Dating and Relationship Advice

There might be butterflies. There might be shortness of breath. There might be giddiness. There might be an inability to stop thinking about your new person. There might be feelings of weakness in the knees, shaky hands, inability to concentrate, especially when anticipating time with your new love. There may be clouds parting to give way to sunbeams around your person's head every time you look at them. There may be happiness and blind optimism for the future. There may be relief that you "finally" found your person and no longer have to search for a way out of loneliness. While falling in love can show up differently for everyone, these are some of the common effects of the intoxicating chemical deluge we call falling in love. These are beautiful feelings, and I think we all know that they do not last in any relationship.

Falling in love is the infatuation stage of a relationship, and it's in this stage many people make commitments to each other that they may later feel suffocated by. The average length of a marriage in the United States is between seven and eight years: the commitment that is supposed to last a lifetime on average doesn't make it a decade. Of course, not all of it can be accounted for by people making decisions based on chemistry, but the emphasis on such is likely a factor. But, rather than advise people not to focus on the feelings of falling love or repeating that love is not a feeling, what if we focused instead on learning what falling in love in healthy ways could look like? What if we could actually be in charge of our feelings despite all we are taught about this magical, elusive thing called chemistry (a.k.a. falling in love)? Feelings indicate attraction when people are good for us and when healthy behaviors and attitudes are present?

Warning people not to build a relationship based on chemistry alone and that feeling of being in love nearly always fade doesn't seem effective. Even if people have heard the warnings not to make decisions based on feelings alone, that doesn't seem to stop them from seeking that spark with someone. But we don't call it "chemistry" for a reason—there are literally hormones and neuro-chemicals that induce feeling states we call "falling in love." While this is still commonly accepted as a good thing to have on your list when looking for potential partners. Nearly everyone affirms that "physical attraction is definitely important" even as they encourage people to demote it on their list of things they're looking for in a potential partner. Therapists are increasingly saying that instant chemistry with someone is a sign of reactivating familiar/old/childhood patterns. If the brain's job is to keep the body safe, as Bessel van der Kolk says in his book The Body Keeps The Score, then familiarity will be very attractive. Your brain will reward familiarity even if what's familiar to you is unhealthy or abusive because it knows you have survived the familiar behavior. It doesn't care if you've done so in unhealthy ways that perpetuate the damage done to you when you were a young, powerless child. If it's true, then, that chemistry indicates old patterns being triggered, it would be yet another reason to be wary of such feelings we have labeled "falling in love."

It's hard not to desire the feeling of being swept off your feet, the excitement, and the anticipation of new love. But this is probably not your first warning to be cautious in pursuing such feelings and not to build relationships based solely on their presence. What doesn't get much attention is when falling in love happens slowly and perhaps doesn't involve the fairy-tale sensations Disney movies romanticize. Society programs us to "need" to feel if we will move forward in a relationship.

It's more likely for attraction to be based on shared values, emotional compatibility, and long-term viability if falling in love happens slowly. While you can't necessarily control when you are hit by a deluge of chemicals, you can control how intentional you are about pursuing love. While our culture focuses on chemistry, attraction (usually meaning physical attraction), and feelings that may be powerful but are short-lived, we can choose to focus on markers of long-term viability and health in ourselves, others, and relationships. We can actually change what's attractive to us, what we might fall in love with, and even what falling in love feels like.

Falling in love can feel like coming home when you're with someone. It can feel like being safe when you share something vulnerable. It can feel like the desire to build a life and a future with someone. It can feel like calmness in the presence of your person, like having a disagreement but not worrying about whether it portends the end of your relationship. It can feel like permission both to relax into yourself and a call to self-forgetfulness simultaneously. Falling in love in a way that lasts can feel like the opposite of what society taught to chase.

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