As a relationship counsellor, this is a comment I have heard many times in a variety of ways. In my new book, The Relate Experience, which includes stories told to me by counsellors and former clients, I write about a couple called George and Sarah*.
In the first session Sarah said “We want to get our marriage back to how it was when we first wed.” The clue to the problem is here - when we first meet a new partner there’s excitement in the unknown and the sexual chemistry is strong. Two separate identities merge into a new and life affirming wholeness. After years together, the excitement inevitably fades. As long as there’s mutual respect, the ‘love’ remains, but the ‘in love’ bit - the passion, the lust and the excitement - may have subsided.
In an article for Psychology Today, psychotherapist Vikki Stark claims the statement “I love you but I’m not in love with you anymore” describes “the loss, on the part of at least one partner, of the pleasure of the other’s company”. Stark sees it as the “death knell” of the relationship. Well, it can be, but it depends on what exactly the person means by what they say.
If it’s a euphemism for being heartily sick of their partner, it may be that there’s no way back and that separation is the best thing for them. But it can equally signify that the intimacy has simply faded somewhere along the line, leaving a sense of loss and aloneness. This intimacy can be rekindled, but it usually requires a concerted effort from both partners and even the objectivity of a qualified counsellor.
A lack of intimacy often develops after the arrival of children. They take time, energy and attention, meaning one partner can easily feel side-lined. Sex sometimes suffers and often doesn’t return to the way it was before. In The Relate Experience, a former client, Sandra*, recalls, “we’d lost the intimacy, but at the time I couldn’t have said that because I wasn’t conscious of it.” How often do we feel in relationships that something is wrong, but are actually unaware of what the problem is?
It isn’t surprising that passion can fade when relationships mature. In one study, Stony Brook University in New York interviewed 274 couples and found “a drop in very intense feelings for those married over twenty years”. This decline is almost certainly inevitable and perfectly natural for couples living, holidaying, socialising and sleeping together. But if there’s still a lot that’s good in a relationship it can hold together. Interestingly, the study also found that intense feelings increased again after thirty years. Could the effort to stay together and work through problems bring renewed affection?
The question of what we value is also important. Relate’s recent study, The Way We Are Now 2015 suggests that “age seems to have an impact on the importance we attach to our sex lives,” but also significantly “while 73% of those aged 25-44 said that a good sex life is important to them, both older and younger respondents tended to rate sex as less important.” Despite intense and regular focus on sex in both social and traditional media, maybe many of us are realistic and do understand that while sex is very important in a relationship, it isn’t everything and can be improved.
That’s what Simon and Carmen* found too. A period of abstinence, flirtation and rekindling what first attracted them to each other intensified their almost non-existent sex life. They rediscovered what they loved about each other, which had become lost in the pressures of parenthood and day to day demands, and their relationship flourished once more.
Perhaps ultimately we need to consider what psychotherapist, Dr Jeremy Holmes calls “the paradox of intimacy” which “can only be achieved if [partners] can negotiate separateness more or less successfully”. Intimacy is a deep need in all of us. Without it we can’t thrive. In a relationship each partner entrusts their intimacy to the other. In the early years that can be exciting and satisfying but if that intense feeling of intimacy fades, a relationship can become very unsatisfying, maybe even scary.
For many couples, there’s often an understanding that it’s not the other partner’s fault. It’s still possible to love them. Returning to a successful relationship from this point requires negotiating a new recognition of the other as a separate person. If that can be achieved, a new freedom can be found and the path is clear to fall in love once again.
*Names have been changed.
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