It’s a story heard over and over by marital therapists. A man and woman—we’ll call them Paul and Mary—meet, fall in love, and marry while in their twenties. They quickly get on with building careers and a family. Life is good, but very full, and somewhere along the way they lose track of each other. The crush of good things squeezes out many valued parts of their relationship, and there is little excitement, romance, or depth of conversation between them anymore. Then one of them (let’s say Mary) finds a growing attraction to a coworker. Mary and Don don’t have a physical relationship, but Mary knows she enjoys being with Don in a way she has long forgotten experiencing with Paul. And then it happens: it could be a kiss, a hug, a touch, or it could be sexual infidelity, but whatever the line was, they know they have crossed it. At this point the story could go many ways, but supposing Mary and Paul choose to put their marriage back together . . . is it possible? How do they go about it? Having fallen in love with the “wrong” person, can Mary re-attach her love to her partner?
In my thirty years as a marital therapist, one of the most challenging issues I face is helping to rekindle a love that has faded, perhaps even died. When Mary and Paul come into my office and ask, “Can we learn to love each other again?”, my answer is that it is indeed possible. But it won’t happen by accident.
It’s helpful if Mary and Paul can look back at a time and say, “We were good then.” They can then draw on the memory of how they once related in order to find clues as to how to proceed. But learning to re-love requires active and committed effort. Both Mary and Paul must work at re-loving in some very specific ways.
Stomping out the illicit love
One serious threat to re-loving is that Mary will hold on to her misguided love. Even the smallest bit of fantasizing and thought about the illicit love is dangerous to the re-loving process. Overcoming the power of the illicit love is especially hard because Mary is really fighting against herself. Once love blossomed in a wrong place, part of Mary became committed, even loyal, to that love and wanted to secretly preserve it, if only in her deepest private yearnings.
Compounding the difficulty is the reality that once she had learned to deceive herself (for how else did she find herself loving the wrong person?), coming clean and staying honest with herself is hard. Mary cannot afford to fool herself again if she hopes to re-love Paul. It is this capacity for self-deceit that makes friendship between Don and Mary impossible. Even if Mary were to call it “friendship” when seeing Don, that secret part of her will use whatever tidbit of caring or tenderness to keep alive a loyalty to him. Stomping out every thought of Don, every bit of energy directed toward him, is mandatory.
Abandoning the high moral ground
Another huge threat to re-loving is the temptation to grasp for the “high moral ground,” thereby refusing to own responsibility for the illicit love. This is especially a strong temptation for Paul, because after all, he didn’t “do anything wrong.” But doubtless he did, even though he may not have known it at the time. There are certainly ways that Paul failed to be the husband he might have been. Was he inattentive to Mary’s hunger for deeper connection with him? Did he give all his best at work and take Mary for granted? Whatever Paul’s offenses, he must own up to them. If all he can see is Mary’s contribution to the mess, then he is dependent on her to make everything right. To take this approach makes him powerless; it means that his safety and security rest in her hands. Blaming without taking responsibility will leave Paul in an exceedingly vulnerable position and increase the likelihood that he will become a “private investigator,” checking on Mary to make sure that he is safe. And a PI, with all his insecurity and checking, makes a very unattractive partner. Instead, Paul must dig into his contribution to the situation. He must own his part and figure out how to improve his ways of handling things. And if Mary can also do that, examining and owning her failings, there is a good chance that together they can find new patterns that are more satisfying.
Resurrecting the good
We all edit our experiences, actively constructing our perspectives out of what occurs. Once Paul hurt Mary and Mary hurt Paul, they want to rehearse those offenses. We all do this as a way of reminding ourselves to not be snookered again, as if remembering how bad our partner has been will protect us. It does not. Instead, rehearsing the injuries merely adds distance between partners. And while distance may diminish opportunity to be hurt, it also leaves one feeling lonely with no guarantee of safety. In fact, the only way to enter into a potentially hurtful relationship (and that is the only version that relationships come in) is to be in a solid enough place as a solo person so that were my partner to hurt me again, I would be confident that I would be okay. That self-confidence allows us not to need distance. We can take the risk and be fine. Only then can we allow ourselves to recall all the good that has been there all along.
Time and practice
For Mary to win back that part of her that is still loyal to the illicit love will take time and practice. For Paul to overcome his tendency to feel sorry for himself and to over focus on Mary’s contribution to their troubles will take time and practice. The process of redirecting attention from the negative to the positive qualities of a relationship takes time and practice. It ALL takes time and practice. But gradually the guilt, shame, anger, tension, and fears will diminish. Life together can be excellent again.
So is it possible to learn to re-love one’s same old partner? Yes, it is. I have seen it happen many times. And as an added bonus, the additional personal growth that results is always worth the effort and commitment.