You can easily un-love after that blissful experience of deeply falling in love. It might happen sooner than you think. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Far from it.
Several years ago, French author Frédéric Beigbeder published his controversial best-seller Love Lasts Three Years in which the main character Marc Marronnier divorces his wife Anne in less than three years and goes through the same thing with his new mistress Alice. With several movies and theater productions later based on the same topic, and a catchy and most interesting title, the book became a phenomenon, and so did its by-products.
Somehow I was reminded of this particular book I’ve yet to read (but planning to) after reading Swedish writer Lena Andersson’s award-winning novel Wilful Disregard. In it, an independent and rational woman, Ester Nilsson, becomes desperate and totally obsessed with a famous artist, Hugo Rask (ah, modern obsessive love). Without giving too much away, it wasn’t sunshine and rainbows for Ester and Hugo. The novel deals with the consequences of the romantic love transformation into obsession and misplaced devotion, a theme that other novelists like Nora Roberts wouldn’t easily approve. (Where’s the happy ending in that?) But one that is not so uncommon in our everyday lives.
Both novels show love as a momentous happening with a predictable evolution and a limited lifespan. If Wilful Disregard revolves around a cat-and-mouse game and an obsessive love affair turned sour, Love Lasts Three Years’ plot line seems to be one of man’s new conquests and the easiness with which love can appear, change and disappear in a short time. There is no eternal love, just romantic obsession. Or so it seems the modern literature portray it. The truth is not too far behind, but it’s not a black-or-white matter either.
Love, a Ticking Time Bomb?
How do you see romantic love? Is love a one-way destination to the one you perceive as your soulmate, or it is more like a ‘moving goal,’ one that resembles so much the passion and obsession you crave throughout your life? And if it is the latter, what are your chances to a long-lasting epic romance with your current partner? Is that even a possibility in today’s fast-moving world?
Fact: Those stomach butterflies, the fireworks you see when looking into each other’s eyes, and the infatuated soapy declarations of love do not last. Whether you are a fan of the ‘till death do us part’ fairytale or not (I certainly am), love almost always needs a major boost to keep the wonderful feeling of floating on air alive.
In fact, the time people spend being ‘in love’, in their lovey-dovey bubble, is just under three years (much like Frédéric Beigbeder’s marketing-savvy book title). Don’t take it from me. Various psychologists and scientists have done extensive tests on the subject. They have seen too many times how couples go from euphoria to boredom, lose their intimacy and move fast-forward to separation and divorce, only to repeat the process in someone else’s arms. The average time it took for those couples to step away from the lovey-dovey zone? Two years.
Falling in Love or the Doomed Romantic Obsession?
The eternality of being in love is fiction, not fact, says relationship expert and best-selling author Dr. Gary Chapman of The Five Love Languages fame. The first time I read Dr. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages best-seller, it was after I’ve got married. I didn’t give it too much thought at the time until I have recently picked it up again. Now several years later and still happily married, I find myself approvingly nodding my head. My husband and I made it through the euphoric obsession.
The first years of a couple’s lusty love should not even be called love, science agrees, even if the heart says otherwise. When we fall in love, we are doing so unconsciously, and we are led to think that we will always have the same intense feelings. Nothing can break that love. That’s what the ‘in-love’ experience will leave you to believe, but how true is that? The in-love obsession doesn’t last, or, in Dr. Chapman’s words, “If people remain obsessed, we would all be in serious trouble.”
Fact: After a few years of passionate love in the company of your chosen one, floating in Paradise, you finally step back on Earth, to the daily grind, and open your eyes to the good and the bad, especially the latter. You’ve just lost your ‘love goggles’. It happens to everyone.
Dr. Chapman quotes extensive research by psychologist Dr. Dorothy Tennov, and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck among others, who agree that the ‘in love’ experience is not real love, but a temporary crazy obsession, an infatuation that wears off just like your favourite perfume or lipstick. As soon as the love potion runs dry, one thing that remains is the lover’s initially overlooked faults and misgivings. It turns out that our perfect lover is not so perfect anymore.
Love as a Momentarily Positive Emotion
Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, and a researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has another equally poignant conception of what it means to fall in love in her book Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become.” Her research attests to the fact that love is not the long-lasting force, nor the passion and obsession of a couple’s first dates, but a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.”
According to this view, love is about connecting, aka falling in love, with virtually anyone, either for a split second or longer, and the reason for this is an avalanche of positive emotions we experience on a daily basis. It could explain why we can fall in love with complete strangers. We are just connecting on an emotional level.
Fredrickson’s research is similar to other scientists’ work: it is, after all, love’s chemical make-up that makes us feel and experience in a certain way. Besides triggering the happy hormonal levels of oxytocin and serotonin, love alters our neurons to mirror our loved’s ones, enforcing the connection and shared intimacy. But it’s not just our emotions that play a part. Love feeds on the physical connection between two people.
Given the above, we can assume that love is a sum of short burst of affections, and momentarily happiness, stemming from our genetic makeup. If we can connect long enough with a person, or connect the dots of positive emotions, we can have the answer to a viable, longer relationship with the person we share this bond. According to Fredrickson, we can all alter our love’s biological make-up and extend the micro-moments of love and their frequency. If we get plenty of love, our lives are richer, happier and healthier. We have to feed on love just like we need food to keep our bodies alive.
There is thus one thing on which most scientists agree. Whether we set our eyes on a best friend, or the stranger we met on holiday, or someone else’s partner, the being ‘in love’ experience is a ‘quick fix’ triggered by our fundamental emotional need for love and acceptance. It is not unlike the highs and lows of addiction. When the high is gone, the need for the love fuel reappears, and we’d rather fuel up fast. We need love in all moments of our lives. It’s like an emotional tank we have needed to fuel up since childhood.
Marriage, the Answer for Love’s Endurance?
We carry our need for love and our desire for the ‘in love’ experience all our lives, through adulthood and marriage. The latter is particularly revealing. I believe marriage is an eye-opener in many cases, whether we see it as the traditionally evolutionary defining moment of a relationship, or as the true test of love’s endurance.
Couples decide to marry holding on to the idea of everlasting love, hoping that it will last forever. Some know that their love requires constant upkeep, but most just cling to the romantic obsession (honeymoon, anyone?). And then you have the thousands of couples postponing or avoiding the ‘m’ word altogether. Are they afraid of commitment, or are they afraid that they might just have fallen out of that ‘out-of-this-world’ infatuated love by the time the proposal arrived?
Couples living together for years seldom get married, and when they do, they often end up seeing the divorce attorney, as guru Chapman says. You don’t need to read his book to know this for a fact. It’s easier to walk away from an agreed living arrangement, and not as half as hard as fleeing from a sacred promised sworn in front of God. Wouldn’t people rush to the altar if their all-consuming love was still burning brighter than anything? Or did their love fall short, or, worse, expired? What if the only thing pulling the couple together was the familiarity of the situation – two people living together under the same roof?
On the other hand, why do so many people still willingly go to the altar together and end up going to the vicious cycle of separations or marriage-divorce a few times in a lifetime? Haven’t they learned anything? Are they still hoping for meeting ‘the one’, or are they kidding themselves, secretly knowing that the relationship they crave won’t last, and all there is to do is to enjoy whatever time they have with their current partner? If this sounds like the usual Hollywood celebrity romance gone wrong, it is. And it’s not just the rich and the famous being swayed.
Millions are under the impression that marriage is an answer for sealing love into eternity, but the realities faced by the current generations speak otherwise. Blame it on the social media connected world, or should I rather say disconnected world, the financial woes, or the lack of intimacy. There are more roadblocks than ever standing in the path of the traditional love evolving into marriage. But rather than asking ourselves why marriages no longer work, let’s face that marriage is not love’s ultimate test and does not guarantee a free pass to a relationship’s nirvana (it never did). Rather ask what we can do to keep our commitment and love for the one we solely deemed ‘the one and only.’
The ‘one and only’ Love
According to our genetic need for love and the popular folklore, we are supposed to find our better half, a soulmate, and love that person for eternity. When we find our one and only, love is forever. Nothing can ever come in between our lover and us. Nothing is greater than the love we share with our one and only. We contemplate the future together, marriage and all. While nothing might top the way we feel about our partner, the mistake is in thinking that no obstacles can shatter our love bubble.
Fact: It takes courage, effort, and deep commitment to spend a lifetime with a loved one. It is not easy, although the ‘in love’ butterflies make it so. But let’s face it, sometimes it’s just easier and more convenient to jump ship, and other times people don’t know what they want from a relationship. In truth, if everyone made efforts to celebrate their one-and-only love, and made sure it lasts for a lifetime, the world would certainly not have so many broken relationships and divorces.
Every relationship runs its natural course and goes through cyclical phases. If you’re lucky enough to recognize in which stage your love is and figure out how to handle the gradual ‘un-love’ part of the obsessive romance, you may just discover the recipe for a ‘happily ever after’ relationship; because the chances that the above will happen are staggeringly high. If your relationship starts to fizzle, it is not because you do not care about your partner, or you love him any less. It’s just become a different game. Your love has evolved. Can you handle the next step?
Whatever love path you choose, you can’t get away from the eventuality of lost love. But all is not lost. If you start viewing love as an up-and-downs adventure, with a probable expiration date, perhaps you may give more than a passing thought to your relationship and build a love for a lifetime. You don’t have to give up on your romantic idea of eternal love (if you have one), or think of love as pure evolutionary chemistry, but you should not blindly pretend that love for the other half has the same overpowering intensity of those first days or months and that it always will be. Love takes hard work and commitment to last for decades.
The key to any relationship is in the way the couples interact and communicate with each other. Love is the glue that binds people together, but it’s not to say that it’s the only thing that can keep them united forever, however romantic that idea might be. With these thoughts in mind, love can outlast the few short years of romance bliss, or the momentary bursts of emotions.
Love lasts as long as you are willing it to last. Don’t force it either when things go south. But you should be willing to work on it, or finally realize if the choice of partner makes sense after all.
Real love is the kind of love that is emotional and fulfilling in nature, and not purely obsessional. It is a rational and intentional love; a choice couples make after the blissful euphoria of falling in love, as the scientist would say, and some postmodern literature would readily approve. But what about the sparks, the heightened emotions, the excitement? You get all those back when you choose to love truly, madly, deeply.
Obviously, the fact that love lasts around three years or less should not be taken like clockwork. But it’s a start to realize that real love is intentional and more rational than you think, and it’s a choice you make every day. Make it last. The stomach butterflies might be gone; chemistry may start to fade, but your loving partner doesn’t have to.
Denisa Oosthuizen is a freelance writer, publisher, entrepreneur and author, based in Pretoria, South Africa. She also writes fiction as Irene Eccleston and runs a content, publishing and web solutions business. Visit www.denisaoosthuizen.com.