It’s perfectly normal to have times when you feel more or less in love with your partner. Yet, it’s painful to have lulls in a relationship that leave you feeling hopeless or questioning its future. At these times, even if you have lists of issues you know are causing problems with your partner, it can still somehow be hard to pinpoint why you lost the loving feelings that once overcame you. You may still “love” the person. You may still want it to work with him or her. But you just can’t seem to access that free flow of fondness, that ease of give and take that made you light up and look forward to each day you’d spend together. Couples often lose a lot of these vital feelings of love and affection when they forego real love for a fantasy bond and its illusion of fusion and safety, a process I’ve described in previous blogs. Here, I want to talk about proactive actions you can take to reconnect with what you felt when you fell in love, actions that break a fantasy bond and prove that real love is still alive and accessible.
Resist entering a critical mode.
At some point, any person in a relationship can find themselves observing their partner through a critical lens. This lens can be clearly distorted, for example, when you find yourself cringing at the way your partner clears his throat or feeling overly annoyed when she needs to run back in the house for something she forgot. You can also start magnifying or zeroing in on your partner’s mistakes, cataloguing their flaws and building a case. It is way too easy when you live at close quarters with someone to pick them apart and get annoyed at some of their habits. After all, you know them pretty well. But the truth is, your partner probably always had these qualities, even when you first fell in love.
The real reason people get so critical with someone they love actually goes much deeper. For one thing, people tend to project negative traits of their parents or early caretakers onto their partners. They also tend to assume their partner will act in ways that hurt them in the past. They often read or misread their partner’s words and actions. They even distort or provoke their partner to act in ways that feel disappointing and frustrating, yet familiar. This process of projection, distortion and actual provocation of one’s partner is driven by listening to the “critical inner voice.”
The critical inner voice is an internal enemy that coaches you and puts both you and your partner down. Because its goal is to sabotage and distance you from others, it tends to be especially critical toward the people to whom you’re closest. Of course, your partner is human and has real flaws, but your critical inner voice isn’t there to help you rationally talk out these issues. Instead, it exaggerates and offers poor advice on how to handle problems. For example, if you feel like your partner hasn’t been available, rather than opening up to your partner, your critical inner voice may chime in with comments like, “You see? He doesn’t care about you. He is so selfish and uncaring. You should just ice him until he notices what he’s missing.” If you want to stay in love, you are far better off paying close attention to this critical inner voice and actively resisting its attitudes and advice. That doesn’t mean living in a fantasy and ignoring your partner’s real shortcomings. It simple means taking a more compassionate and honest attitude toward them that reflects your real point of view and stops this “voice” from drowning out your warmer feelings.
Treat your partner with kindness.
Simple as it sounds, kindness is really the key to staying in love. Research has shown that taking more loving actions actually makes you feel more in love. In any interaction with your partner, whether it’s personal or practical, try to be kind in how you express yourself. This softens your partner, even in heated moments. Continuing to be loving and generous has a huge payoff and a million rewards. It makes you feel good within yourself and creates space for your partner to ultimately move closer to you. It allows you to be more compassionate toward your partner and feel for their experience, separate from yours, which also increases your own feelings of interest, attraction, and tenderness.
Take advantage of what you love about your partner.
Reflect on what you love and appreciate about your partner. What qualities do you admire or feel amused by? If you like that they’re adventurous, keep sharing new activities. If you enjoy their sense of humor, be playful in your communication. If you value that they’re warm and affectionate, make sure to connect with them each day rather than getting caught up in other things. Pay attention to the large and small characteristics they display that bring you joy. Some examples that people have shared with me recently are “the way my husband plays with our kids after a long day,” “the smile my girlfriend gives me anytime I look up from my computer when I work from home,” “the way he’s never judgmental when I tell him things I’m ashamed of,” “the way she supports me when I’m trying something that makes me nervous.”
Share lively, non-routine experiences.
When you first fall in love, in some ways, you are probably the most open you’ll ever be. After all, you’re letting an entirely new person matter to you and influence your life. This spirit of adventure and willingness to try new things is actually part of what creates a spark between two people. Continuing to explore side by side and seek out new experiences to share is a powerful way to keep the excitement and vitality going strong. Relationships can start to become more practical and routine as they go on, particularly with the sharing of kids, household, or financial responsibilities, but these parts of life can also be part of that adventure, as long as you’re making time to do new things that make you both feel more alive.
Maintain and support your and your partner’s individual interests.
In the early stages of a relationship, both parties are still seeing themselves as separate, so they maintain the aspects of who they are that make them feel like independently fulfilled individuals. Often, it’s these very qualities that made your partner fall in love with you and made you fall in love with your partner. Never forget what it felt like to be your own person; be sure to nurture the unique aspects of who you are and extend this same kindness, respect, and curiosity to your partner. When you become an extension of your partner, you may be sacrificing a part of who you are that they love, and of course, the opposite is also true. Give your partner the support to pursue what lights them up. Sometimes that will mean giving them space to pursue their own interests and trying not to place unnecessary restrictions or exerting control based on your own insecurities. You don’t want to limit your ability to really know them and love them for who they are.
Most couples can get into a lot of trouble with communication, for example, by talking in circles with both of your critical inner voices at the wheel or by not talking about anything personal for long periods of time. Try to take time to talk about real things in more depth. Let your partner know what’s going on in your mind beneath any chit-chat or practical issues. Ask about what they’re thinking and feeling. There’s always something new to discover about each other, and if you keep showing interest, you’ll keep feeling toward each other, both because you know them and because you’re known by them.
Don’t give up intimacy.
It’s no real surprise that studies have long shown that physical affection makes us feel more connected. Being affectionate produces oxytocin in your brain. “Oxytocin is a neuropeptide, which basically promotes feelings of devotion, trust and bonding,” said psychologist and researcher Matt Hertenstein. When you feel busy, stressed, or distant from your partner, it’s easy to go a while without expressing affection. When you do, it may be more routine, and you don’t necessarily let yourself slow down and enjoy it. Yet, just holding hands or hugging for more than a moment can reignite a loving feeling. Staying in touch with your desire and sexuality and sharing intimacy in a personal way can be a powerful way to feel closer to your partner.
Find healthy ways to vent.
It’s okay to be angry or frustrated. Your partner is not perfect. You may be doing a lot to develop yourself, and they may be at a standstill. However, neither silently sitting on your anger or building a case and blowing up are the best strategies to get relief and feel closer to your partner. Instead, you may want to open up to a friend or therapist about some of your angrier, more cynical, or irrational reactions. It’s really important to choose a person who isn’t tough or critical, but understanding and nonjudgmental. And definitely don’t choose a “friend” or relative who will take sides and support your negative thoughts. The point of “venting” isn’t to feel more righteous in your anger, but to find relief from letting out your feelings and, hopefully, coming to a calmer, more rational point of view.
Reconnect with who YOU were when you fell in love.
When you feel like you’re falling out of love, you not only long for or miss the person you first fell in love with, but you miss who you were and how you felt at that time. A lot of people want to be the person their partner fell in love with. Of course, every human evolves and grows, so achieving this isn’t about denying your development or pretending to be an old version of yourself. In fact, it’s barely about your partner at all. In her new book, Daring to Love, Tamsen Firestone observes, “the truth is that the primary obstacle to love is within us. Our biggest challenge isn’t finding love; it’s confronting our defenses against it and daring to allow love to develop.” Therefore, falling back in love is an exercise in breaking through those defenses and getting back to a feeling you had toward yourself, your partner, and your life in general.
Most of the steps presented here are easier said than done for one fundamental reason. Staying in love means staying close to feelings – all feelings. It’s when you are in real love that you can experience real loss. Hurt exists. Joy comes with sadness, and it’s sometimes easier to live at a distracting distance than to allow yourself to go all in. Falling back in love isn’t a passive tumble into the past but a leap of faith you actively take and continue to take every day you choose to be together.