Several years ago, my children (then 9 and 11) were listening to Katy Perry on the radio. As "Dark Horse" faded to black, the DJ announced that, after 14 months of marriage, Katy and her husband, Russell Brand, were divorcing. Apparently Russell had "grown bored" with Katy and wanted freedom to pursue other interests.
The following discussion ensued:
Kid #2: Mom, how could Russell Brand get bored with Katy Perry? I think she is really interesting.
Me: She does seem interesting. I guess, after a while, some people stop seeing what is interesting about their partners.
Kid #1: That's weird. I have known my brother (Kid #2) my whole life. And he is NOT boring!
Kid #2: And I have known my sister (Kid #1) my whole life and she is just full of surprises!
Me: (silent and humbled)
Like a taproot, this conversation lodged in my psyche. From it, sprang questions about how people come together and why they come apart.
Most of us would say we choose people because of who they are. It is probably more accurate to say that, at least initially, we choose people because of our version of who we think they are.
In the beginning of any relationship, this version is heavily informed by oxytocin (aka the "cuddle hormone"), which is responsible for the short-lived sensation of falling in love. Under its influence, we can't eat; we can't sleep; we dot the "i(s)" in our lover's name with little hearts. It's bunnies and rainbows all the time! Oxytocin is steadily released into the bloodstream for the first six months to two years of a relationship. Then it slowly tapers off.
Through the lenses of this powerful chemical, everything about our partner and the relationship looks darned-near perfect. This is why so many of us make long-term plans based on feelings that, biochemically speaking, are meant to last the approximate duration of Katy Perry's marriage.
As oxytocin leaves the bloodstream, our partner's imperfections gradually come into focus; so do our own. Around this time, it is both normal and expected for partners to experience a slight decline in relationship satisfaction (which can look a lot like boredom). Many folks, like Russell Brand, see this as a lighted exit sign.
Relationship experts believe the real work begins when the honeymoon period ends. Falling in love is easy; staying there is another story.
We are drawn into relationships by the fantasy that we will be loved unconditionally by another. A wiser (albeit unconscious) part of us knows that we must provide this for ourselves. We are biologically predisposed to do it, but our wounds get in the way. Intimate relationships are the crucibles in which these wounds--our psychic barriers to self-love--melt away.
Every partner is an excavator, uncovering the places inside us that want to heal. Instead of viewing the pain of this process as a cue to listen closer to ourselves, we erroneously displaced it onto the person who exposed it: our loved one. The connective thread is compromised and we set off in search of someone different, someone who will not show us the places we are hurting.
Each lesson ignored sets the stage for its sequel.
This most commonly manifests in the repeated choice of a partner who will wound us in familiar ways (aka our "type"). For example, if early parental neglect or abuse stand in the way of self-love, we may continue to choose someone who is absent or critical to help us expose and remove this barrier.
Every disappointed expectation in the present is an opportunity to grieve an unmet need from the past. Disappointment is our chance to offer the child inside us the love she or he deserved--love that was not freely given when it was most needed.
When we practice unconditional self-love, over time, our wounds slowly begin to heal. How do we know this is happening? Single folks will notice traits that were once irresistible, now, are uninteresting. Our attraction directs itself toward individuals who help foster the love we have created.
Those of us already in a relationship will feel "triggered" less often and, when conflict does arise, it is no longer a demand for our partners to change what they are doing (though, on occasion, that might need to happen), but as an invitation to set clearer boundaries and take better care of ourselves.
When I am asked about the specifics of "how" to love more deeply, I remember Melody Beattie's words: "How stands for honesty, openness, and the willingness to try." This is a gentle reminder that we are not supposed to know all of the answers. It is enough to show up, speak the truth, and listen to our power of our own words.
Despite our efforts, there may be times when the most loving thing we can do is leave a relationship. This is not failure. Some lessons are intended only for a season. Success is not determined by the duration of a relationship but by the space forged for our own love to thrive.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Need help finding your path to greater self-love? Schedule a free consultation to see how therapy or counseling can help you!
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.