“I’m in love!” “I’m not sure I’m in love…” “I’m not in love anymore.”
This business of believing one is “In Love” or “Not-In-Love” has to be one of the most destructive, commonly embraced ways of thinking about relationships. It seems that “In Love” means something like,
1. Constantly thinking about your partner
2. Getting “butterflies in your stomach” when you thinks about your partner
3. Putting 1 and 2 together, you therefore have butterflies in your stomach constantly (yikes!)
4. Wanting to spend all of one’s time with one’s partner
5. Being 100% convinced that nobody else could possibly be your partner other than this person
6. A sort of superstitious belief that the relationship was “fated,” “in the stars,” “meant to be,” “made in Heaven,” and so forth
7. Cataclysmically earth-shaking sex, every time
By point of fact, none of these are necessary for a relationship to work well in the long run. Still, countless potentially excellent relationships are cast aside because “I wasn’t In Love with him/her” or “I am no longer In Love with him/her.” This is simply idiotic.
We have been brainwashed by countless movies, songs, books and other cultural influences to believe that there is such a thing as “In Love,” that it is a necessary ingredient to a relationship, that a relationships that lack this level of idealization are not worth having, that being In Love is the ultimate source of human happiness, and on and on.
It’s nice if you’re In Love. It’s not particularly positive or negative, though it is very pleasant. It has its advantages and its serious disadvantages, not least of which is that you are in for a disappointment when you realize that your partner is not perfect and neither are you. At that point, love is not enough: you need to have relationship skills. You need to be able to put aside your needs and work on the relationship. Since that requires effort, many people at that point abandon the relationship and write it off because they are “no longer In Love.” Then they start the whole cycle of idealization, disappointment and breaking-up with the next relationship.
Good relationships, even excellent relationships that last decades and create genuine happiness, need not include at any point the state of being In Love. To be sure, good relationships include loving feelings, thoughts and actions. But butterflies, obsession, and intense sexual attraction and cosmic sexual performance are not required. These are far more frequently features of relationships that ultimately end up failing.
Why is this so? Simply put, idealization is not a good basis for skillful conflict resolution in relationships. And skillful conflict resolution is one of the key elements of a successful long-term relationship. Couples who can have a “fight” that does not cause significant harm to the relationship and in fact results in progress, in resolution of underlying tensions, often last for many years, even until the death of one member of the couple. To resolve conflicts skillfully requires viewing one another and oneself realistically, without a significant degree of idealization or devaluation. Viewing one another in this realistic way is far easier if one is not in the state known as being In Love, because the main defining feature of that state is idealization–viewing the other person as perfect, consciously or unconsciously (or both).
Mindfulness involves going beyond idealization and really seeing others for who they are. It is not a matter of just accepting that others have flaws. It’s cultivating the intention to be FULLY PRESENT to another person, even when you don’t like what they’re saying, even when you are disappointed in him/her. When we are fully present, we are less likely to speak unkindly and act unskillfully in a conflict. We are more likely to collaborate with the other person to find common ground and useful solutions.
What’s the take-home? Stop looking for a person who makes you feel like you’re high on drugs. A little euphoria is fine, but seek a person who has the qualities that you value in a long-term mate, regardless of whether they give you a jumpy stomach and make you bump into lampposts. Among the people you perceive as “not exciting enough” are those who are in fact the ones most likely to make wonderful long-term partners.