The night my husband and I met at a college barbecue, no one could break us apart. We were entranced. It wasn’t long before we were completely enamored and could hardly think of anything besides being together. Romantic strolls, lengthy phone calls, and heart-melting poetry paved the way toward our wedding day. Sure there were a few bumps in the road (actually, one big bump as we both had to resolve the fear stemming from two sets of divorced parents). But when we ultimately vowed to love each other forever, we literally could not have been happier. It seems that’s how most love stories go.
What happens next in the story? What happened to Cinderella and her prince after the honeymoon was over? Did he go off to fight important battles and lose himself in ruling a kingdom? Did she get swept up in visiting the nobles and planning the next royal ball? Does the magic stick around?
It turns out that staying in love is a whole lot harder than falling in love. Not long after Scott and I sealed the deal, we slowly came to realize just how imperfect we both are and that we didn’t always agree on everything. There were even times when (gasp) we wanted to be alone. Our love story began to include a little less heart-throbbing magic and a little more scheduling, disagreeing, compromising, dishwashing, cleaning, bill paying, and all the normal stuff of real life. Staying in love is harder than falling in love, no doubt about it. But here’s the great thing—our love story also grew to include more depth and more joy, with all the shared experiences, memories, and understanding that comes from joining two lives into one.
Building a happy courtship that stands the test of time is possible. It simply requires ongoing effort and some understanding of that crazy, amazing, head-spinning, transformative thing we call “love.”
Falling in love is partly, as unromantic as it sounds, a biological function of the brain. We are wired to fall hard for Mr. or Miss Right. Researchers who have studied the brain chemistry of people falling in love have found that our brains actually start behaving like people with obsessive compulsive disorder. We become irrational—we can’t stop thinking about our sweetheart. We call repeatedly, we want to be together incessantly, and we are over-the-top delighted to see each other, even if we’ve only been apart for an hour. As George Bernard Shaw humorously pointed out, marriage brings together two people “under the influence of the most violent, most insane, most delusive, and most transient of passions. They are required to swear that they will remain in that excited, abnormal, and exhausting condition continuously until death do them part.”
I’ve been there. When we were falling hard, Scott and I had to be together every available minute of the day. When he went on a study abroad trip to London (which he of course had planned before we met) he sent me a postcard every single day. We sent e-mails or chatted by Instant Message every single night. In part, our biology was pushing us together, subconsciously motivating us to connect.
Let’s be clear: I believe that falling in love is far more significant and special than a brain function alone. It is a wonderful part of being human, with all the intertwining emotions and dreams that go along with it. After all, people don’t fall in love every day. In some ways, it seems like a small miracle when one person falls in love with another, who loves that person back. As Barbara Streisand and Bryan Adams sing in one of my favorite love songs, “I finally found someone that knocks me off my feet. I finally found the one that makes me feel complete.” I had never in my life met someone who knocked me off my feet like Scott did. Yes, falling in love with the One is something to celebrate.
The reality is, though, we aren’t quite ourselves when we are swept away. We become lost in new feelings of excitement and affection. The highs of falling in love don’t last. Researchers who study the effects of love have found that the affectionate honeymoon stage of marriage only lasts about two years. After two years of wedded bliss, people typically revert back to however happy or unhappy they were before they fell in love. Then, often, they get lazy about love. Their brains just aren’t pushing them anymore. As marriage therapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt say in their book Making Marriage Simple, “Romantic love sticks around long enough to bind two people together. Then it rides off into the sunset.” Unfortunately for so many, marriage doesn’t prove to be the “happily ever after” they signed up for.
Falling in love is easy. Our body, brain, and heart are swimming with affection. Those feelings, early on, make it easy to show our love in regular doses every day. Partners effortlessly connect with heartfelt embraces, phone calls, compliments, surprises, and love letters. In marriage, loving feelings ebb and flow. But partners make a promise to love each other through good and bad. My friend Sarah told me how important that commitment has been in her twenty-year marriage. She said, “On the day Clint and I got married, he pulled me aside and said, ‘No matter what you do, I will never leave you.’ I wish I had understood at that moment what an amazing gift he was giving me.” Marriage is not a certificate for guaranteed falling-in-love feelings, till death do us part. Marriage is a commitment to keep on loving.
Right now in the United States, there are sixty million married couples. We still love and believe in marriage. We love marriage so much that we fight over how to define it and exactly who can do it. But marriage today, by most accounts, is not thriving. Experts calculate that only about 40 to 50 percent of married couples will stay together. People quit their marriages every day, and here’s the sad thing: The majority of people who quit simply fell out of love. More than half the couples who divorce had a relationship that was “amiable but listless.” Basically, they just didn’t thrive. They didn’t feel the love. According to studies on couples who divorce, the vast majority of people who end their relationship report that they simply lost a sense of closeness and did not feel loved or appreciated. Even many couples who stay together aren’t fulfilled in their marriages. Of the couples who do stay married, research suggests that only half are actually happy.
What is going on? Most people, at least in the western world, marry because they are in love and want to build a happy life together. That wasn’t always the case. For thousands of years, marriage wasn’t about love or personal satisfaction. Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz says marrying for love didn’t come about until the late eighteenth century with the Enlightenment’s focus on individual rights and the pursuit of happiness. Before then, most marriages were arranged by outside influences that would be positively affected by the union. Something as important as marriage couldn’t be based on “something as unreasoning and transitory as love.” During the Enlightenment, a marriage revolution began to occur. We started seeing marriage as what it could be—a private relationship with the potential to provide great joy for the couple, regardless of family wealth or political alliances. But at what cost?
So the idea of a loving marriage took root. We decided that it should be in our control as individuals to choose whom we marry, and that we should do it primarily for our own happiness and not for the betterment of our relatives or communities. We decided that marriage could be our greatest human relationship and the source of our deepest satisfaction in life. Yet, as Coontz reports, “the very features that promised to make marriage such a unique and treasured personal relationship opened the way for it to become an optional and fragile one.” Marriages are breaking apart today because people are falling out of love, and love was supposed to be the sticking force.
We “fall” in love, suggesting something outside of our control. Our brain is malfunctioning, to a degree. Eventually, we become ourselves again, and we are left with an amazing possibility—the possibility of lasting love. It’s a different kind of love, yes. Mature love is less the fiery flames of passion and more the hot coals of “deep affection, connection, and liking.” Dr. John Gottman, one of the world’s leading marriage experts, who has studied married couples for more than thirty years, says the basis of successful marriages can be summed up in a word: friendship. Happily married couples respect each other, like being with each other, and want each other’s happiness.
Whether a couple’s romantic love evolves into a deep, affectionate friendship isn’t about luck, and it doesn’t happen on its own. Staying together in our modern day takes more meaningful effort than it used to. Over the years, as a culture, we have lost some of the glue that helped couples stick together. At least in western culture, we are no longer in a time where our parents, our society, our customs, our religion, or our government welds two people together. We are on our own to make it work. As John Jacobs, professor at NYU’s School of Medicine, writes, the only glue holding couples together now “is the glue created by the two of you—the glue of mutual satisfaction, gratification, appreciation, and respect. The glue of mature love.”
The “glue” that keeps us together goes in what therapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt call “The Space in Between.” They actually describe the physics of the space between two partners as a field with a force and energy. Consider what you see when you look out into the night sky with all the planets and stars and galaxies. We used to think the space between two objects was just emptiness. Now we know that there is a force between everything, either pushing it together or pulling it apart. This space between husband and wife is where we can make an impact. We create either loving fondness or frustrated disdain. Either we push ourselves apart with tension and negativity or we pull ourselves closer in an environment of connectedness and affection. Every little thing we do affects this space, for better or worse. As Hendrix and Hunt put it, “Every word, tone of voice, every glance, affects the Space Between.” The little things have great power to connect us or, in their absence, let us drift apart. We must constantly be asking ourselves, “What am I doing to affect the space between me and my spouse?
Ask yourself again, do you remember falling in love? Do you remember how wonderful it felt? Do you remember your shared dreams, your hopes for the future? Do you remember why you wanted to join your lives? We are the captains of our fate, the makers of our own marital glue. We get to decide if we are willing to put in the effort required for real, lasting love. Staying in love isn’t as easy or effortless as falling in love. And sticking together isn’t as easy as it used to be. Building a love that lasts takes time, attention, and deliberate effort. It doesn’t take long. The effort to stay in love can be made in small, meaningful thoughts, words, and actions every day. If we do it right, our marriage relationship can provide the same joyful excitement as it did when we first came together as partners, soul mates, and best friends. Indeed, if we do it right, and if we do it consistently, staying in love with our spouse can be the happiest, most fulfilling part of our lives. The trick is to do that even while living in a chaotic modern world that constantly pulls our attention elsewhere.