Love, but not in love

I love you, but I'm not in love with you

“I love you, but I’m not in love with you.”

This is a very common explanation of a breakup, and many of us have heard or said this more than once. When we say this, we are generally trying to explain ourselves by appealing to the reasonable nature of a potentially heartbroken person. However, this appeal is quite unreasonable, as it is based on the unrealistic expectation of being in love forever. The statement generally explains very little about the relationship, and after hearing it, roughly zero people feel better about being dumped. Yet it persists. 

When we say, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you,” we communicate an expectation that we should be actively in love with our primary partner throughout the life of the relationship. “In love” is essentially synonymous with “infatuated,” and commitment without infatuation defies mainstream relationship mythology, in which infatuation and commitment are braided together into an inseparable weave. This mythology does much more harm than good, but its believers tend to defend it at all costs. Nearly every young adult I have treated is under the spell of this legend of perpetual infatuation, and many people in mid-life and beyond continue to chase the high of infatuation to their own peril, repeating destructive relationship patterns with new people who are under the same spell.

When we say, “love but not in love,” we imply that merely loving someone - as opposed to being “in love” - provides infertile ground for the seeds of a long-term relationship. However, based on my own experience both clinical and personal, the inverse is true: infatuation is a terribly unstable foundation for a long-term relationship. 

The passionate experience of being in love is not only exhilarating and enlivening; it is also confusing, disruptive, and finite. In the throes of infatuation, we often lose track of valuable friendships and career ambitions. Once the intense feelings inevitably fade, we often discover that we did a poor job of getting to know the object of our passion. While infatuation seems timeless, within 18 months or so, it disappears.

However, infatuation feels amazing. To long for this seemingly boundless connection to another person is only human, and for young, blind lovers, ignorance truly is bliss. The temporary self-esteem benefits of head-over-heels infatuation can lead us to deny its limitations, and overinvestment in infatuation often leads to profoundly misguided relationship decisions – including overcommitting in a state of infatuation, or never committing because the feeling never lasts. At the root of such mistakes is a simplistic interpretation of this overwhelming feeling. The only way out of the destructive relationship patterns that result is to work through the notion that we are missing something within ourselves, along with the fantasy that some other person can replenish this deficit. 

When we leave someone because we are not actively in love, we are running away from our own self-esteem problems. Usually at the point when these words are spoken, the initial infatuation has run its brief course, and the speaker is reacting to the anxiety brought on by a natural decrease in self-esteem. The resulting sense of missing something will drag that person into the next relationship in search of another intense boost, along with another denial of its ephemerality. 

In order to achieve a more lasting and less hormonally driven commitment in future relationships, we must carefully examine the nature of our investment in the mythology of romantic love. The unexamined expectations we bring to adult relationships are often their undoing, and therapeutic reconsideration of these expectations can lead to surprisingly different relationship outcomes.