One of the things that interests me the most about relationships is how they break down. Looking at divorce rates, it’s clear that a lot of them do. But why? What causes this breakdown? It’s not a simple answer, as there are many things that can contribute to relationships breaking down. One large contributor seems to be confusion about what romance is, and the difference between romance and love.
The Early Days of Love
In my last post (What is Love) I mentioned stages of relationships. There is a lot of writing on this topic, and although I haven’t seen a consensus (on how many stages there are or what they all are) one item of agreement is relationships start in the romance stage. This stage is sometimes called the discovery, passion or honeymoon stage, and is a stage of excitement. You are learning about each other, and everything is new.
Studies of this stage have found that neurochemicals are released that give people a drug like high. This high is believed to serve the evolutionary purpose of bringing people together to push the continuation of the species. Biological urges if you will. Thing is, this is a temporary stage. Your brain can’t produce those neurochemicals indefinitely, and will stop after anywhere from a few months to a maximum of around two years. It’s actually pretty fascinating stuff (read about it here if you are interested).
So when people talk about love as being like a drug, or people talk about being blinded by “love”, it’s true. Love, or at least the romance stage of it IS like a drug. The feelings are strong, and can be overpowering. The problem is, it’s just a stage and isn’t sustainable. And really, this stage is more lust and passion than real love.
Romance, Hollywood Style
Now here’s a problem; this stage is the way love is portrayed by Hollywood, television and in Romance novels. For some reason a lot of people buy into this notion of what love is, and think that if this stage passes it means there’s something wrong with the relationship, or with the person. One of the sites on stages of relationships summed this up nicely with the following quote:
One of the biggest illusions in our culture is that Romantic Love will last forever, if you just find the right partner
I can’t understand this. TV, movies and books are forms of entertainment and we know that. The purpose of entertainment is to make things, you know, entertaining. In the world as portrayed by Hollywood police officers are constantly in gun battles or car chases. Spies have crazy gadgets and regularly save the world. And the staff at your local hospital are all sleeping with each other and trading off partners every couple of weeks (plus almost everyone in the world is beautiful and fit). It’s escapism people, NOT REAL LIFE!!! So why do so many people buy into the Hollywood view of love? Even worse, why do people think something is wrong when their own life doesn’t measure up?
Look at this early stage of relationships and ask yourself this – is that REALLY what romance is about? Is romance just lust and uncontrollable desire? Personally, I say no. Yeah I get that the early stage is really exciting, and it feels great. But I don’t think that’s romance. As great as it is, I don’t think the feelings during that stage are even love.
Think about something you are passionate about. What does it mean when we say we are passionate about something? Being passionate about something means REALLY enjoying it, and having strong positive feelings for it. You can be passionate about all sorts of things: cooking, traveling, a sports team, whatever. When people talk about passion in a relationship it’s the same thing. You are passionate about the other person. They are very important to you, and you care greatly for them. Seeing them happy is a source of happiness for you.
I think romance is simply doing things to express that passion to the other person. What are you really doing when you buy someone flowers, or take them out on a date night? It’s not about the flowers or the night out, these are simply gestures to show someone that they are important to you. It doesn’t have to be material things, it can be something as simple as an email or a text telling them you love them, or asking about their day.
To me romance is about caring about them and valuing them. Be passionate about your spouse. Care about them, and SHOW them that. Everyone wants to know they are valued. Everyone wants to know they are loved.
Looking for love (in all the wrong places)
I started this by talking about why relationships break down, and I think this is key. Somewhere along the way (usually in long term relationships), we stop doing the little things that show the other person how much we value them. We may not completely stop, but we don’t do it as often. Maybe it’s the stresses of everyday life, jobs, parenting (which is a big one), balancing the budget or maintaining a household, I don’t know. But over time in most relationships I think people start to take each other for granted. It may not be intentional, but it happens all the same.
When this happens, I can see how relationships break down and affairs can begin. If you are in an unhappy spot and questioning your relationship, and then you encounter someone who makes you feel beautiful again? Makes you feel valued again? Well, those neurochemicals start can start to take over and next thing you know you are doing things you know are wrong, but you don’t care because you feel alive again.
Here’s something I hate about the Hollywood portrayal of romance – it glamorizes affairs. Let’s see if this sounds familiar – woman is in an “unhappy relationship”. She is neglected/unappreciated/whatever by her husband. She meets someone (probably a sensitive artistic type – let’s call him Artistic Joe) who fulfills her emotionally and they start a torrid love affair. There is something about the relationship that makes it so it won’t work out between them and they are forced to part ways. The woman goes on with her life, but knows that Artistic Joe was really her true love. Sigh, so romantic.
I want to see a slightly different version of this story where the affair becomes the new relationships. The new couple is happy at first, but then after 6 months to two years the love haze wears off and the person realizes that they’ve carried the same baggage that contributed to the failure of their previous relationship, and they are in the same boat as before and just as unhappy. Plus they’ve broken up a family in the process. Come on Hollywood, make my version – it’s got best picture written all over it!!!
Climbing Back Out
If you are someone who has found that your relationships don’t seem to last more than about 2-3 years, maybe it’s because what you are looking for isn’t sustainable. That’s not to say we shouldn’t all strive for more romance in our lives. We should. Lets face it, it feels great to know that you are loved, to know that you are valued. So why do so many of us let that slip? Are long term relationships incompatible with passion and romance? I don’t think so. It’s just that the nature of it changes somewhat.
I believe that in most troubled relationships both sides really do want things to work out. They just don’t know how. We just get into a hole so deep that things seem hopeless. Well just as the longest journeys begin with a single step, you need to start somewhere.
If you feel as though your significant other hasn’t done anything lately to show you that they care, ask yourself this – when was the last time YOU did something to show them how much you care? Don’t expect to receive and not have to give, it works both ways. Ladies, us guys want to feel loved too. Make your partner a priority and show them that you love them.
If it’s been while it may seem awkward at first, but stick with it. Don’t worry if your partner doesn’t return it right away. Just as seeing someone else laugh will usually make you at least smile, your actions are bound to have an effect. It’s a good way to take that first step. You may never reach that neurochemical induced high of the early days, but that is unsustainable anyhow. However just because that’s gone, it doesn’t mean you can’t still have a great future.