Is Staying In Love an Unrealistic Relationship Goal?
The honeymoon period of new relationships can be so intoxicating; it can be difficult when this feeling fades
Therapist Sophie Corke explores the roots of early infatuation, and whether staying 'in love' is a reasonable expectation
If you and your partner need support, you can find qualified couples counsellors and therapists here
Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day can be hard to ignore, if only because social media is bombarding you with suggestions of how to celebrate with your “loved one”. If you’re a warring or unhappy couple, you may think back to the days when a Valentine’s card from your partner set your pulse racing and wonder what has happened. Infatuation may have been replaced by frequent arguments or cold silences and you may feel you have fallen “out of love”.
It can be a hard decision to start therapy, as for many couples it feels like an admission of failure. So can psychodynamic couple therapy help you to reconcile and maybe even rekindle those feelings of being “in love”?
“You’re my everything”
When we first fall “in love” the other person is idealised and even their faults appear to us as endearing qualities. We may have the feeling of being in perfect harmony as if the other person can read our minds and, for a while at least, there’s the hope that they can fulfil our every need, as in the phrase “you’re my everything”.
One of the reasons this feeling is so powerful is that it’s one we’ve experienced in infancy. In the first weeks and months of life the mother or other carer will ideally be perfectly attuned to the baby’s needs, going into a state of total absorption that paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott termed a state of “reverie”.
In observing mothers with their new born babies Winnicott made the comment that “there is no such thing as a baby”, meaning that mother and baby functioned as one. Most couples early on go through a similarly blissful state of fusion, what we might call a romantic “reverie”.
This feeling of being the world to one another is the subject of poems, songs and art, such as Gustav Klimt’s world famous painting, The Kiss (above), where in the artist’s portrayal of a couple passionately embracing, it’s hard to tell which limb belongs to which person. This experience of fusion can be an enjoyable and important beginning to a romantic relationship. A feeling of merging and losing boundaries is also one we may experience during sex and again we can see this as a healthy and nurturing aspect of being a couple.
When being “as one” becomes the problem
While merging with someone else for a time is enjoyable and for many seems desirable it can have its problems if it becomes a set way of relating. The hope of growing through a relationship may turn into something that feels fixed and stuck, where neither partner has any room for manoeuvre.
If we look more closely at The Kiss we may start to have doubts about what is going on. Are the woman’s eyes closed in bliss or is she trying to pull away? The cocoon-like shape in which the couple are contained could from another angle be seen as a shroud.
Staying in the cocoon of being “in love” may only seem achievable at the cost of neither partner changing and having to fit in completely with the other’s idealisation. We often unconsciously look for the qualities in another that we feel we lack. A shy person may be attracted to a sociable one, or an emotionally shut down person may be attracted to someone who is in touch with their feelings. The initial – again often unconscious – hope is that through being with that person we will gain some of their qualities.
In The Kiss (completed in 1908) the male and female roles are portrayed in a conventional way, with the man appearing as the powerful, phallic figure while the female figure appears to be enveloped and in need of protection. In a similar way, a couple who are struggling with being separate may feel forced into particular roles by the other and this can also lead to unhappiness. Both may become invested in ways of being that stultify them instead of promoting development.
Falling “out of love”
Couples who are unable to adjust to giving one another more space and accepting differences can experience what feels like a catastrophic sense of falling “out of love”. From thinking they are totally on the same page, they may start to feel they have nothing in common. It may be that one partner is craving more space leaving their partner feeling abandoned and betrayed.
For some couples a merged way of relating is only challenged when a child is born or is adopted, or when one partner has a life change such as a new job or the death of a parent. Bringing a child into the relationship can leave one parent feeling that their special place has been taken by the new baby with whom their partner is now “in love”.
Whatever the precipitating event, it can feel that the illusion of oneness is rudely shattered, leaving one or both partners feeling angry and hurt and wondering whether the relationship can be salvaged. So, is this the end of the relationship or can couple therapy help?
What happens in therapy?
The psychodynamic couple therapist will be interested in your individual histories as well as the history of your relationship, to help you start to piece together how you have arrived at this point.
Couples initially begin by voicing their grievances and this can feel painful and challenging. In listening to them, with each partner trying to enlist the therapist into taking their side, the therapist will hold onto what couple psychoanalytic psychotherapist Mary Morgan has termed a “couple state of mind”. So that rather than being drawn into one camp or the other, the couple psychotherapist will try to understand what the couple have created together, seeing the relationship as the “patient”.
As the therapy proceeds, couples will start to have more of an insight into what drew them together. They may be surprised to realise that they have unconsciously chosen their partner because they in some way reminded them of an early relationship.
The most obvious example of this might be in realising that we have got together with someone who is very like one of our parents, even if at the outset we thought we had chosen someone completely different. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but understanding in what ways we may be repeating the past can help us to understand both how our partner IS like an earlier important person in our life, and crucially also how they are NOT.
Both partners need to want therapy enough to keep coming to sessions. However partners may take turns with one feeling more doubtful while the other is enthusiastic that therapy will help. This is partly because of a process where one member of a couple can carry a particular feeling for both partners, what Mary Morgan calls a “double dose”. For example one member of a couple may carry all the anger, while the other carries the anxiety. Couples can in effect either “take on” or “give” a particular feeling to the other.
When couples begin to understand when they are doing this, then one partner can start to own the “undesirable” feeling more, so relieving their partner of some of the pressure of the “double dose”.
Can we fall back in love?
There is no easy solution to entrenched arguments and differences between a couple, and it isn’t the job of the therapist to keep them together. However, for many couples, counselling or psychotherapy can help to overcome the hurt and disappointment of falling “out of love”. Seeing the other person for who they are, rather than who you might want them to be and learning to accept your differences can be a painful process, but for many this can lead to a deepened sense of understanding and acceptance.
Couples may indeed fall back in love, but in a way that is more grounded in reality. Couples who no longer need their partner to fulfil their every need and can be accepting of differences can become what Mary Morgan has termed a “creative couple”. Such couples can manage feelings of being separate as well as being able to enjoy at times feelings of “oneness”, and can rely on their relationship as something sustaining that they can turn to when life is challenging.