For anyone who has read my site, you know I believe very strongly in love and in long term relationships. I also believe they naturally go through ups and downs, but maintaining and nurturing love is a choice.
You choose how you treat your partner. How much time you spend together, how you spend that time together, how much you value them and appreciate them. You choose how much effort you put into your relationship, and how much you are willing to accept them for who they are.
This idea of choice is supported by every relationship expert I have read or heard about. They all talk about how maintaining long term love is a mindset, an outlook, and a choice.
But what about falling in love? Many people think of love and romance as this magical thing, based on feeling and emotion. And it is. But is falling in love a choice too?
A buddy of mine recently pointed me to a fascinating study by Dr. Arthur Aron, called The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness. I’ll admit the name leaves a bit to be desired, but the study itself is pretty interesting. The study was intended to understand whether or not closeness or intimacy could be created. For the experiment he defined intimacy as “a process in which each feels his or her innermost self validated, understood and cared for by the other.”
His experiment was quite simple. Members of the opposite gender were paired up and given a number of self-disclosure and relationship building tasks of increasing intensity to carry out over a 1 ½ hr period. They were then asked questions measuring the degree of closeness they felt was built through the procedure.
I believe there are variations of the questions, but you can find a sample of them here
He found that:
One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure
One interesting part of the study was that he found that it didn’t really matter if you agreed with each other’s ideas and opinions. That didn’t seem to impact the building of intimacy. The important part was the act of self-disclosure.
Falling in Love
There are no real surprises in Dr. Arons study. People often say love “just happens”, but that’s completely untrue. We all know that part of falling in love is getting to know the other person. That’s the time of discovery, where things are new and exciting.
Even in cases where “your eyes met across the room and you knew it was love”, there was still some sort of a process. Your eyes met because there was mutual physical attraction. That may be a good start, but it’s simply the starting point. Even if you moved straight from eyes meeting to sex, that doesn’t make it a relationship (sorry Hollywood and romance novels, it’s true). There will always be a period where you get to know each other, and this period involves self-disclosure.
Does that mean you can make someone fall in love with you? No. Does it mean you can make yourself fall in love with someone simply by learning about them? Well, kind of.
Getting to know someone is how you build intimacy, but it doesn’t always result in love. Some relationships fail quickly, while others start as friendships and develop into love over an extended period of time (potentially years). There is no single formula that will result in success.
Personally, I suspect that when friendships turn into love there was always a degree of attraction for at least one of the members. The whole idea of the dreaded “friend zone” is where someone has feelings for another person that aren’t returned. They often stick around, keeping themselves in the other person’s life with the hopes that maybe it will develop into something more. This happens all the time and is a common theme in love stories (both fictional and real).
In blogs and comments sections there are MANY people out there who are convinced that they are “the one” for someone else. People talk about how much they do for the other person and how they are always there for them, but their love is not returned.
So why do some relationships bloom into love, while others don’t? This depends on the level of intimacy and closeness. As you learn more about another person, you allow yourself to be vulnerable with them, and you become more comfortable sharing information about yourself. We all have emotional walls around ourselves, and when we have let someone breach that wall? I believe that’s when love develops.
Intimacy in Long Term Relationships
If closeness and intimacy is built by sharing and self-disclosure, what exactly does this mean to long term relationships? There seems to be a perception that long term relationships are incompatible with love and romance, and there is some truth to that.
Intimacy or closeness develops through reciprocal self-disclosure, and that period is exciting as it is new and you are learning. But eventually you have learned a lot about each other. Intimacy is built, and the relationship is established. Now how do you maintain it? How do you prevent it from breaking down over time?
That is the part many people struggle with over time. They have finally achieved what they believe they were looking for. They are in a stable relationship, and things are “safe”. A problem is that it’s easy to become comfortable, and it’s easy for both partners to stop doing the little things that you did during the courting stage. Another thing about safe and comfortable is that it can become routine and boring.
Plus over time you start to realize that your partner is just a regular person, who has flaws like any other. Conflict will happen, and depending on how you deal with it conflict can erode the feelings of closeness.
In many relationships, one day you realize the sense of intimacy that brought you together is gone (or at least eroded). You figure maybe it’s a phase that will pass. But it doesn’t, so you find yourselves in a relationship where you have become largely roommates. And being roommates sucks.
Can Guys and Girls Just be Friends – Revisited
One of my most popular posts (in terms of views, comments and likes) is Can Guys and Girls Just be Friends?
In answer to the titular question, my belief is both yes and no. I suppose I’m waffling here, but it really depends on the nature of your interactions and what you are telling the other person.
One reader shared a story with me about her affair, and how it started innocently enough. She was married, and started corresponding with someone through social media. Over time their messages became more intense, and she realized she had fallen in love with this other guy.
It’s easy to see how this happens. I’m not sure about her case, but if the existing relationship is in a bit of a rut and you meet someone new, even if it starts as “just friends”, as you open up to each other the simple nature of intimacy makes it so you are at risk of having it develop into something more.
I recently read an article where someone tried the Dr. Aron questions, and found that they worked for building intimacy. In the article the person states:
The questions reminded me of the infamous boiling frog experiment in which the frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late. With us, because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there.
When this experiment is done over a period of an hour or so, I can understand that. But when it comes to affairs, I find that very difficult to believe.
People aren’t stupid, they KNOW when the landscape has shifted from feelings of friendship into feelings that might be something more. People can tell when they are becoming excited to hear from the other person, and when they are happy to see them. They know when they are thinking about the other person more than they should be. They know when the relationship has crossed lines that take it beyond friendship and into something more.
They just don’t care. It feels good and is exciting, so they choose to continue the relationship anyways. They may deny that it’s an affair, but the affair has started long before sex, or even the first kiss.
It IS possible to love two people at once. Putting yourself in the position for that love to develop is a choice. Let’s face it, if you are putting yourself in that position then chances are good your relationship is in a troubled spot. If it’s healthy then you probably aren’t taking a lot of time to get to intimately know members of the opposite sex. And if you do, and those feelings start to arise? At that point continuing to see that person after it has developed into love is also a choice.
Back to the idea of guys and girls just being friends, it rarely works (not saying never here, but very rarely). For it to work you really need to put boundaries on the types of interactions you have, and the level of sharing that occurs – especially if you are already in a relationship.
Intimacy and Rebuilding
Alright, intimacy is built through emotionally opening up and sharing with the other person. But this is something that happens as you are learning each other, and once you already know each other well you can’t really “build” intimacy in the same way. Over time relationships can get into a rut and intimacy can break down. So what do you do?
Well, Dr. Aron’s findings on intimacy have some bearing on how you get out of a rut. Think back to his experiment. Did it involve two people sitting in a room watching TV together? Umm, no. How about two people going about individual tasks independently of each other. Again, no.
It involved two people INTERACTING, opening up to each other and allowing themselves to be vulnerable around each other. So why would we expect rebuilding a relationship to work any differently? Why do people wait for “feelings to come back”, or just start living individual lives? How in the world is that ever supposed to help a relationship?
To rebuild a relationship there are things you can do, but you need to DO them. You need to take action, and be conscious about it. You need to recreate the conditions where you fell in love.
Relationship experts agree that you need to actively rebuild. You need to spend time together, make each other priorities in your lives and relearn each other. Even when you have been with someone for years, there is always more you can learn. Beyond learning each other you can also build experiences. So do things together. Go on dates where you have to interact. Maybe find an activity you are both interested in and do it together.
Dr. John Gottman talks about rebuilding your love maps, and he has a series of exercises and questions for couples to do together similar to Dr. Arons findings. In her book Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson talks about something similar. She talks about sharing something deep and intimate with someone you love. Different experts suggests different (though similar) things. The main commonality is that rebuilding needs to be intentional, and it needs to be active.
Letting Go of the Past
Rebuilding a relationship isn’t easy. Rebuilding intimacy and closeness means allowing yourself to be vulnerable again, and allowing yourself to be hurt. If your relationship is troubled then that can be difficult. Chances are you have been hurt, so you have emotional walls build up to protect yourself from being hurt again.
But you can’t hold back. You have to let the walls come down and let the other person back in. Think of the study, it is allowing yourself to be vulnerable that allows closeness and intimacy to build (or in this case, rebuild). So if you continue to build up walls, all you are doing is preventing closeness from returning. Effectively you are sabotaging your chances of rebuilding.
If you are holding back, you need to ask yourself why. What are you holding back for? Do you truly want to rebuild the relationship? If so you need to let go.
It’s like the team building exercises on trust, when one person leans back and the other catches them. If you truly want to rebuild a relationship, you need to be willing to take that step and trust your partner. Be willing to open up your heart to them. Be willing to lean back and let them catch you. Build closeness and intimacy into your life, and never let it go.