We don’t get to decide when we fall in love, or with whom. Falling in love is not a decision. Falling in love is a happening. Falling in love is perhaps one of the most cherished, longed for, and defining of human experiences. When it happens, you will never be the same.
Falling in love is not the same as strong sexual chemistry. Nor is falling in love mere flirting or “having a crush.” Clinically defined, falling in love is a powerful, spontaneous projection of self. The experience is cosmic and powerfully bonding. At once exhilarating and uncomfortable. And, from the moment you fall in love, there is only one possible outcome: Your heart will be broken: either because your love will be unrequited, or because the relationship will erode and fail, or at the very least because you committed the folly of falling in love with a mortal.
And mortals die.
An astonishing number of people never fall in love with the person they choose as a life partner. Conversely, an equally surprising number of people don’t ultimately marry the person with whom they are in love. Just because someone is in love with you in no way guarantees they will ultimately choose you. Choosing someone – truly giving your whole heart in radical commitment – is a matter entirely separate from the experience of being in love.
In psychology, the word we use for the experience of being in love is “limerence.” Limerence is the state of “in-love-ed-ness.” And, as a priority expectation of great marriage, limerence is historically unprecedented. It is less than 100 years old.
Get yourself a time machine, and travel back to any time prior to 1920 or so. Ask those folks what a good marriage is. What are its attributes and necessary qualities? Very few people would put profound love feelings anywhere towards the top of the list, if on the list at all. If a woman of these times married a man who worked hard, protected his family, was a good father, didn’t drink too much, didn’t hit her or the kids, didn’t have sex with her too roughly, treated her with respect, courtesy and kindness … well, it seems to me this woman would lean back and kiss the sky. She’d believe herself to have “died and gone to heaven.” And if you said to her, “But, are you in love with him,” she would have shaken her head incredulously and said, “Whhaat?”
I’m not saying that our ancestors did not fall in love. I’m saying the experience of being in love was virtually no part of the equation when considering a life partner. In Fiddler On the Roof, when Golde sings “Do you love me” to Tevye, the husband responds by listing the many faithful, hard-working things he does as a husband. She continues to ask, and he continues to list acts of duty and faithfulness. Not until the end does Tevye allow hesitantly, “I suppose I do.” Clearly, whatever love means to Tevye, it does not refer to a profound feeling.
But, today, it would be unusual to meet a modern American who didn’t put limerence at or near the top of the list of requirements for considering marriage: I want to be in love … I have a right to be in love … I have the right to expect marriage to foster and grow profound love feelings. So certain are modern people that limerence is an appropriate claim on marriage, these same people become quickly convinced that divorce is justified when limerence fades.
While it is the nature of limerence to swirl, orbit, ebb and flow throughout a marital lifetime, it is not true that marriage must of necessity be antithetical to limerence. A growing marriage can and should invite ever-new and deeper chapters of limerence, moments of profound emotional connection that make the early days of courtship seem almost silly by comparison. The defining quality of marriage is not “not getting a divorce.” The defining quality of marriage is growing love.
Falling in love is easy. What people want to know is how to stay in love. Well, simply put, here’s how:
Stop waiting around for a feeling! Instead, awaken every day ready to do the things necessary to invite and protect warm, cherished, and sometimes profound feelings. Practice relentless courtship. Be intentional about great sex. Learn the art of romance. Never stop paying attention.
Such disciplines are a sanctuary for limerence. The shared work of faithful life partners invites love again … and again and again, as planting flowers and blossoming trees guarantees the return of insatiable bees.
(Steven Kalas is an Episcopal Priest, a therapist and an author. You can reach him at email@example.com.)