When feelings are gone, how do you (and your partner) convince yourself to like one another again?
This question was posed to me recently by a buddy, it’s a loaded one.
He’s married, and longs for the “old days” when there was love and passion and the time they had together was special.
He and his wife have been together for many years, and one day he woke up and realized things weren’t the same. They were friends, and companions; and although there was a lot of good in the relationship still, his feelings for her just weren’t there anymore.
This lack of “feeling” led him to question what was wrong, and to start distancing himself from her (which in turn just increased tension in the relationship). He felt they had become a couple who were just going through the motions of day to day life; and although he felt it *could* get better, his heart wasn’t really in it.
And that recognition hurt.
I wish I could help him, I really do.
I wish there was a surefire answer that could solve his problems and make him fall in love with his wife again (and she with him if she’s feeling the same way).
Of course if I knew the answer to his problem, it’s a pretty safe bet I wouldn’t be writing this blog anymore. Or maybe I would be but it would look a lot more professional, and be full of product placement for my “revitalize your marriage with these quick steps” self-help program.
How Do We Get There?
My buddy’s problem isn’t unusual. He’s in a spot I think many, many people find themselves in. And often these people wish things were different, but don’t know what to do. They don’t necessarily want out of the relationship. But they aren’t happy in the spot that they are in, and they don’t know how to make it better.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking and writing about this type of thing, and although there is no “one size fits all” explanation for how people get there I think there are some common patterns that emerge.
Unrealistic view of love
I believe part of the problem comes from an unrealistic view of love. Love as depicted in the movies/media is all about passion; and when people remember back to the “old days” there’s a pretty good chance they are remembering those passionate times.
Here’s the thing though – excitement is based on unpredictability. When you are still learning each other there’s naturally more of a sense of excitement, because everything is new. One of the strengths of long term relationships is a sense of security, of knowing the other person will be there. There is comfort in knowing the other person completely, but comfort often comes at the cost of excitement.
That’s not to say anyone should ever accept the loss of passion. It should never completely go away in long term relationships, but it changes. And it’s up to both people to keep it alive.
More than a Feeling
Related to the above point, another problem people face is searching for a feeling.
I’ve always hated this one, because to me thinking of love as a feeling is saying that love is a passive thing. It’s something that just happens to us (or doesn’t). So if it fades, you are left feeling lost. After all, what can you do if you have no control over it?
I’ve never viewed love as just a feeling. Yeah you start with feelings, but it’s your actions that determine how well your love will be sustained. It helps when you partner is kind, caring and shows affection. But ultimately, staying in love is your own responsibility. Love isn’t passive, and keeping it alive is based on our actions.
Learning to Love
I’m a big believer in continuous improvement, and I think that’s another area where people get love wrong. Love isn’t just a feeling or a choice. It’s also a skill. We may have some inherent capacity to love, but we can always improve on it. We can always strive to understand each other better, and learn new ways to show and express that love to each other.
Learning to love each other is important, and we should never think that because we’ve been together for a while, we “get it”.
When I think back to what I though “love” was at 18, 20, 25, I’m struck by how little I understood it. I’m not saying I get it now, but I definitely have a better understanding of love now than I did a few years ago. And most importantly, I accept that I still have a lot to learn, and I can be better tomorrow than I am today.
A huge issue relationships face is taking each other for granted. I think every couple probably goes through this, and some never get out of it.
Repeat the following after me:
Your relationship is important.
Seriously, it should be. And if it isn’t, why are you in one? Yet couples continually find ways to take their relationship (and each other) for granted. And we do this by not spending enough time on it, and not making it a priority.
Life will always get busy. There are always other stresses that can get in the way of taking time to focus on each other if you let them. And because they know their partner “will always be there”, many couples let their relationship slide while other things take precedence.
And then they end up surprised and saddened when they start to realize the connection has broken down. I mean, really? What do you expect?
If your relationship is truly important to you, show it. Make it a priority and put in a bit of time each and every day.
Not Accepting Each Other
In my mind, a relationship should be a partnership. Both people should feel valued, and appreciated, and feel like they are contributing to something larger then themselves.
But behind the scenes there are often power struggles. People often need to be right, or to have things work “their way”. After all, their way is clearly the best. So they put their opinions and beliefs above those of their partner.
Here’s the thing though – we’re all different. We all have different backgrounds and experiences. And what works for one person necessarily work for the other.
It’s possible for two people to walk away from the same experience with completely different understandings of it, and when that happens it’s also possible that both people are right.
Power and control have no place in a relationship, and insisting things need to be a certain way is guaranteed to cause conflict.
All of these issues contribute to couples finding themselves in a bad spot. And like my buddy, many one day wake up and ask themselves what went wrong, and where the love they once felt has gone.
Where Do We Go From Here?
One of my core beliefs is we are the sum of our experiences. If your relationship is currently in a bad spot, it is there because of whatever has come before.
Maybe you’re hurting. Maybe you’ve felt ignored and not valued for a long time. Maybe bad things have happened – apathy, cruelty, cheating, whatever.
No matter what the past is, if you want to move forward you need to let go.
When people talk about letting go they often talk about letting go of the relationship. Walking away, and starting fresh.
That’s one option. And truly, sometimes it’s the best one.
But it’s not the only one.
Accepting Who You Are Today
My buddy longs for the old days, when he and his wife were younger and everything was better. He needs to accept that those days are gone. Things will never be the same as they were when they first met. He’s not the person he was then, and neither is his wife. They are the people they are now, today. A little older, and perhaps a little more disillusioned.
That’s not to say he needs to accept the emotional disconnect between them and say it’s just part of getting older. They can rebuild closeness and connection. But it’s only when they accept their current reality that they can truly move forward.
Letting Go of Past Hurts
A big part of moving forward is allowing your past to remain in the past. Couples go through a lot of different things, and often they hurt each other very badly, and do things that break down trust. Sometimes those things cause relationships to fail, and I totally understand that.
But if someone truly wants the relationship to work out, no matter has happened they need to let it go. Holding onto anger and resentment will never allow a couple to heal, and move forward.
Think of your past hurt like a physical wound. The human body is an amazing thing, and left alone it will try to heal. Over time it will form a scab, and eventually that scab will fall away leaving a scar as a reminder of what happened.
Holding onto anger and resentment is like picking at the scab. When you pick at it, it can never truly heal. And worse, the constant irritation can cause the wound to fester and become infected, making the problem worse.
Letting People Back In
A while back I came across an interesting study that found one of the biggest roadblocks for couples in trying to rebuild their relationship came not from a lack of effort or desire to rebuild. Rather, it came from an unwillingness to recognize and trust genuine attempts at rebuilding.
When you’ve been hurt, it’s natural to try and protect yourself from being hurt again. And if your trust has been broken, rebuilding that trust is something that takes time. But putting up walls and not letting your partner back in ensures that any attempts to improve the relationship will fail.
Another way to let go is to accepting that you (and your partner) are both different, and that’s alright. Your partner will likely have traits you don’t like, and they will likely do things differently than you would.
Maybe you’re a neat freak and they are a slob (to you). Maybe they like to live for today while you like to plan for the future. There are countless ways that people are different.
Accepting differences is about letting go of control. Accepting that “your way” is not the only way, and that different doesn’t mean less or worse. In fact sometimes differences are complementary, and accepting them can allow each of you to grow in different ways.
Holding On by Letting Go
My buddy believes he has lost the feelings of love for his wife. My guess is, he probably still loves her but his love is buried under feelings of hurt, resentment and neglect that have built up over years.
He needs to decide if he wants to make it work, or if he wants to move on. Every situation is different, and there is no right or wrong answer. Well, other than waffling forever and trying to avoid making a decision – that’s not fair to anyone.
If he decides he truly wants the relationship to work, then he’ll have let go in order to give it a fair chance.
For anyone in a bad spot, the past may be what brought you to where you are today and there may be a lot of hurt. But to truly move forward you need to let go.
The past can’t be changed. Learn from the past, but don’t let it define your present.