“I love him, but I’m not ‘in love’ with him.”
It’s something I hear fairly often in my therapy office.
So what? Is my reply.
Okay, not really. I promise never to say “so what?” to anyone when they tell me their feelings. But to some degree, that’s what I feel like saying, because, really, it may be less significant than it seems. There are some very big important issues that brought people into my office, no doubt, but that “in love” part, that’s more of a symptom than a problem.
There is a distinction between feeling love, and being “in love.”
The difference goes back to expectations. For many of us, this goes all the way back to grade school or even before. Movies, stories, and most of all, our current culture, all suggest that the blissful feeling of infatuation is the gold standard for relationships. We’re led to believe that if you don’t see little birds flying around your head whenever you think of him, something is deeply wrong.
Infatuation has its place. It’s a powerful drug. When we first feel romantically connected to another person, there is a wonderful feeling. It has inspired songwriters, poets and painters for as long as history can record. But that feeling is a stage.
It’s not expected to be permanent.
If you haven’t known someone for very long, then what you “love” is not entirely the whole person. It’s a love of the feeling they inspire. You may see some of their faults, but you don’t really feel the impact. You are sort of of anesthetized to any human flaws, and that temporary blindness will eventually go away. When the carriage turns back into a pumpkin, THEN you know whether you love them. Yes, you can still have a version of bliss. But if you don’t deepen the relationship and help it grow into something more meaningful, you’re probably destined for disillusionment.
If you used to have a close, happy feeling and it’s gone, there are probably some ingredients missing. They could range from honesty, and vulnerability, to sex, play, or creativity. What’s missing could be: time, attention, or problem solving skills. Or maybe there’s a need for kindness, humility, openness and curiosity. Instead of missing ingredients, maybe there are some things that need to be removed from the relationship. What if you took out criticism, insults, stony silences or a sense of entitlement?
No Wonder You Feel That Way
When you take a closer look at the whole relationship, sometimes it’s no wonder you don’t feel “in love.” In fact, sometimes you might not even feel “in like” most of the time.
The question is not “why don’t I feel in love?” but more “what can I do to grow?” How this looks in real life depends on you. Do you communicate your needs, your thoughts, your desires? Do you listen when your partner brings these up? It’s important to look at how the two of you talk about these things. Are you really honest? Or maybe you are someone who has a ton of things you’d never want to say out loud. What would happen if you opened up and were more authentic? If you have secrets from your partner, that’s a good sign you may be starving the relationship. That doesn’t build feelings of love.
Here’s what’s really important: the lack of feeling is not the problem, it’s the warning light. Sometimes feeling “in love” makes us feel brand new. But what if all that’s new is the audience for the same old show? Being in a committed relationship sometimes forces us to see that we need to grow and change ourselves. Fortunately, this can prod big changes in your partner over time. If nothing changes in either of you, that’s a bigger warning light that your relationship could be in trouble.
Margie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She provides couples and individual counseling in her office in Springfield, Illinois, and throughout the state by phone and web. She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones.