Falling in Love is so Old School and Boring. How to Rise in Love?
The Art and Science of Lasting Love in Relationships.
I had been experiencing it for a while, but it took a vacation in Switzerland for it to come together. Thirty-two years ago, I fell in love and married my medical school sweetheart. We had honeymooned in Kashmir, India. All these years later, Switzerland, with its snow-clad mountains and natural beauty, seemed to have so much in common with Kashmir. Yet, almost everything else seemed different. So what was it? Eventually, the towering Alps around us seemed to provide the answer. Very different than having fallen in love, over the years we had risen in love.
Back then, the intense physical attraction to each other and the spirit of exploring each other had dominated the trip. Although we derived joy from intellectual interactions, the focus was very much physical. As doctors we now know this to be the effect of hormones such as dopamine and serotonin — the pleasure hormones. Scientists have now clearly associated being “madly in love” in our youth with the release of these hormones. Interestingly, comparisons of this state have been drawn to gambling and drug addiction characterized by physical excitement, sweating, and an increased heart rate. By it’s very definition, this state is unstable. In other words, it cannot last for an extended length of time. Perhaps that is why the state is referred to as “falling” in love, implying a condition where the state of the mind and the body is driven by outside forces and inherently not in voluntary control.
Most of us fall in love. However, when the state of being “madly in love” begins to fade, as it inevitably does, partners often interpret this as the relationship somehow losing its spark. The reality is that this is very biological and should indeed be entirely expected. Sadly, many relationships wither and indeed die under the subsequent pressure of daily chores and responsibilities. The real challenge then is: how to rise in love after having fallen?
As opposed to the passive process of falling in love, rising in love involves an active effort from both partners. During our 32-year relationship, my partner and I followed five critical principles to successfully accomplish this rise:
One, the realization that the “madly in love” phase is transient and its disappearance is biological and inevitable. It is no one’s fault. As they say, the honeymoon phase does end fairly predictably.
Two, although human sexuality is complex, enjoying each other physically should almost always be a deeply loving process where the physical joy comes just as much from caring for each other as it does from the process. If dependence is disproportionately placed on the physical process, it predictably fails and many partners, more men than women, begin to look for enjoyment elsewhere when their partner’s physical beauty begins to fade. Once again, executing this principle involves an active process of training the mind.
Three, actively noticing, acknowledging and savoring the positive attributes of one’s partner on a regular basis. I believe that in a relationship, “what is not said did not happen”. My wife, for years without fail, would pack a “brown bag” for lunch for me with a little post-it note inside it that would light up my day. It could say something simple like “make sure to take your Amoxicillin” or something more profound like “I know it must be rough — trust in God”. Being a physician herself, she would get up earlier than usual just to do this. I have attempted to verbally acknowledge this at least once a week and a few years ago, put together a collage of all of the post-it notes that she had written over the previous months. Such acknowledgment has created a “bank account” of sorts of positive actions. When misunderstandings happen, as they invariably do, we can draw from this positive emotional bank account.
Four, agreeing upon at least two, non-negotiable principles that govern the relationship. In our case, soon after marriage we agreed on a) making up before midnight if we had an argument and b) never speaking maliciously about our parents; both of us felt that our parents brought unmatched richness to our lives and that they were an inseparable part of us. To this date, we can count on one hand the number of times that one of these principles has been violated.
Finally, and perhaps the most important, meaningfully rising in love means to work together to create something that could not have been possible with either partner alone and together is more than the sum of each individual effort. One obvious example for us has been our two children. More important than their academic accomplishments are at least a couple of human traits in each that surpass each of us. My son is a source of sage advice to me well beyond his age. My daughter has chided both of us at times because we did not meet her standard of fairness and empathy. The second aspect of this synergy is each partner drawing from positive character traits of the other to become a better human being.
The three dimensional human development resulting from rising in love is now well described in the medical literature to be the result of another hormone called Oxytocin. As opposed to dopamine and serotonin bursts during the brief time that we are “madly in love”, oxytocin causes feelings of deep caring and attachment, typical of lasting stable relationships.
As we made our way back to the romantic hotel room in Zermatt, Switzerland after another sightseeing day, I pulled my partner close to me. Together we remembered the heat of being madly in love thirty-two years ago in Kashmir. Today, there was a deeply soothing and lasting warmth instead — the result of years of our collective and purposeful efforts. Later, we would call this the “oxytocin moment”. Behind us, clearly visible through the open window, the snow-covered Matterhorn peak was an appropriate witness to our rising in love.