Love and Friendship Change: Struggling with Faltering Flames

I’ve had a couple of people ask me to write about the topic of love. Of course, as we all know, there are many different types of love and more energy has been devoted to this subject than just about any other, but that doesn’t mean I can’t weigh in, too. Today, I think I’ll examine the way love can change over the course of a relationship and how we can love someone and yet reach a point where we can no longer remain with them in the same way.

Two people meet, become fascinated with one another to one degree or another, and decide to merge lives. (For purposes of this post, I am working from the presumption that they both believe they are in love or at least deep like.) There’s something enormously reassuring to know that you have someone to come home to, someone who will tend the hearth fires, provide warmth in the middle of the night, and provide nourishing companionship. The comfort of knowing one has a welcoming home base cannot be underestimated. With the world as crazy as it is these days, we all want a soft place to land and a purpose for working as hard as we do. Finding our way to this person and relationship status sometimes means we override our early system warnings, telling ourselves that we’re being nitpicky or unnecessarily severe in our reactions.

But, what happens when the other person’s personality quirks or decisions start to bug us, again? What happens when they are simply being themselves but we grow ever more easily irritated by this splinter?

Are they doing something wrong? Are we being unfair?

No and no.

So what does this mean for the health of the relationship going forward?

 

All I can do is answer based on my own experience, but what I have seen (drawing upon romantic, professional, and platonic relationships) is that those “minor” annoyances that we discover early on rarely disappear, despite all the years, experience, and goodwill that we enjoy in between. Usually, such chronic, low grade vexations point to fundamental, irreconcilable differences between the parties—they just happen to manifest in ways which leave us (the irritated) feeling petty.

For instance years ago, 1) a fellow I knew came to visit me in Boston and dedicated forty-five minutes talking about a suit he bought from Neiman Marcus (I timed it)! 2) In Santa Barbara, I watched another engage in behavior I considered deeply wrong but shunted my concerns aside because there was so much that was good about what we had (with the promise of more). And then, 3) there was the instance where the relationship, physically, simply was unfulfilling/non-existent and I kept telling myself that intellectual stimulation was enough. It wasn’t. In each of these cases, I chastised myself for feeling the way I did, telling myself I was being overly critical or sensitive or needy—but in a desperate effort to frame the relationship in an acceptable light, I wound up being unfair to myself and unfair to them because I wanted them to be someone other than who they were.

When looked at objectively, there is nothing terrible with what any of these individuals did—they were well within their rights to discuss their wardrobes enthusiastically or play hardball with other assholes or choose to live a physically passionless life. And I can promise you that each of them was enormous fun to be around. In fact, I continue to remember them in an affectionate light, but our relationship could not last.

So, what does this mean? Am I an unreasonable prima donna who must have every exchange “just so,” unable to tolerate any flaws in others?

No, it does not. There is another side to this relationship coin. The truth is that there is a great likelihood that the other person senses the dissonance just as much. These shifts are rarely one sided. They may more easily pretend the problem isn’t there or perhaps they are fearful enough about a “you-less” future that they are willing to grit their teeth, but in the vast majority of occasions, irritations exist for both parties.

Love changes. Love has its limits. And, most importantly, you can love someone without being able to stay with them. Even if what appears as minor differences between the two of you, over time those differences may become untenable…Trying to course correct against your natural path in order to remain parallel with your partner is a recipe for great unhappiness. I have watched people do this time and time and time again, losing a little bit more of themselves each time they do so. The only time I have seen such efforts work to any degree is when both parties flex sufficiently to accommodate the changes occurring in their partner, but behaviors or attitudes which rub you the wrong way early on in your relationship are not likely to ebb as you become more invested.

I am not here to champion flying solo or here to tell you that all relationships carry a time date stamp on them. What I am here to say to those of you who struggle with what to think when you no longer can live with someone you’ve loved, you are not a bad person for feeling this way. It happens to so many of us—most, if we’re being honest. Having a comrade in arms, having a friend, having a lover to come home to is a wonderful thing and makes life worth living, but not if you have to crowbar yourself into it. Deep down, they may be looking to you for the courage which will set them free, too.

What relationship are you struggling with? What makes it hard to let go? What are you afraid ending it would say about you? If the tables were reversed, if the other person felt the way you do, what do you hope they would do?

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