I love you, but I’m not in love
When passion cools, does it mean that your relationship is over? In the first of two extracts from his new book, marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall says don’t despair, it’s part of the many stages of love
NEARLY a quarter of the couples who consult the relationship therapist Andrew G. Marshall visit because one partner has confessed, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” So how can couples stop their passion cooling over the years into an unsatisfactory, sibling-like partnership? The answer, Marshall says, lies in understanding that the path from the first tentative “I love you” to a lifetime together has six stages. Each stage has hurdles and lessons for keeping love alive. Understanding these six stages is the first step to diagnosing problems that can cause an “I love you but…” crisis. Learning them can also be the first step on the fast track to a fulfilling partnership. Modern life does not teach us about this, says Marshall, but, “Without a template of what to expect, how can we tell if problems are a natural part of a maturing, changing relationship, or a fundamental flaw?”
STAGE 1: BLENDING
First year to 18 months in the relationship
The new lovers want nothing more than to be together. This is nowhere more tangible than in the bedroom. Paula and Mark had been dating for three months when Paula admitted: “We took to brushing each other’s teeth and using the same toothbrush. I know it sounds disgusting but I think it’s really sexy and it has brought us even closer.” All differences are overlooked as two people blend into one.
Blending provides new experiences and an opportunity for self-improvement. If one half of the couple has a passion — for opera or dog-breeding — the other partner will immerse himself or herself in it. This might start as part of the process of sharing everything with the beloved but it can be built into a lifetime of enjoyment. “Dating Paula I actually felt cleverer,” said Mark, 29, who works in IT. “I hadn’t been to university. Although Paula had a degree she was so interested in everything about me that I gained enough confidence to speak up more at work.” His experiences are typical: during blending partners appropriate desired qualities from each other and integrate them into their own personality.
The intensity of togetherness means that both halves feel they understand their partner and are completely understood in return. When couples look back at this period it seems full of magic and madness. In fact, we need a bit of both, otherwise how could anyone trust a stranger enough to let her or him into their life.
Each partner is frightened of upsetting the other and of love being withdrawn, so everything possible is done to avoid arguments.
If there is a row, it feels like the end of the world. Unlike couples who have been together for years, blending couples have no experience of falling out and making up again.
One partner holds back for fear of losing his or her identity.
Skill — letting go
It is important to surrender to the feelings during blending. Relationships put two fundamental instincts at war: we all long to be close, to be understood, to hold or be held by another person, yet we also want to be masters of our own destiny. Successful relationships strike a balance between these two needs.
New love can turn even the most self-assured into frightened teenagers. This exercise aims to help you to find the competent adult side of your personality again.
1. Down one side of a piece of paper make a list of the things you argued about in the first year of previous relationships.
2. Down the other side fill in how you solved them. This will get you back in touch with your hard-earned life skills.
3. If you find it difficult to remember problems, consider money, washing-up, time apart, friends, childcare, tidiness.
4. Think about how you can use these skills to solve today’s problems.
Rows are vital to clear the air and learn about each other’s needs. When your head has seen that these issues can be resolved it will be easier to let go and trust your heart.
STAGE 2: NESTING
Second and possibly third year
The couple become more committed and decide to move in together. Sexual desire moves from frenetic to more manageable. They become aware of things beyond the bedroom and creating a home together becomes their new way of expressing their love. But issues suppressed during the blending period come up. Previously, when visiting each other’s places, it was easy to avoid arguments over “who does what”, but now these practical issues take centre stage.
“It just wasn’t the same any more,” said Nina, who had been with Nigel for just under two years. “I got really frightened that I was falling out of love.” While the previous stage capitalised on attraction and minimised distractions, moving in together can highlight differences. “I thought Nina also wanted us to buy a place of our own,” said Nigel, “but she thought paying off her student loan was more important. For the first time I looked at her and thought, do I really know this woman?” Fortunately, instead of denying their different opinions or ignoring them, they talked things through.
“We’re putting a lick of paint over the worst bits of this rented flat,” said Nina
Nina’s got a really good eye,’ said Nigel. “I know it’s not much but when we show our friends I really feel we’ve achieved something: this is us,” Nina said, finishing off his thought.
Unfortunately, some nesting couples worry about their emerging differences, especially those with an “I Love You But”. “What’s wrong with us?” is a typical cry. These couples need reassurance that their relationship is not dying but moving into another phase.
Familiarity can breed annoyance; eccentricities have transformed into nasty habits.
Rows often centre round “male” and “female” roles in the house. No matter how modern a couple might be, moving in together can reawaken role models from childhood.
Arguments go round in circles.
Long-term tracking by researchers at Texas University suggests 18 months’ to three years’ courtship as the optimum for a happy marriage. But some couples find commitment hard.
During blending the couple had eyes only for each other, but now friends and family become important again. The return of these outside forces can cause tensions between the couple.
Skill — arguing
Often the rows seem to be about petty things, such as whose responsibility it is to clean the bath, and couples, especially “I Love You But” couples, often feel it is pointless to make a scene. This type of argument should not be avoided, however, because arguing provides an opportunity to practise settling disagreements. It is far better to learn on minor issues, where the stakes are low, than wait until something big and unavoidable crops up.
Moving in together is a big decision and many couples try to put it off. If you are having trouble taking the plunge, remember that relationships cannot stand still. The best way to deal with ambivalence is to “hot-seat” the feelings.
1. Ask these questions: What will be the consequences of moving in together? What disadvantages are you worried about? What is the worst that could happen? Don’t be afraid of silence while your partner thinks. Don’t be tempted to talk down his or her problems; just keep going until all the possibilities have been exhausted.
2. Jot down a heading that encapsulates the fears (for example, “lack of space”) and move on to the next area.
3. If the fears come out in a rush, write them down and tackle the “what if?” scenarios one by one. Once all the fears have been given a heading, you will begin to see which are the most important.
4. After a fear has been put down on paper my clients often say: “Actually I’m not that bothered about that one.” So cross it off the list. After listening to your partner’s fears, identify the ones you share and add any different fears of your own. Once everything is out in the open and we feel listened to, our fears are much more manageable. Now you are ready to look for possible solutions.
STAGE 3: SELF-AFFIRMING
Third or fourth year
Up to this point couples have always stressed their similarities, perhaps encouraging a partner to join in with a hobby or even giving something up to spend more time together. However, during self-affirming, a couple have to feel confident enough to enjoy separate activities, to remember that there exists an “I” as well as a “we”. Relationships need each partner’s individuality to ensure growth. Maya and Robin both have children from previous relationships. “At the beginning we’d do stuff only as a whole family,” said Robin, “but after a while I missed playing tennis, and as my son and both Maya’s boys were interested, too, I started coaching them on Saturday mornings. I felt guilty when I suggested it because I didn’t want to exclude Maya, but actually she was happy to take my daughter shopping. And it doesn’t stop us all meeting for lunch.”
On the first week of the new arrangement Maya was not so sure, but was soon won over: “It was stupid really to expect to be everything to each other. Robin doesn’t like going to the theatre and there’s nothing to stop me going at the beginning of the week with friends.” Robin and Maya found other benefits, too. “Being apart gave us something to talk about when we met up later,” said Robin.
During the self-affirming stage each partner has to balance what is in his or her best interests with those of the relationship. This can come as a shock, especially after blending and nesting, where the needs of the relationship have always come first. Some couples pretend that their personal needs are not important, but this builds up long-term resentment and potential identity issues, a hallmark of “I Love You But”. Another problem during self-affirming is one partner asserting their individual needs sooner than the other. This is often read as personal criticism — “Why don’t you want to spend time with me any more?” — rather than a natural phenomenon of this stage of the relationship.
If one half has no clear idea of who they are, or has low self-esteem, it can seem more comfortable to them to hide in a couple than to re-establish a separate, parallel identity.
With ILYB couples, one partner will often think that the other’s time alone is a threat to the partnership, or one partner will be unable to voice their independent personal needs.
One partner tries to stop the other having personal time, for fear that it will signal the end of the relationship.
Power struggles emerge. Skill — compromise
If the squabbles during nesting have been resolved, the couple find it easier to deal with bigger issues lurking behind the petty ones. During the first two stages, the basic human need to be close has been at the forefront. Now, with self-affirming, the need to be in control of our destiny reasserts itself. So the couple remember their individual needs and begin negotiating on how much personal time is permissible. This can take hours of discussion and, with smaller issues in particular, can be exhausting. Compromise is important, otherwise the balance will fall too much in one person’s favour and ultimately undermine the relationship.
The following exercise will help to separate individual responsibilities from shared ones and provide an opportunity for compromise.
1. On separate cards write down the big responsibilities that your life together generates. This could include money, social life, garden, cooking, decorating, insurance, paying bills, families, large purchases, holidays, etc. Some couples like to include abstract ideas such as fun. The more cards and the more detail the better.
2. Take a piece of paper each and divide it into three columns: me, you and us.
3. Write down where you feel each task should go; afterwards share responses and the thinking behind them. Often you will agree on who does what but there may be a proviso. For example, one partner might look after the car but deciding on a replacement will be a joint responsibility. These provisos offer an opportunity to clarify how far one partner’s power extends.
4. Compromises work only when there is something in it for both parties. So go back and check: does the division feel fair? Did one of you back down too quickly? With genuine compromise, there are no winners or losers.
STAGE 4: COLLABORATING
About the fifth to fourteenth year
Couples use the security gained from their relationship to launch successful projects. It could be a career change, a further-education course or new interests. This stage is called collaborating because of the high degree of support the other partner gives. The excitement and freshness generated is brought back into the relationship and shared.
Alternatively, the project can be a joint one, using complementary skills; the most common choice is having children together. Couples who meet later in life may decide to launch a business or to travel together. Whatever the joint or individual goal, it imports new things into the relationship and avoids stagnation.
During this stage, reliability and dependability replace the insecurity and fear of possible loss from the previous one. Couples have earned their easy familiarity and have developed complementary skills around the house. A shared shorthand is used for sorting out differences, rather than the hours of negotiation.
Although this type of communication is time-effective it can cause misunderstandings. If a couple is tired and stressed by children, one partner often needs extra reassurance. “I sort of know that Miranda loves me,” said Don, “but it wouldn’t hurt her to show me on a couple of occasions.” If this type of thinking is not dealt with, one half will feel isolated and become a ripe candidate for an “I Love You But”.
Taking each other for granted, or one partner growing quicker and risking leaving the other behind. This is especially common for couples who met in their late teens and early twenties.
If there is poor communication, one partner can become too wrapped up in an outside project and neglect the other.
There is a fine line between separate activities that enrich a relationship and those that cause a couple to grow apart.
This is probably the hardest stage of the six stages. It is, therefore, no surprise that the average duration for a failed marriage in the UK is 11.3 years.
Skill — generosity
A lack of possessiveness is the key. It can be a difficult transition and especially hard when one partner launches into something new when the other is not ready. This is unfortunate because couples who successfully negotiate the issues of collaborating stop living in each other’s pockets. The extra distance helps to keep the interest in each other alive. Couples at this stage have to be generous enough to bless each other’s projects and to believe they will ultimately improve and not undermine the relationship.
If you have yet to find a project, either together or separately, this exercise should help. Before starting it is important to understand the blocks to reaching your potential. Instead of fantasising about a project or interest and properly investigating the possibilities, many people immediately tell themselves one of the following:
“It’s not practical.” Forget the practicalities; anything is possible in dreams.
“It won’t bring in any money.” Dreams feed your soul and express who you are, providing an interest so all-consuming that time disappears. It could be taking an art course or working on your golf handicap.
“I’m not talented enough.” Dreams are about enjoying yourself, so whether you do something well or badly is unimportant.
Having temporarily silenced your internal critic, you are now ready to:
1. Find somewhere quiet.
2. Close your eyes and imagine where you would like to live, then what work you would like to do, what kind of relationship you would like to have, what social life, what hobbies.
3. Imagine all the details so the fantasy seems as real as possible; don’t rule anything out until you’ve finished creating your perfect life.
4. Fill in the pictures properly. What colours, smells, sounds?
5. Imagine a door to your dream world, open it and enter into the dream. What more can you learn as you immerse yourself?
6. Open your eyes and work out how to start realising your dream.
7. Make a start the next day: book the golf lessons, buy a book on water-colour painting.
STAGE 5: ADAPTING
Fifteenth to 25th year
These couples are adapting to the changes thrown at them rather than dealing with internal changes within the relationship. These can be everything from children leaving home to ageing parents. By now each partner has given up the fantasy of what the other person might be and tends to think, “He’s always been like this and probably always will be” or “What’s the point of going on about her bad habits? They’re actually quite endearing.” Perversely, when someone stops trying to change us and accepts us as we are, this is when we are most likely to bend. Couples at this stage feel contented; companionship is important. With increased self-confidence and less concern about what other people think, this is often a period of sexual reawakening. The frequency might not be as high as during the first stage but the quality is better.
Nick and Anna provide an example of how outside pressures can affect a couple: Nick felt extra responsibility for his mother after his father’s death, while Anna talked about what would happen when their two teenage boys went to university and how empty the house would seem. For the couple, looking at how their relationship had changed during the first five stages of love provided not just a fresh perspective but also a breakthrough in their counselling. Previously Anna had been upbeat, always focusing on the positive aspects of their relationship. Concentrating on the challenges of the adapting stage — in her case the boys leaving home — Anna said: “It’s not just their physical presence because they’re always out, but the thought that it will be just the two of us. I feel empty.’ She turned to Nick: “Just you and me for Sunday lunch.” Now Nick felt she understood that real changes needed to be made to save their relationship.
Although collaborating might be the hardest stage, adapting is the one most likely to throw up an “I Love You But”. The downside of accepting partners, warts and all, is that it makes change seem impossible. This viewpoint can quickly shift from reassuring to depressing. Both men and women tell me “I want to feel special again”. And they can. By taking a fresh look and putting in a little work, what seemed stale and empty soon becomes warm with life.
Couples can take each other for granted and less likely to show emotion.
“I Love You But” couples often assume that their partner is incapable of change and ending the relationship seems the only option.
Sometimes during a crisis one partner may wish to retreat to the safety of an earlier stage: men who have been made redundant are compelled to start home improvements, as during the nesting stage; women who previously shouldered most of the caring — for children and elderly relatives — can return to self- affirming.
One partner will assume that the other has enough to worry about and not confide their own problems.
Sleeper problems burst to the surface, reawakened by family events. For example, the death of a parent can make someone reassess their childhood, with a knock-on effect for their relationship. These connections are difficult to spot, however, so couples need to keep talking rather than retreat into separate corners.
Skill — listening
By this stage couples feel they know each other well, but big life changes can hit in unpredictable ways. Adapting couples make assumptions about their partners’ reactions and needs based on the past, not always the best predictor for the future. Therefore, it is important to really listen both to what is being said or left unsaid. Some people try to solve their partner’s problems but listening is more important, especially when someone is absorbing the shock of change.
Couples at this stage think that they know so much about their partners they can predict what they are going to say, but they may have stopped listening. This exercise is simple but very effective.
1. Flip a coin to decide who goes first.
2. Partner No 1 can talk for as long as he or she likes about a current issue, without interruption.
3. To prove that partner No 2 is really listening, he or she has to summarise the main points when partner No 1 has finished. Three examples of what your partner talked about will normally suffice.
4. Swap roles. Partner two talks while the other listens.
5. Partner one summarises No 2’s views.
6. Repeat the above as many times that you think are necessary.
STAGE 6: RENEWING
Twenty-five years to fifty-plus
Older couples are often the most romantic and the closest. Closeness at stage one was based on the promise of a future together. Now the bond is based on the reality of a lifetime together. Renewing partners stop looking outside the relationship and focus their attention inwardly.Shared memories and private jokes are important for renewing couples. This sort of security makes these the couples least likely to have an “I Love You But”.
Sometimes, as at the blending stage, these partners can be afraid to voice differences, especially when other people start encroaching on their time together; for example, when children expect too much help minding grandchildren.
Health worries can isolate and turn closeness into claustrophobia. However, these are minor difficulties for the relationship and this stage can truly be called the best of times.
Skill — patience
As we grow older we seem to become a caricature of ourselves. For example, someone who might previously have worried only about being late starts doing dry runs of journeys to make sure they know exactly how long they will take. Not surprisingly, this can make us more difficult to live with. Therefore, patience and understanding can be useful skills for negotiating a way through idiosyncrasies.
At this stage it is good to have a fresh perspective. This exercise brings up complex feelings and helps to put them into words. It can be done alone, but is better if completed with a partner.
1. Take a box of buttons or a pile of coins and spread them on a table.
2. If you are doing this with your partner, divide the tokens so that you have a half each.
3. Without conferring, each person chooses one token to represent themselves, one for their partner and one for each member of the family.
4. Now you are going to create a picture of your family with the buttons/coins.
5. Start with you and your partner. How close or how far apart should you put these tokens? Go with your instincts.
6. Move on to your family. Is your daughter closer to your partner than to you? Does she get in between you sometimes and, therefore, should be placed in the middle? Does your son seem outside the family? What’s the best way to show that?
7. Next add hobbies, pets, interests or jobs that make up part of your world. Where should these tokens be placed?
8. Share your thinking with your partner. Did you choose the token to represent yourself and your partner for any special reason?
9. Explain what the tokens symbolise and your reasons for placing them where you did.
10. Finally, if you could change one thing in both your picture and your partner’s, what would it be? How could you make this happen in reality?
© Andrew G. Marshall 2006. Extracted from I Love You But I’m Not in Love With You, to be published by Bloomsbury, July 3, £10.99. Available from Books First for £9.89; call 0870 1608080 or www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy