Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My husband and I have been together for 15 years. We’ve been through a lot together—illness, financial strain, job loss, death of a parent, losing friends, living abroad—and have managed to weather the storm. He is my best friend, my most trusted confidant, and my biggest supporter. I love him dearly.
But over the last several years, our sex life has dwindled down to nothing, minor annoyances become huge fights, we keep different circles of friends, and we often feel more like roommates than partners. When I close my eyes and envision my life at 75 years old, sometimes he’s next to me and sometimes he’s not. That wasn’t always the case. I miss feeling butterflies in my stomach when I see him from across the room. I miss feeling desired. Mostly, I miss feeling 100% certain that we’d be together forever.
I respect, admire, trust, and adore him, but I just don’t know if I’m in love with him anymore. Should I talk to him about my feelings? Should I end it before we hate each other? Or are all relationships cyclical and I’ll eventually feel that spark again? I don’t want to hurt him (or myself), but I also don’t want to stay in a relationship that doesn’t completely fulfill me. What should I do?
In Love Limbo
Dear In Love Limbo,
Let’s talk about Cupid. He’s the Roman god of love, often depicted as a chubby winged cherub with a bow and arrow. He has two types of arrows: the gold-tipped ones flood whoever is struck by them with overwhelming desire. The lead-tipped arrows instead fill their victims with overwhelming aversion and the desire to flee. Cupid’s aim holds no logic—he causes people to fall in and out of love as he pleases, on a whim.
This story is very old and, though you’d have to reach to the furthest corners of Reddit to find anyone who actually believes in Cupid today, many of us still believe the logic behind his myth. Love is something that happens to us that is beyond our control. In the face of love, we are its passive victims. Love is something that happens to you, overtakes and consumes you, and exists as a force outside of you, beyond your control. You fall in love passively, you fall out of love passively. The entire emotion is beyond your control.
But Cupid isn’t real and neither is the myth of passive love. Love is a choice, an active choice that you are choosing not to make.
You don’t decide whom you’re attracted to, or whom you feel drawn to, but once you’re interested in someone, you do decide whether to fall in love with them or not. If, within the first few dates, you realize that the other person sleeps with a live ferret every night you will, though you are very attracted to him, stop seeing him because that is a universal deal breaker. You will choose not to pursue him. You will choose not to fall in love with him.
Once you are in love with someone, you choose to proceed through the steps of a relationship. There is a cycle of love, which includes four stages:
- Passion – doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it wow
- Negotiation – wait, that’s how you fold the towels? Oh hell no.
- Commitment – let’s move in together/get married/buy a ferret!
- Maintenance – did you pay the cable bill? Should I have an affair?
You are in maintenance, but you aren’t doing much maintaining. You allude to it in your question, but you know that this cycle can go around and around. It can repeat itself with the same person. Your passion is gone, but you can get it back. To do so you have to stop thinking of yourself as a passive receiver of love and start to think of yourself as an active creator of love. You need to look at your husband with fresh eyes. You need to see in him all of the hope and potential and novelty that you did 15 years ago.
But, before we go down that road, let’s do a thought experiment.
Let’s say that the passionate, romantic love you once had is gone and assume it can never return. So you tell your husband you don’t love him anymore. Divorce him. Move out. Start a new adolescence—figure out how to live on your own again, how to be in the world as a single and not as a couple. And you start dating. You find some men to make out with, some to have sex with. Eventually, you find one to love. It is all passion and staying up all night basking in the glow of the other. Everything spins with newness and wonder. And then there’s a problem, some sort of hitch, the realization of flaws on both sides. You work through it, come out on the other side, and decide to get married. You get married. You’re with him, your new husband, living with him every day. And things happen—children, parents, money, jobs. Your sex life starts to dwindle, minor annoyances become huge fights, you feel more like roommates than partners. So you tell your husband you don’t love him anymore. Divorce him. Move out. Find someone else, fall in love, once again feel that exquisite passion, and once again feel heavy disappointment when the first rush of passion eventually fades.
A friend who had been through the marriage mill a few times once said to me, “Eventually you realize that if you keep leaving every time things get dull that you’re going to have a new spouse every 10 years. Eventually you decide to stay and make it better where you are.”
I’m not anti-divorce, but I am anti-bullshit. You are not a passive victim to the loss of love. In order to develop a relationship with someone you need to spend time with them and learn about them. You need to have access to them. You do not have a lot of access to your husband right now, and thus your feelings of love are fading.
You’ll feel that spark again if you decide to feel that spark again. Part of the work of a long-term relationship is the part where, instead of pursuing crazy fast pulsating new love with a new person once every 10 years or so, you opt to cultivate the love that you already have. You have to choose to find your partner dynamic and sexy.
Here’s your homework: Go to a sex toy shop together and buy something new to use. Plan a trip to a new place just the two of you (I recommend New Orleans as one of the sexiest cities in the world). Go out with his friends. Invite him to go out with yours. Text him whenever you think of him. Touch him more. Hug him more. Treat him the way you would treat a new man you just started dating. Act as though you’re passionately in love with him and do not be surprised when feelings of passion quickly follow.
I also want to address your expectations of marriage: No single relationship will ever completely fulfill you. You’re blaming your husband for not being your everything, but no one person should be your everything. That sentiment isn’t expressed very often in society because it doesn’t sell movie tickets, but it’s also completely true. You need relationships with more than one person for fulfillment. My husband is not my best friend is not my mother is not my sister is not my friend from college is not my friend from grad school is not my co-workers. He’s my husband and I don’t expect him to, on his own, make my life 100% the best.
You aren’t going to “eventually feel that spark again” because Cupid isn’t real and passion doesn’t descend on us from on high. Take action, do the work, and save your marriage.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.