Sandra had been married for five years when she came in with her husband for therapy. "I just want to be 'in love,' again," Sandra disclosed, after I asked her to identify her goals in marriage therapy. "OK," I answered, "then let's talk about how you will know you are 'in love.'" She gushed, "Well, you know, that feeling you get when you look at your partner and you feel so excited to see them and you think about them all the time?" "Do you mean that feeling that some people call 'twitterpation,' or 'butterflies,' when you are with your partner?" I clarified. "Yes … well, I know it won't be exactly like when we were first together, but I miss having those feelings."
The first year or two of a romantic, committed relationship is indeed an intoxicating experience. This euphoric state is linked to words like "passion," "infatuation," or even "madness." There is a social science term called "limerence," to describe this state, characterized by increased energy, motivation and focus. Scientists are always learning more about people in this stage with an increased ability to measure physical responses, such as a functional MRI for viewing brain activity. People in this condition experience physiological changes which have been likened to the heightened experience of people on cocaine.
So, is this "love?"
Despite attempts to define and conceptualize love, it is ultimately a subjective experience, and carries deep meaning for most people which can make it tricky to address in therapy. Romantic love comes with high expectations for people in the western world. I have learned that everyone is different when it comes to definitions and expectations for romantic love.
I do believe, however, that for a long-term committed relationship to survive, partners must develop a more mature definition of love beyond the limerence stage in order to enjoy the benefits of long-term attachment.
In my anecdotal experience, sometimes people who married the first person they experienced this feeling with are surprised and disappointed when it fades. Some even assume it means that they aren't "in love," anymore.
Even though there is not technically a "love addiction," in the field of mental health, I have had clients who seem to chase the high of new relationships by engaging in repetitive infidelity, looking for that one relationship which will allow them to keep that pleasurable sensation of "falling in love," permanently. It doesn't have to be a physical relationship. People can experience the same feelings in digital relationships in which they have never even met the individual in person. Deep mutual emotional disclosure can generate the same euphoria. Sometimes, even concealing an extramarital relationship can fuel the release of pleasurable chemicals, which keeps people returning to the behavior.
In conversations with many clients, I have pointed out that chasing the sensation of a new relationship can deprive them of enjoying the benefits of a safe long-term attachment. My clients have expressed that, "it's such a great feeling, though! You have more energy, and you feel so motivated!" "Yes," I add, "And you would have a lot more energy if you took amphetamines right now, too, but you wouldn't do it because of the long-term negative implications for stability."
So, in a long-term relationship, must you just accept that you have moved into a new stage of love and abandon hope of getting back those "feel-good hormones?"
Well, in my opinion, yes …. and, no.
In some brain imaging studies, partners who had been together for 20 years or more demonstrated brain activity similar to people in the limerence stage of love. Even so, for most people, the intensity of physical sensations changes, and if we evaluate the changes as bad, we are more prone to experience negative emotions about it and think something is wrong. If, however, we acknowledge that relationships shift and transform continually, and the changes can mean improvement in other aspects of the relationship, we are more likely to accept the attrition of limerence-related hormones. We influence a lot of our personal feelings about things according to our evaluations, and we have complete power to change our evaluations. This is in part how we can change our feelings about our relationships.
Out of curiosity, every so often, I have asked my husband, "Do you ever wish you could get back the intense feelings with the butterflies you had in the beginning of our relationship." He always answers the same way, which is, "No, because I still have those feelings everyday when I look at you." Good answer … and I don't believe him for a minute. I do believe, however, that it is important for him to love his wife and family, and so he does, because he wants a long-term relationship. He has developed a mature definition of what love is.
I haven't experienced the intense sensations associated with limerence for years, but I do experience a discernible pleasurable boost when my husband walks into a room. Once, at Target, when I was Christmas shopping for 7 kids, I remember wandering the toy aisle feeling overwhelmed about the financial cost of the annual holiday. He had gone to a different part of the store to look for something. I was on a downward spiral of depressed feelings, as my eyes searched the aisle for consumer inspiration. Suddenly, he appeared at the end of the aisle with a big smile on his face, and my heart jumped, and I felt immediately better. The butterflies weren't as intense, but they were definitely there. He was my partner in this crazy endeavor, and we would figure it out together.
Lori Cluff Schade, Ph.D., is a licensed, practicing marriage and family therapist and supervisor and adjunct faculty member. Her research has been covered in national media outlets and addressed in television and radio interviews. More importantly, she is a mother of seven and owner of a metaphorical gray picket fence.