Falling in love is grand. There’s that spark of aliveness and vibrancy, energy, passion, and epiphany, like everything has fallen perfectly into place and just makes sense. Life seems so full of meaning and beauty and purpose. To encounter another person in this way is one of the most extraordinary experiences we may share with another. It fills our hearts and imaginations with visions of lifelong bliss and unity, as if we have at long last discovered our soulmate, our partner on the path, the person with whom we can fully share a lifelong journey.
Over time (I admit there may be some rarest of exceptions to this), the excitation of the proverbial “honeymoon phase” whittles away. Little by little, the glistening shine of new love dulls and the relationship appears to grow more mundane, more ordinary. It becomes distinctly less exciting, less passionate, less awe-invoking. When this happens, doubts begin to percolate. One or both partners may consider whether they were wrong about how they felt before, that maybe–as it turns out–this person really isn’t their soulmate or that there is something wrong with the relationship, something that needs fixing. In counseling, I find that it is helpful to make a diagram to explain what happens in all (or 99% of) romantic relationships:
Two people encounter one another at Point A and skyrocket into the excitation that comes from the novelty of newly discovered love, the height of Point B. If they continue as a couple, time elapses, the excitation dwindles (as familiarity grows), until the couple eventually (and inevitably) reaches Point C.
*** THIS IS THE NATURAL EVOLUTIONARY PROCESS OF (ESSENTIALLY) ALL ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS. ***
Now, Point C is where things get interesting, and where most couples behave in ways that ultimately lead to the relationship’s demise. More often than not, once a couple feels like they’ve “fallen out of love”, like they are little more than “just friends” or roommates, they strive to revitalize the relationship, to “get the spark back” and return to the height of the initial phase of their union. Such a couple dedicates a lot of time and energy into reaching Point D. Although there might be brief moments of reclaimed pizzazz, ultimately such visitations are fleeting and unsustainable.
Such a couple, instead of reclaiming the former passion of their relationship, end up traveling along the baseline, their intimacy languishing in a state of stagnation. As this persists (a period that may last multiple years), couples will either choose to split up or just stay together despite the lack of growing intimacy. The path from Point C to Point E is one of stuckness.
This phenomenon, despite how commonly it occurs, is NOT the natural evolution of romantic relationships. It is decidedly unnatural, what happens when we, in our well-intentioned but fallible wisdom, think we are taking action to save our relationship. After all, getting the love back seems like a noble ambition (and it is!). So, where is our folly? How is it that our craving for more excitement actually leads to stagnation and ruin? Because….
*** THE NATURAL EVOLUTION OF ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS IS ONE FROM GREAT HEIGHT TO GREAT DEPTH. ***
If we were not to interfere with the evolutionary flow of our romantic relationships, this is what it would look like:
Our relationship would evolve, ad infinitum, from the beautiful experience of HEIGHT to the limitless grandeur of ever-evolving DEPTH. We wouldn’t stop at Point C, but keep going, growing closer with our partner, into a shared experience of perpetually deepening intimacy (where TRUE love awaits). Now, before you go looking at the above diagram and thinking it looks depressing, as if relationships grow less and less interesting over time, let me point out that everything below the baseline is about depth, not excitement. It may help to think of it like this:
The mountain is beautiful, as is the ocean. They are just different. You see, that early stuff (the quick ascent to the mountain’s summit) is pretty fun and special in its own right, but it is little compared to the rewards of love that exist within the ocean depths of human connection, where familiarity is not the enemy, but the bounty that grows with each moment, each day, each year.
Relationships falter when they resist the natural trajectory of intimate relationships from the majesties of height to the majesties of depth. We only get in trouble when (at Point C) we mistakenly assume that something is wrong with our relationship, when nothing could be farther from the truth. We are right where we are supposed to be! But, if we attempt to alter the trajectory back upwards, back toward height, what happens? We cancel out the natural trajectory and plateau. We attempt to push upward the momentum of our energy that wants to move downward and then, as a result, end up drudging fruitlessly along the baseline in unspectacular fashion, facing ennui and relational discontent. Oopsy-daisy, not exactly what we had in mind.
The solution is this. As hard as it may seem (for we do so enjoy the fireworks of love), let it go. Strive not for the return to previous height, but for the depth that has yet to be savored. Afraid that this may be too boring? Well, fear not. Indeed, in the mountain phase, things are exciting. This stems from our lack of familiarity with our partner, the newness of everything, the intoxication of exploring the unknown. Yet, just as there is excitement in discovering the unknown, so too there is a certain type of excitement in being truly known and truly knowing another. This latter type of “excitement” (maybe pleasure would be a better word) has much greater substance to it than the thin air that abounds atop the mountain. We find lasting gratification once we begin to prioritize the depth of familiarity over the heights of novelty.
The beauty inherent in the depths far surpasses that which occurs at the peak, for this is where true and enduring intimacy exists. If you cease striving for a return to past excitement, you will attain the far-more-pleasureable peace, joyfulness, and fulfillment that is only possible within the deepest of relational waters. And best of all, there is no limit to the amount of depth that may be developed, since there is no limit to the amount of familiarity that may be achieved (because people are always changing). Over time such a relationship, one with the wisdom to value depth over height, only keeps improving. This is precisely what I hope for you.
[Addendum (advice for building depth): Explore vulnerability. There is no depth without it. “Hot sex” is fine, but love-making is where you and your partner can build “hot intimacy” (you can thank my wife for coining this term). Don’t hide yourself, from either your lover or yourself. Stand naked and proud in the open, with the lights on. Be willing for your body and soul to be witnessed, unclothed and unhidden. If you are ashamed of anything about yourself, such that you fear exposure, challenge yourself to risk being truly seen. Build intimacy with yourself, approving of who and how you are, just as you are, so that you can be fully receptive to intimacy from your lover. Meanwhile, celebrate the beauty of your partner too, seeing and honoring their totality, their true self, the child they were, the person they are now, the person they will be at the end of their life. See it all and treasure it as one of the most precious things in the world. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, so challenge yourself to be an expert seer of beauty, in both yourself and all others, your lover especially. Whenever feeling stagnant, know that greater meaningfulness (depth) is what you are seeking, not greater thrills. Embrace yourself and your life, so that you may better embrace another and be embraced in return. Face your discomforts, such that they may become comfortable. Savor the splendor and ease of depth, in all its (unspectacular, yet gorgeous) glory, onward and onward and onward… Oh, and listen to some good love songs, maybe make your partner a mix tape, errrrr, or the modern equivalent. The last three songs I’ve downloaded to aurally feed my sentimental side: “Say You Won’t Let Go” | James Arthur, “Something Wild” | Lindsey Stirling, “Two Men in Love” | The Irrepressibles. These should get you started with delving into the big blue.] Enjoy!
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