledge that our partners are humans like we are – occasionally flawed, occasionally heroic but ultimately real humans, well-intentioned, with thoughts and feelings that sometimes seem irrational.  They feel confused, disappointed, lonely, unheard and heartbroken in this relationship every bit as often as we do.  It takes quite a lot of deliberate consideration and hard work to drop the shiny image we had of our partners to allow the real, multi-dimensional person to be revealed.  This person is not a product of our dopamine-soaked imaginings.  This is the person we can choose to love and we have to ‘grow up’ to do it.  Our relationship demands it.

This maturation of a relationship involves accepting that grown-up love is not actually a sweet feeling (that would be baby love).  Love is more to do with behaviours that are consistent with who we want to be as we walk on this planet.  Behaviours that benefit the one we love.  Growing up in your relationship transforms, “Why don’t you love me better?” into “How can I be more loving?” “How can I be true to my values and fulfil my side of the deal?” (and part of being more loving involves dialogue with your partner about what helps you feel loved in return).  Choosing to be loving toward our mate, perhaps not so surprisingly, can open up the door for us to re-discover the love we had begun to fear was only a mirage.  We only have the power to change our own steps in this dance, but in doing so, we are inviting our significant other to join us in authentic loving. Not like in the early days… but much better.

So the important question isn’t, “Have I married the right person”, but “Can I respond well to this invitation from my relationship to grow up?”  

It was never really very much about the person at all.  Once you’ve chosen your mate the wheels are automatically set in motion for the difficult task of growth and maturity.  It’s actually being in your relationship that allows for this growth but be warned – it looks like curiosity, warmth, pain, self-soothing, playfulness, connection, patience, hurt, courage, honesty and perseverance.  Your partner may not be the wrong choice – just an unrealised gift.

For a while now I’ve been enjoying Dean Lewis’ song, 7 Minutes:

            ‘Now I sink a little deeper, think a little clearer

            Looking at myself through these newfound eyes

            Is it too late to turn around?

            I’m already halfway out of town

            Now I know how I let you down

            Oh, I finally figured it out

            I forgot to love you’

Note: There are, of course, significant and important reasons why a person will need to seriously consider leaving a relationship.  The most obvious being if abuse is present.

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