Do relationships ever stop feeling “work?”This was a question from a couple that came in with a problem around waning desire. One felt more attraction than the other. Both agreed, the sex wasn’t the same. While they loved each other deeply and were committed to each other—their sexual feelings didn’t seem to be as strong anymore. They were also feeling anxious. While engaged to be married, the desire discrepancy problem triggered insecurities around feeling worthy of being loved and committed to. Each one had real ambivalence about the serious long term commitment associated with marriage.
They recognized with a palpable sense of loss that they were out of the “erotic/romantic” phase of their relationship —and had graduated into the companionate phase.
There is a shelf life to the passionate romantic phase of falling in love. It can last 6 months or 2 years, and while it’s different for everyone, the next more stable phase of relationship is a companionate one. We lose the feeling of butterflies in our stomach. The sex isn’t quite as spontaneous or exciting. We start to notice our partner’s flaws and insecurities. We get irritated with them. And this is often when problems and issues begin to emerge.
But this is also absolutely normal and natural. Many people falsely presume that when the roses colored glasses come off and the romantic intensity fades, that the love is fading as well. That notion has more to do with an idealized fantasy of love—versus the reality of sustainable partnership. It’s not that love isn’t there, but the dynamic has changed. As a couples therapist, I thin there’s an opportunity to discover what it takes to rekindle the spark and in a way that isn’t going to look like the first chapter.
It’s exactly when the infatuation phase of love fades and the rose colored glasses come off—that’s the moment to become intentional about the relationship and with each other.
Intentional about your communication. Intentional about bringing up difficult issues. Intentional about repairing conflict. Intentional about affection, sex and intimacy. Is it work? Absolutely. In truth, any kind of relationship we commit to requires “work.” It’s a reflection of what we prioritize and value. I would re-frame the “work” as an invitation to relate to each other with mindfulness and with focused attention.
In order to stay dynamic, vital and alive—commitment requires our active engagement. Commitments lapse because our relationship to them collapses.
This concept not only extends to interpersonal relationships—intimate partners, children, parents, friends and colleagues. It extends to our relationship with ourselves: our relationship to our health, diet, exercise, money, technology, our spiritual, erotic and creative life, our work lives—all require our regular attention.
When we transition into the companionate phase, the initial work in couples therapy has more to do with changing our patterns, learning to regulate our emotional reactivity and getting curious about our resistance.
But once we acquire more relational skillfulness— it becomes less “effortful” to maintain a strong relationship —and that includes sex and intimacy. Working on your relationship becomes a mindfulness practice and an ongoing conversation with each other. An ongoing conversation that allows for us to change and grow—and calibrate our expectations when we hit bumps in the road. But it hinges on our ability to attune to each other, be present, flexible, curious and engaged. And this is the same kind of effort that we should bring to any relationship that has value. Strong relationships can give us the deepest sense of satisfaction, belonging and joy in life when they are well tended. It’s work that pays off.