1. What do we mean by ‘Falling in Love’?
‘”All you need is love .. .’ The Beatles’ song could well be true. Love – romantic love – is perhaps the most compelling emotion we humans feel, a kind of madness that’s both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. When we ‘fall’ in love – note the verb – we’re flooded with excitement because we feel we’ve finally met perfection. ”
From Juliet’s cry that Romeo is ‘the god of my idolatry’ … through David Copperfield’s exclamation that ‘(Dora) was everything everybody ever wanted’ … all the way to Tom Cruise’s ‘I love Katie!’ sofa-bounce on the Oprah Winfrey Show, falling in love with someone makes us believe in magic.
If that someone also falls in love with us, the magic is real. There’s a sense of destiny, of having found our ‘other half’; a happy ending seems guaranteed. As a result, the here-and-now is everything, to the point where we may well walk away from home, job, family and even existing spouse.
“If it isn’t possible to be with our beloved, if our feelings aren’t returned, or if in the end love fades, there follows a different kind of madness as everything we trusted in and hoped for slips away.”
We lose not only our confidence, not only the future we thought lay ahead, but sometimes our entire faith in other people and in life itself. This is the kind of hopelessness that leads to self-destruction; relationship concerns are statistically the main motive for suicide.
This is the kind of fury seemingly so natural and justifiable that in many parts of the world the argument ‘crime of passion’ is a valid legal defence. Whether fiction or fact, we may flinch when we hear of a high profile wife choosing to stay with her confessedly unfaithful husband; a maths teacher fleeing the country to marry his pupil; a society mistress stepping in front of a train when she thinks she’s going to lose her lover; a multimillionaire squandering his entire fortune to win the woman of his dreams. But on some level we understand. On some level we know that, if lovestruck, we just might be capable of doing the same as Hilary Clinton, Jeremy Forest, Anna Karenina, or the Great Gatsby.
Professionally, I live at the sharp edge of the madness that’s love. The focus of my work is relationships. My clients are those who want love even when it seems impossible, who cling to love even if it threatens to fade, who mourn love when it dies. Into my room my clients come courageously, bringing their hopelessness and their fury, their hopes and their dreams, and above all their fear – fear they’ll never love or be loved ever again.
2. Why is ‘Falling in Love’ so compelling?
So why do my clients – why do all of us – want love so very much? Look at any current media coverage of the topic and you’d think the answer is ‘sex’. Tabloid headlines shriek that the proof of a loving relationship is how many times ‘he’ was able to get it up each night, or the number of orgasms ‘she’ had during each rendezvous. And when those same headlines explain that the failure of a relationship was down to the failure of desire, that seems logical.
“There’s some truth here. On the most basic level, the reason we’re attracted so powerfully to other human beings is because Mother Nature wants us to make babies. Our bodies try to convince us to do just that, with a flurry of lustful hormones that are a huge part of the ‘in love’ experience.”
(These same hormones also lower our ability to make critical judgements while also blinkering us to the possibility of being with anyone else but The One: there’s a real biological basis for the saying that ‘love is blind’.) And most of us do see sexuality as central to an intimate relationship; in that sense, ‘making love’ isn’t a euphemism but a literal description of what happens in partner sex.
But to truly fall in love, we also need emotion. That’s always been true, though maybe even more so nowadays when we can get the sex part just by asking, rather than having to spin a whole alibi about adoring the person whose clothes we want to rip off.
“To be really in love we need psychological as well as physical connection, need to know we have those elusive necessities compatibility and chemistry.”
Log onto any online dating site and you get a bird’s-eye view of what we believe we need – identical values; matching life aims; similar hobbies; parallel parenting goals; complementary spiritual beliefs – in order to label what we’re feeling as ‘love’ rather than ‘libido’. (It’s significant that no client of mine, when asked what they want in a new partnership or what they miss in an old one, has ever said ‘the sex, only the sex’.)
I’m going to be controversial here. I think that both sex and compatibility are often just excuses. Our need to fall in love has much deeper roots than multiple orgasms or a common interest in hill walking. Our need to fall in love begins way before we were even born.
Because our very first experience of love, the one that sets us up for all our other love stories, began in the security of our mother’s womb, quickly followed by the experience of being welcomed into a world as the absolute centre of attention. Fed, changed, warmed, cuddled – this imprinting experience of total adoration is what lets us grow, and thrive, and live.
We then spend the rest of our lives trying to find our way back to that Garden of Eden. Falling in love offers us the promise that once again, this time as adults, we’ll be the absolute focus of another person’s world, utterly and completely nurtured – constantly, consistently, effortlessly.
3. What’s difficult about ‘Falling in Love’?
“Except, of course, that it’s a false promise. For while the Beatles may be correct that all we need is love, their next tine of the song ‘it’s easy … it’s easy … ‘ couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The first difficulty with ‘falling’ is that it doesn’t last for ever – the initial attraction has a built-in sell-by date. As we’ve said, its purpose is to make babies, and once a reasonable window of opportunity for babymaking has passed (about six months to two years), then whether or not we’ve actually given birth, what becomes important for Mother Nature is not that we keep swinging from the chandeliers, but that we knuckle down and focus on the kids. At that point, the excitement, the passion, the possibility and the total high of feeling good about each other are, in an evolutionary sense, surplus to requirements. The initial hormonal tide goes out and the couple who were once besotted with each other are left high and dry. It’s often at that point that they end up coming to me.
The clients I see often also feel high and dry because over time they’ve grown to know each other’s dark side a little more than they might want to.
“Fatting in love hinges on the belief that our partner is perfect, and that they think we’re perfect too.”
But everyone has their faults, everyone – however much they try to be ‘good’ – isn’t always so. It’s tough but true that, even if we often soften, the hard-wired, human survival option is to put ourselves first. And it’s a horrible shock when we go to sleep one night next to a perfect god (or goddess) and wake up next morning to an imperfectly selfish mortal. An even worse shock when we see in this imperfect mortal’s eyes the dawning realisation that we are also imperfect, also mortal, also selfish.
This moment, what we might call the natural death of being ‘in love’, often marks the death of a relationship too – see the fifty per cent divorce rate of first marriages in Great Britain. The above-mentioned high of Tom Cruise’s relationship with Katy Holmes ended in (his third) marital breakdown. David Copperfield quickly became disillusioned with Dora and was freed only by her conveniently dying. And yes, Romeo and Juliet’s love remained flawless until their deaths – but they only actually knew each other for a few days.
“Would Juliet have continued to worship Romeo as the ‘god of my idolatry’ if the star-crossed couple had instead eloped to Mantua, bought a house and had 2.4 children? Shakespeare himself drops several heavy hints that the answer is ‘no’.”
4. What do we mean by ‘Standing in Love’?
“So, when the magic dies, should we simply cut and run? Is there anything beyond, and better than, f alling in love? There is, but again it’s not what the Beatles might can ‘easy’.”
Enter Erik Fromm, social psychologist, who suggests that the wonderful madness of romance is not what good relationships are really about. Real love, he says, happens after the first romance. It lasts not a few months or years but up to a lifetime. And it involves not ‘Falling’ but ‘Standing’.
Standing in love isn’t a dramatic or a peak experience. It’s not something created by fate or destiny, not driven by adrenalin and lust. It’s a discipline, powered not by emotion, but as W. H. Auden says, ‘by the creation of time and will’. The skills we need are deceptively demanding as well as boringly simple. To pay better attention to our partner. To listen to them more. To deliver small acts of kindness on a regular basis. To be more patient, more caring, more accepting, more tolerant.
And to keep doing all this even when the traffic’s one-way, for there’ll be lots of times when said partner doesn’t return any of these favours; a crucial element of standing in love is to stay generous even if there’s no payback. And while falling in love presupposes lifelong mutual companionship from a ‘soulmate’ , standing in love faces the fact that huge parts of even good relationships are spent feeling alone, unconnected and more than a bit unloved. On occasions there is perhaps nothing lonelier than the marriage bed, even if we know the relationship’s good.
Fromm maintains that working with all this is the single most important task we humans have in life – and that we should devote as much time and energy to learning to love as we do to earning a living, should invest as much in partner commitment as we do in financial management. The title of his book The Art of Loving (1956) is a call to action.
“Let’s be honest – mastering this Art doesn’t sound much like fun. But the effort involved pales into insignificance beside a further, more recent prescription of what it takes to nurture a long-term relationship.”
Psychotherapist David Schnarch describes the second stage of love not just as a labour of love but as a ‘Crucible’: a place where the two partners are tested beyond endurance – to melting point – and in the process are recreated as something new.
The test is not only that we have to love a partner as Fromm describes, but that we have to also love ourselves. Yes, don’t dominate one’s beloved but don’t cave in to them either. Accommodate to the thoughts, feelings and values of one’s partner, but also be firmly true to one’s own. Stay committed to the relationship but remain independent, not Siamese twins fused at the hip. In short, balance the challenge of union with the challenge of individuation. Schnarch’s Crucible makes Fromm’s Standing look like playschool.
I’m reminded of learning the Argentinian tango – a dance that contrary to popular opinion is much less about raunchy sex and much more about bringing total focus to the act of partner dance. Tango has a difficult learning curve – it is a huge task to ‘lead’ or ‘follow’ complicated steps with no set choreography but only the cues given by each partner. Until quite recently men had to train for years by dancing with each other before they were allowed to even try tango with a woman. Struggling with my first attempts, I was told that there are only two secrets … ‘Presence’ and ‘Connection’. In other words, success relies on each partner, as they dance, being solidly, clearly, individually and uniquely substantial while at the same time being utterly responsive to the other’s solid, clear, individual uniqueness.
“I’ve never found a better description for the sometimes impossible balance of partnership love.”
5. Why is ‘Standing in Love’ so difficult?
What makes things even harder is that society currently sees falling in love as the real thing and standing in love as really quite boring. This attitude is very new indeed – some social analysts claim it only really blossomed after the Second World War; as historian Stephanie Coontz says in Marriage: a History, ‘People have always loved a love story. But for most of our past our ancestors didn’t live in one.’
So today it’s largely only traditional societies who are wary of ‘fast love’, who favour ‘slow’ commitment – which may not even involve meeting before marriage. The majority of the rest of us believe that a strong positive feeling is the best sign a couple are going to be eternally happy, and that if that feeling fades into daily accommodation – let alone occasional boredom, irritation or frustration, the only sensible response is to move on.
“The media is little help. So many of the love stories we read or hear about today are either catastrophised or Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives.”
We are constantly invited to shriek in horror or gasp in admiration at the latest high-profile romance, betrayal, divorce or reconciliation. Hardly anywhere do we read about partnerships that have survived their ups and downs via a mixture of daily forbearance, steady loyalty, and Herculean self-denial.
“Ditto in real life. Few people talk openly, deeply and in detail – to family, to friends, particularly to offspring – about how they’ve navigated Fromm’s journey from ‘Falling’ to ‘Standing’.”
Few couples admit to their children they have been through the ‘Crucible’ and emerged. As a result, when those children grow into adults and their own love challenges start to bite, they may have no idea how to survive – indeed, are often shocked that survival is needed.
And then there’s the disappearance of the Deity. I’m not myself a believer, but I notice that absent religion, many of us now put overwhelming demands for reassurance, comfort, security and validation on our partnerships rather than on God.
“The problem is, we humans aren’t divine. The deity that religion describes is one who loves perfectly – but no human being can deliver that level of support. Which means we can’t expect perfection from anyone else, and we can’t expect to give perfection to anyone else.”
Yet we still blame our partners when they don’t love us as we want, still blame ourselves when we don’t love as we think we should.
As a result of all of these difficulties, my clients often think they are failures – rather than normal – for not feeling for each other as they did when they first met, and as they believed they would for the rest of their lives. They typically hold that when they hit problems their relationship is over rather than simply entering a transition. That they’ve reached the end of the road rather than the start of a new journey. Of course I never tell clients in unhappy relationships to put up and shut up – but I often do tell them that ‘what you’re hitting
is what we all hit at some point’. And almost always, when I say that, I see new hope dawn in their eyes.
6. Why is ‘Standing in Love’ so worthwhile?
Don’t think I’m dissing the idea of romance. When I work with clients who are looking for love, I uncynically echo their squeals of delight when they go head over heels for someone wonderful. (I’ve been known to celebrate just as enthusiastically when I myself have found romance.) There’s a reason why human beings become enchanted with each other; it feels good. Falling in love? Bring on the sparkle.
On the other hand, when the sparkle fades, don’t assume that we should move on. If what remains is respect and quiet admiration, then it’s sensible to hang on in there at least until we see whether there is more of the story to come. And, here’s the good news. Standing in love, done wholeheartedly, often means that there is hugely more to come.
” There are physical rewards to be found in a long-term relationship – not only in the beautiful lovemaking of experienced partners who know each other’s rhythms, speeds and harmonies, but in a basic shift of physiology.”
Recent studies suggest that what follows the hormonal rush of falling in love is often a shift in biochemical balance that helps us be simply happy, lacking the highs and lows, but gaining a deep sense of purpose and contentment.
Fromm and Schnarch both say that the emotional rewards go even deeper. For if we face the ‘Crucible’, then – like gold – we may change. We may become larger than ourselves because we’ve had to expand in order to accommodate our partner. We may become better than ourselves because we’ve had to put our own needs aside and give more than we are taking. We may become more accepting of ourselves as we become more accepting of our partner because we no longer see our relationship as a source of endless self-validation but as a ‘mutual exploration of imperfection’. And all that on top of making another human being happy, on top of their happiness making us feel more worthwhile, more at peace with ourselves.
There’s a wonderful passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Love in the Time of Cholera which describes this ‘people-growing’ process perfectly, outlining as it does the later periods of a loving couple’s relationship. ‘Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy. It was a time when they both loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other moral trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.’
If we can survive the ‘Crucible’, there’s another benefit too. Doing so enables us – as we age and move through the different life stages – to not only be better partners, but better human beings. With stable relationship as a backdrop, we become strong enough to develop other passions – our work, our children, our community. With solid commitment as the foundation, we create the inner resources to be useful and helpful in the world at large.
“We can start to approach the definition of love offered by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: ‘Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward in the same direction.”‘
We can also, in a lovely virtuous spiral, hand down the mastery we’ve gained, acting as role models to the next generation. Surely teaching our children the Art of Loving is one of the best legacies a parent can offer.
7. Is ‘Standing in Love’ so possible?
“But hold on. Is all this possible in real life? Can human beings step up to this precarious balance of selflessness and self-development?”
It goes wrong so often – even when we want to get it right, even when we try our best. We’ve all, surely, experienced the absolute horror of trying to love and not succeeding, of wanting to be loved and knowing we’re not, of being loved and letting it slip away.
I’m optimistic. I do believe humans can both fall and stand in love, that they can enter the ‘Crucible’ and emerge on the other side – because I see them do so. The specific stories clients tell me are confidential. But I am allowed to generalise, so let me paint a picture of what happens when – often after tears and anger and huge struggle – partners reach the ‘other shore’.
I’ve seen the moment when partners fully take on board that in even the best relationship, however much we love someone, we sometimes also hate them. I’ve seen the instant where it finally dawns that a spouse may have an ego the size of a mountain but is still loveable, may have a capacity for self-delusion as deep as a well but is still trustable. I’ve watched the amazing shift when clients stop saying ‘I’ and begin to say ‘we’ because they’ve finally taken on board that they’re not two individuals any more but a single whole. I’ve witnessed the point when both clients, exhausted and desperate, suddenly regain hope – not in the relationship they used to have, but in a new, reworked and far better one.
It happens everywhere. I’ve recently been involved in supporting the Open University research on Enduring Love? a wide-ranging, international study of what happens when couples stay the relationship course. The 5,000-plus respondents who described their committed, long-term partnership mostly didn’t much talk about passion and excitement. They did talk a lot about mutual tolerance and forbearance, joint commitments, small acts of mutual kindness. Making a cup of tea for a partner was mentioned more than once, as was simply saying ‘thank you’. These seemingly trivial examples of deep commitment drew slightly mocking tabloid feature headlines, but those of us who work with couples knew what it was about.
It’s not just ordinary mortals who win through. And here we come full circle, all the way back to the Beatles. It is said that Paul McCartney and his wife Linda made a promise to each other when they met: ‘I will never put you down.’ – meaning not only that they would never disrespect each other, but also that they would never stop engaging with each other, never walk away, however hard it got. That didn’t mean their partnership was flawless – they surely had their ups and downs. And it didn’t mean they could defend each other from everything – Paul lay beside Linda on her deathbed so she wouldn’t be afraid, but he couldn’t halt the progress of her cancer. Yet the McCartneys kept their promise to stay the course -to ‘never put each other down’ – right to the end of their life together.
“That story leads me directly on to the final reason I believe that humankind can and should step up to Love in all its forms – even though doing that is challenging and even though we’ll never do it perfectly. For we love not only because we want to, but because it’s our ultimate option.”
The Beatles’ words are ‘All you need is love … love is all you need’. I would add to that chorus the line ‘All you have is love … love is all you have’. We may yearn painfully for it. We may get our hearts broken by it. We may end up avoiding or running from it. We may, as mentioned, redirect it from partnership love to love of family, cause, nation or religion. But unless in some way we find a place for love in our lives, we’re never fully human and our lives are never fully complete.
As Ian McEwan wrote in memory of those last loving phone calls from The Twin Towers – ‘there is only love, and then oblivion’. Surely there’s no more convincing reason to do our best to stand – as well as to fall – in love.