We all know what being “in love” is all about. It makes the world go round, after all. There are lots of songs telling us so. It involves floating on a happy cloud, unable to focus on anything, wanting spontaneously to break into dance or song. Nothing matters but the lover and the love. There are hearts and flowers and candlelit dinners. There are endless, breathless phone calls about nothing that meander late into the night. (“No, you hang up!”).
It is glorious and it really is addictive. I’ve just spent a parodic paragraph almost mocking it, but most of us have been there at least once in our lives. I certainly have. When I first met my husband we spent so long cooing to each other on our mobile phones (what were we even saying for that long every night?) that his phone bill went into three figures and he very nearly ended up short on rent. It was a close call.
For my part, I regularly ran out of credit to send him any more text messages. If either of us had plans that meant we wouldn’t be able to see each other for a few days it felt like the end of the world. Nothing mattered more than spending time together.
But fast forward just three years from those breathlessly exciting early days and you’d have found us meandering through life with a toddler and a mortgage, making only necessary phone calls to each other, calls that rarely lasted even five minutes. We still loved each other; of course, we did. But that love was not the focus for either of us anymore. It did not overwhelm the surrounding structure of our lives. We barely even noticed the change. We both were fine with it; parenting replaced passion and life went on.
(Until many years later when I suddenly wasn’t fine with it anymore, and I grew increasingly compelled by the newly exciting emails and texts of someone else, and I got sucked right back into the vortex of being unable to eat or sleep or concentrate and hanging all my happiness on another person, who was entirely the wrong person — but I’ve told that story).
The fact is that being in love, as the movies show it, just cannot be a permanent state. It isn’t physiologically possible for that to happen. The chemicals — called monoamines — that make your heart race when you see your loved and cause the dizziness and euphoria when you think about them: those hormones will fade. And that’s ok. It’s necessary, in fact.
Biologically, the chemicals are designed to wane, because nature has to make sure the euphoria subsides. We need to be able to stand back when they’ve worn off, and make a more rational and clear-eyed assessment of our choice of mate. That part is important too.
As the euphoric stage ebbs, providing you’re still together, new chemicals will slowly begin to form over the next short while. These (called nonapeptides) create a less exciting sensation, but they’re still very important. They’re the “bonding hormones” that will create a lasting, calmer love between you and your partner. The sort of love that endures.
(These hormones, scientists believe, came about historically to ensure a lasting partnership for the purpose of raising children safely).
The problems can start when we miss the high too much or believe that it’s wrong, rather than natural, for it to have worn off after the early heady part of a love affair. Like any high — an exercise high, an alcohol high, a drug-based high — we know innately at the moment of experiencing it that it has to end; but we also want it so badly to last.
We chase it. We sing about it and make films about it and read and write about it. We feel truly bereft when it eventually leaves us. And sometimes, we throw in the towel on our relationship just because that high is gone. We don’t stick around to see what might come next.
Sometimes, of course, it’s right to bring an end to a relationship when the monoamines wear off and we can see with newly clear eyes that our partner is not the right choice for us. In my first marriage, it was very clear that I’d made a dangerous decision when I agreed to marry my first daughter’s father, and once I was over my infatuation with him I could see I needed to leave. My obsession with him had already kept me in place for too long.
But other times, that urge to end a relationship just because it’s not all hearts and flowers and breathless phone calls any more can be a particularly cruel form of self-sabotage. It can be a way of distracting ourselves from uncomfortable truths about ourselves or about our partner or relationship. And it’s double-edged, because we can hurt our partner as well as ourselves if we act on the impulse to run away from a relationship.
If we live life on the rollercoaster of passionate love all the time, pausing only to plunge occasionally into the depths of heartbreak before soaring again with a new love, we deny ourselves the comfort, stability, and potential for real personal growth within a calmly loving relationship. There’s value in the vulnerability that grows over time together, but it won’t grow unless it is given a chance.
If you’re teetering on the edge of uncertainty about a love affair that’s fraying at the edges a bit, now that the dreamy phase has ended, it might be worth spending a little bit of time trying to work out whether the love has really gone or if it’s still there. The love may be hidden, lurking in the trail of the previous infatuation and puny against the scale of how that felt at the time. Thinking properly about this, rather than impulsively ending a relationship, can save a lot of heartache in the long term and a lot of potential regret about “the one that got away”.
As my cousin once put it, succinctly: “If I’d known that in the end, it all fades to who takes out the bins and arguing over which channel to watch on the TV, I’d never have left my first husband for my new bloke.” She was joking, but at the same time, there was truth in her words. It was sadly a truth she’d realised slightly too late.
Understanding that the manic phase of being in love was never designed to last is, I think, a curious comfort in itself. Knowing that the blissful mania will be replaced by something quieter but stronger over time is more comforting still. There are rewards for sticking with a good relationship through the quieter, less Instagram-worthy moments.
It’s just a shame there aren’t so many songs and films about that bit.