Dear Dr. He Said, Dr. She Said:
I am feeling like the passion in my marriage is gone. We used to have so much physical and emotional passion for each other, and now it’s all very “nice” but not intense the way it use to be. I’m starting to feel we are not meant to be together. Can you please let me know your thoughts?
Susan, Del Mar
I think one of the biggest mistakes couples make is to believe that when the high passion/infatuation stage of the relationship fades into a more mature, steady version of the relationship that it means something is wrong. We’ve mentioned this idea throughout our articles but let’s take a deeper look into the phenomenon of infatuation versus healthy/mature love. Most of the intense chemistry during the first part of any relationship is about projection. Projection is how we see others and the world through the filter we’ve developed from years of personal experiences, stories and belief systems that are hard wired into our thinking and feeling selves. When we are first attracted to someone there is usually an element of familiarity about the person or a way they fit into our mindset or filter. When we don’t know somebody but like the “idea” of them, we tend to project (or see them as) someone who we think they are or who we need them to be.
The infatuation or highly passionate stage of the relationship feels intense because of the fantasy aspect of who you think that person is, versus the real human being they are, warts and all. Projection is la la land where our partner can do no wrong and, if they do, it is overlooked or denied. So when the high wears off and you start to understand who that person really is, the real work of a relationship begins. What also happens in the more mature phase of a relationship is the uncoiling of enmeshment. A lot of people get trapped in the “love addiction” feeling and the discomfort of moving on into unknown, more “grown up” territory is scary. The infatuation/passionate phase is filled with immediate gratification while the more mature phase is the long-term gratification of a mature love where both people are taking responsibility for their own happiness and learning how to balance their own needs while supporting (but not swallowing up) their partner.
When the enmeshment phase diminishes and we begin to see our partner as a separate individual, we start to see how they are different from us. If you are one to be addicted to the feeling of enmeshment, then the sense of being separate or “different” will feel threatening, rather than enriching, to the relationship. When couples feel threatened by the differences between them, they start to argue. If couples don’t argue, or resolve differences well then, again, the relationship feels threatened. Learning to be OK with differences and argue well is a good sign of a healthy relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the first phase of a relationship is a euphoric, fun and exciting part of life. It is! However, the unrealistic expectation that the passion and romance needs to be sustained at a high level or “something is wrong” is what sets couples up for disappointment and leads to...“maybe we shouldn’t be together.” What couples overlook is that now a possibility of an emotionally deeper and long sustaining partnership is possible...in this next phase. Bottom line: We get into trouble when we try to manage a long-term relationship through the immediate needs gratification filter and don’t upgrade to a long-term gratification filter.
As you can imagine, we hear this complaint very often in our practice working with couples. You seem to be in a defining moment of your marriage because you assume that a lack of intensity must mean something is missing between the two of you. It is very natural in this after-the-honeymoon-is-over chapter to believe that whatever is wrong with the relationship probably has more to do with what is lacking in your spouse than with yourself. This can trick you into thinking that you must be with the wrong person, which can in turn push you toward that slippery slope of the 50 percent divorce rate that exists in this country. The reality, however, is that the change occurring within the marriage is that you are (as Dr. She points out) growing beyond your need to do the “dance of projection” — which really prevents you from getting what is in your best interest — and needing to be more authentic in how you relate to your husband.
What this also does is it puts you and others in this same situation at risk for having an affair. When you think about it, everything that Dr. She wrote about regarding infatuation at the beginning of a relationship is exactly what also happens in an extramarital affair. While you did not ask our advice regarding this topic, Susan, I will just mention here the similarity between the beginning, “juicy” phase of a relationship and the fantasy, “juicy” allure of infidelity. An affair is another example of projecting fantasy onto someone that you have little familiarity with, who is in effect a “blank screen” onto which it is easy to project all the “positive” things missing in your marriage because your spouse now holds all the “negative” things that turn you off. It is very rare that an affair can represent a genuine, balanced understanding of another person when the only shared reality is a limited, Disneyland experience of what mostly feels good. The mundane drone of life’s daily challenges is avoided by the high intensity of illicit infatuation.
This actually is an opportunity for you to do some self-introspection in order to identify whatever wants and needs you have that you haven’t had the courage to admit to yourself, much less say to your husband. Believe me, risking the vulnerability of talking about your deepest pain, your darkest fears, your brightest hopes, and your highest aspirations will stoke the passion fires once again in your marriage. But the difference is that it will be coming from the maturity you experience when you deal with this lack of fulfillment by changing yourself — rather than by trying to change your husband.
Hang in there, Susan. Dig deep and figure out who you really are and what you really need. Sit your husband down, look him in the eyes, and lovingly paint that picture for him. Then let him make a choice about whether or not that picture is something he can live with. Have him do the same thing back to you. You have nothing to lose by doing this. It also gives him the opportunity to step up and become the man he knows himself to be. If he jumps on board, your relationship will change for the better. If he can’t hang with you, then at least you put it out there and didn’t hold back. Best of luck.
Hanalei Vierra, Ph.D. (Dr. He) and M’Lissa Trent, Ph.D. (Dr. She) are a married couple who have worked together for over 15 years coaching troubled relationships to clearer communication, deeper intimacy, and healthier partnership. See their web site at www.sandiegotherapists.com/conjoint.html For more information on Relationship Advice for Men, go to www.HowToKeepHer.com on the web, where you will also be able to purchase Dr. He and Dr. She’s eBook titled “Making Relationships Work”. Please email any questions to: DrHanalei@aol.com.