“How do we get the passion back? We want things to be like how they were in the beginning,” she says.
He nods his head as she speaks. “Yeah, everything seemed so perfect then. It seemed like we could talk about anything. Now… it’s so hard to communicate. We need to learn how to communicate.”
I look at the faces of this young married couple on my computer screen (which has largely replaced the couch in my office as the venue for marriage counseling sessions) and think, “Oh my darlings – you have so much to learn.”
What I often run into with couples is that they confuse romantic love for the entirety of a healthy, authentic and emotionally connected relationship. This is understandable as our culture presents only one story about what a good relationship should be: Intense idealization and a perfect union — like two lego blocks clicking together, forevermore. This is where the movie ends.
The fact that a real relationship keeps going, past the point when the credits usually roll and evolving into something much more complex can make people worry that something is wrong, or that their relationship is dying… when it’s actually growing.
In reality, romantic love is one stage of a relationship.
A delicious, exciting stage. It comes after the great drama of flirtation and chase, after the seduction, and the nervous first months. In the swirl of romantic love, couples experience enchantment with the person they think each other is and are so excited that this perfect person loves them in return.
As you know if you’ve ever been in love, that there is craving for closeness, delight in proximity, and an overwhelming desire to connect with your beloved. The drive for romantic love is one of the most powerful and intoxicating forces in the human experience. It’s like being addicted, in the most delightful way.
This is a special, sacred time in the process of developing a relationship, because it’s when bonding occurs. During this period you become each other’s “irreplaceable other” and your lives start to entwine.
You are discovering each other, and unwrapping the layers of each other’s stories, hopes and dreams, talents and vulnerabilities with every passing month. Particularly for younger people who’ve been adrift in the numbness of the “hook-up culture” that’s replaced dating, finding a connection with someone who prizes you and cherishes you above all others is intoxicating.
Through romantic love, you establish a partnership that you want to protect. You’ve become the most important person in each other’s lives. The desire to protect your relationship, formalize it, set boundaries around it, and create rules for it are all manifestations of the forces inside of you that desire closeness and connection.
Obeying your craving for contact leads you to merge your lives more deeply together — living in the same space, floating under the arch of marriage, joining bank accounts…. and becoming intensely attuned to each other’s emotions.
And that’s around the time when the ingredients for romance — novelty, physical contact and anxiety — start to run out.
You’ve heard each other’s stories. You’re frustrated with each other. You’re too tired for sex. And the sparkling anxiety (aka “butterflies”) that comes with newness has been transformed into the quiet, day to day companionship of people who share the same bathroom.
But you care even more deeply about each other because now you’re dependent on each other. The dark side of emotional fusion leads to hurt feelings, reactivity, and miscommunication.
“So how do we get that back?” People ask me, earnestly. “How do we rekindle the passion, and that sense of joyful one-ness that we felt in the beginning?”
Whenever I’m asked this I imagine I feel a slightly sinking feeling, like I would looking into the weathered face of a forty-five year old asking with all sincerity, “How can I be twenty again?”
The truth is that there is no going back. Nothing gold can stay, Pony Boy.
The process of coming into a relationship — romantic love — is enmeshment. It’s the exhilarating spring flower of love that attaches people to each other. But the mighty oak of a stable, meaningful and passionate marriage can only grow after the flower withers to fertile dust, and individuation starts to happen.
The work of creating a sustainable relationship involves building the trust and deep connection that will tolerate your both stepping out of the emotional fusion of romance to become separate again. Only can you truly be each other’s safe harbor in the storm, deeply emotionally connected AND have a self that you can share sexually, intellectually, and creatively.
That’s when sparkles and passion comes back — when you’re both new and known. Selfless and selfish. Safe and sexy. It’s a maddening paradox, and most couples go through this growth process in fits and starts. They ultimately find each other again when stop chasing the dragon of effervescent, romantic love… and find themselves.
All this flashes through my mind in an instant. I smile at the young, hopeful couple in front of me as I lean forward and say, “Let’s get started.”