I think the Hollywood/romantic novel idea is more prevalent in our culture than in others. Finding the right person, realizing s/he is your “soul mate,” riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after…it all seems to lead to unrealistic and unmet expectations for marriage. Movies end with the hero and heroine riding off, with the implication that finding each other against all odds, fighting through to the realization that they were meant to be together and, finally, succumbing to fate, kismet or destiny. End of story.
Of course, the reality is that those little quirks that were so endearing soon become annoying and disgusting habits. The payments come due, the kids get sick or turn into teenagers (or both at the same time) and 9 to 5 intervenes at the least opportune moment. When reality sets in, the unrealistic expectations quickly become unmet expectations…a source of disappointment and resentment.
Our Love Will Last Forever!
Since we don’t understand the process of falling in love to begin with, we assume that once accomplished, that love will sustain us forever. If love is “real” it should be forever, right? We didn’t “work” at falling in love, did we? Why should we have to work at being in love over the long haul?
What we miss in that whole understanding of falling in love is that we did do things that caused us to fall in love with each other. When we stop doing those things, the love no longer grows. We fail to adjust to living in a relationship with each other and do things that hurt each other, causing resentment and fear and all sorts of emotions that conspire to destroy our attraction and feelings for each other. We think that the feelings we had in the beginning will last without any effort from us if they are really real.
Unmet Expectations and Disillusionment
But the PEA (phenylethylamine) and dopamine rush wears off. Declining levels of dopamine return us to our senses. We stabilize over time, and our serotonin levels return to normal. The compulsive and obsessive feelings begin to wane and we wonder…was it all a mistake? Was it real, or just a passing fancy?
How We Cope
One day we awake and realize that the person we married isn’t all we needed after all. If we need something more, doesn’t that mean that something is missing? And if something is missing, could it have been real love, since real love is supposed to be enough?
So one of several models takes over…
- We argue, fight, demand and complain about being unhappy.
- Or we decide we should suck it up and sacrifice for the cause; commitment will make it work.
- Or we settle into lives devoted to children, family, outside activities and “making a difference in the world.”
Perhaps we start looking for what we’re missing as soon as we know it is missing. The problem is that we don’t really KNOW what we are missing. We’re not happy, but since we don’t know what we need to be happy, we stumble along, alternately clinging to our spouse and pushing him or her away; becoming more independent or more codependent, depending on our mood du jour.
Some actually figure it out, learn to communicate with each other and negotiate changes that make the relationship stronger. A few decide to move on, since this can’t be all there is to “real love,” find the next challenge and the next rush of PEA and dopamine, and begin all over again.
But the vast majority end up in this middle ground where things are broken, and unaware of how broken they really are. The kids take up the slack, commitment replaces passion, and familiarity takes the place of intimacy. Passion for each other is replaced by passion for things and places and stuff we do.
Until one of us is triggered by something unforeseen and either have a personal crisis of identity, or someone gives us what we were missing, and we think the whole marriage must have been a mistake.
Realistic Expectations: Carpe Diem!
I once worked with a guy who had been there so long he had eight weeks of vacation each year. One year, he saved his vacation till two months before his hire date, and scheduled his eight weeks to be followed by his eight weeks for the next year. He took a short trip, and at the end of week two began a project around the house. After a couple of days, he felt weak and sick to his stomach. In the middle of the fourth week he called the doctor, who began tests. By the end of week eight, he was in the hospital on a ventilator. His funeral was held the day he was to return to work.
Turns out he had cancer. He’d had it for years but didn’t know it was there. He was mere months from death when his vacation began, yet he was unaware of how little time he had left. He was sick and didn’t know it. Had he known earlier, his cancer might have been treatable, and he could still be alive today.
So it can be as we work, sacrifice and raise the kids, thinking that one day we’ll be able to put it all together and enjoy our time together at last.
The majority of marriages fall into this kind of situation all too easily. We assume that the feelings will remain, no matter what we do. We assume that we can do whatever makes US happy and it won’t make our spouse UNhappy. We settle for day-to-day life as it comes to us, instead of choosing to live it on purpose, and we end up sick, alone and worn out…
We don’t know we do those things because we believed all along that this is the way it should be, the way things happen, and the way they will go. Life happens to us, after all, and living means survival rather than approaching it with design and purpose. Most days we wake up feeling a little off, or like something is not right, yet we push forward until the day one of us reaches the end. In an instant, it’s all gone and we wonder why and where it went, how we could have been so wrong, and wonder if we’ll ever get it back.
And all because we believed that love…real love…true love, was something that happened to us and, once found, the feelings would be enough to last forever. We believe that if it is real, it takes no effort to keep it fresh, new, exciting and present in our lives.
We expect our marriage to give us what we need without ever realizing we have to give it what it needs in order to survive. We expect it to take care of us, and forget to take care of it and each other. We expect it to last forever, but don’t realize that it requires something from us in order to last. We don’t realize that the things it requires aren’t just sacrifice and honor and dignity but adjustment, negotiation and compassion. Without compassion and empathy, it is the passion that goes so easily.
And once gone, it can be so very hard to get back…