Most of us enter marriage by way of the “in-love” experience. We meet someone whose physical characteristics and personality traits create enough electrical shock to trigger our “love alert” system. The bells go off, and we set in motion the process of getting to know the person. The first step may be sharing a hamburger or steak, depending on our budget, but our real interest is not in the food. We are on a quest to discover “love.”
Sometimes we lose the tingles on the first date. Other times, however, the tingles are stronger after the burger than before. We arrange for a few more “together” experiences, and before long the level of intensity has increased to the point where we find ourselves saying, “I think I’m falling in love.” Eventually we are convinced that it is the “real thing,” and we tell the other person, hoping the feeling is reciprocal. If it isn’t, things cool off a bit or we redouble our efforts to impress, and eventually win the “love” of, our beloved. When it is reciprocal, we start talking about marriage because everyone agrees that being “in love” is the necessary foundation for a good marriage.
At its peak, the “in-love” experience is euphoric. The person who is “in love” — we’ll call her Jen — has the illusion that her beloved is perfect. Her best friend can see the flaws — it bothers her how he talks to Jen sometimes — but Jen won’t listen. Her mother, noting the young man seems unable to hold a steady job, keeps her concerns to herself but asks polite questions about “Ryan’s plans.”
Our dreams before marriage are of marital bliss: “We are going to make each other supremely happy. Other couples may argue and fight, but not us. We love each other.” Of course, we are not totally naïve. We know intellectually that we will eventually have differences. But we are certain that we will discuss those differences openly; one of us will always be willing to make concessions, and we will reach agreement. It’s hard to believe anything else when you are “in love.”
Welcome to the real world of marriage, where hairs are always on the sink and little white spots cover the mirror, where discussions center not on “Where should we eat tonight?” but “Why didn’t you get milk?”
What happened to the “in-love” experience? Did we really have the “real” thing? I think so. The problem was faulty information.
The bad information was the idea that the “in-love” obsession would last forever. We have known better. A casual observation should have taught us that if people remained obsessed, we would all be in serious trouble. The shock waves would rumble through business, industry, church, education and the rest of society. Why? Because people who are “in love” lose interest in other pursuits. That is why we call it “obsession.”
Once the experience of falling “in love” has run its natural course (remember, the average “in-love” experience lasts two years), we will return to the world of reality and begin to assert ourselves. He will express his desires, but his desires will be different from hers. He wants sex, but she is too tired. He dreams of buying a new car, but she flatly says, “We can’t afford it.” She would like to visit her parents, but he says, “I don’t like spending so much time with your family.” Little by little, the illusion of intimacy evaporates, and the individual desires, emotions, thoughts and behavior patterns assert themselves. They are two individuals. Their minds have not melded together and their emotions mingled only briefly in the ocean of “love.” Now the waves of reality begin to separate them. They fall out of “love,” and at that point either they withdraw, separate, divorce and set off in search of a new “in-love” experience, or they begin the hard work of learning to love each other without the euphoria of the “in-love” obsession.
Some couples believe that the end of the “in-love” experience means they have only two options: resign themselves to a life of misery with their spouse; or jump ship and try again. Research seems to indicate that there is a third and better alternative: We can recognize the “in-love” experience for what it was — a temporary emotional high — and now pursue real love with our spouse. That kind of love is emotional in nature but not obsessional. It is a love that unites reason and emotion. It involves an act of the will and requires discipline, and it recognizes the need for personal growth. Our most basic emotional need is not to fall “in love” but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct. I need to be loved by someone who chooses to love me, who sees in me something worth loving.
That kind of love requires effort and discipline. It is the choice to expend energy in an effort to benefit the other person, knowing that his or her life is enriched by your effort, you too will find a sense of satisfaction — the satisfaction of having genuinely loved another. It does not require the euphoria of the “in-love” experience. In fact, true love cannot begin until the “in-love” experience has run its course.
That is good news to the married couple who have lost all of their “in-love feelings.” If love is a choice, then they have the capacity to love after the “in-love” obsession has died and they have returned to the real world.
Dr. Gary Chapman is a family counselor, radio host, associate pastor and author of several books, including The Five Love Languages and One More Try.