Why do couples who are convinced they have found “the one” end up divorcing each other just a few years (or sometimes a couple decades) into their marriage? There was a time when they couldn’t imagine being apart for five hours; now they can’t bear the thought of being together for five minutes; what happened?
In many cases, the relationship existed only on what I call “artificial intimacy.” True intimacy—that sense of “oneness” that we all seek—has to be pursued and built rather than simply discovered and felt. Artificial intimacy is sustained by the common events of life, but usually comes to a huge crash as soon as the couple enters the empty nest years if true intimacy hasn’t replaced it.
Let’s look at how artificial intimacy begins, how it is temporarily sustained, and then how couples who believe they have been gripped by it can learn to grow into true intimacy.
In the beginning
Artificial intimacy begins with the onset of infatuation, a “grab your brains with a vengeance” neurochemical reaction that makes us virtually blind to our partner’s faults. Infatuation is notoriously short lived, with a shelf life of about 12 to 18 months. Dr. Helen Fisher, a preeminent neurologist who has written on the topic, provides the following neurological markers of an infatuation:
- The lover focuses on the beloved’s better traits and overlooks or minimizes flaws.
- Infatuated people exhibit extreme energy, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, impulsivity, euphoria, and mood swings.
- One or both of the partners develops a goal-oriented fixation on winning the beloved.
- Relational passion is heightened, not weakened, by adversity; the more the relationship is attacked, the more the passion grows.
- The lovers become emotionally dependent on the relationship.
- Partners reorder their daily priorities to remain in contact as much as humanly possible, and they even experience separation anxiety when apart.
- Empathy is so powerful that many report they would “die for their beloved.”
- An infatuated person thinks about their lover to an obsessive degree.
- Sexual desire is intense, and the relationship becomes marked by extreme possessiveness.1
The way many researchers describe this brain state overall is an “idealization” of the one you love. You focus on strengths (many of which might be imaginary) and are blind to weaknesses (many of which are readily apparent to outside observers). You “idealize” this person to make them the kind of person you want them to be. It should be clear that this is an artificial intimacy; it’s not genuine, but it feels real, and is enough to lead many couples into marriage.
How many of your friends have told you, after being let down by someone they truly loved, “He’s not the person I thought he was”? That’s because he wasn’t. That’s a true observation! They were relating to an idealized (fictional) version of a man—or woman—not that person’s authentic self.
In addition to infatuation, your relationship compatibility is also enhanced artificially via sexual chemistry. When infatuation and sexual chemistry are strong, compatibility or incompatibility barely even register. You both feel crazy about each other, you can barely keep your hands to yourself—how could you not be compatible? You don’t even really have to do anything to sustain your desire for each other; just being alive makes you feel compatible. And so, on this basis, and often on this basis alone, the couple decides to get married.
When spring turns to summer
When a couple begins to move toward marriage and set a date for the wedding, even though the initial artificial intimacy may be on the decline, planning the ceremony gives them something in common and keeps them going. They plan it, talk about it, and divide up tasks to make it happen. This is “intimacy” of a sort, but it’s a superficial intimacy, the intimacy of co-workers, not life-mates. Still, in the throes of infatuation and high sexual chemistry, it feels like intimacy and continues to sustain the relationship.
I implore engaged couples to set strict ground-rules that three days out of the week they will not talk about the wedding ceremony. It is silly to give so much effort, expense and focus to a ceremony lasting less than an hour while neglecting the cultivation of a life-long relationship. If the couple doesn’t do this, the honeymoon can hit them pretty hard. They’ll be thrilled the ceremony is over, enjoy the sexual consummation, and then spend the first few days talking about what went right at the wedding, what went wrong, who was there, who wasn’t there, and so on. Along about the third or fourth day of the honeymoon, the 30 minute ceremony and 2 hour reception will be talked to death. If they have put true relational intimacy on hold, once the false intimacy of ceremony planning has been digested and discussed ad nauseum, the couple is likely to fall into an awkward and even terrifying silence. When you’ve been living for something that is now past, you’re like a five-year-old child on December 26th. The surprise is over, and reality isn’t quite as enchanting.
Once the couple gets back from the honeymoon, they will start setting up a house, move into a new apartment or neighborhood, and try to join two lives. That also joins them in a common task and gives them something to talk about. What color should we paint the bedroom? Do you think we’ll be here long enough to bother with planting trees outside? Where’s our new favorite hangout?
As life moves on, just when things could get boring again, the couple is likely to start raising kids. That’s a big thing to have in common and requires a lot of communication. You go to childbirth classes, you build a nursery, you raise the kids, and then you have to communicate to get the kids to the right places. You share your kids’ failures and successes. Eventually those kids repay you for your faithful service by growing up and leaving the two of you alone together.
That’s when you find out how much intimacy you really have.
At the start of the relationship it was just infatuation and sexual chemistry. Then it was the joint task of planning a ceremony. Then, setting up a home. After that, raising kids. In days past, these life events could take marriages to the doorstep of death and eternity, but modern couples can blow through these stages of life in two and a half decades, often leaving another 30 years or more of marriage to follow. That’s a long time to be lonely and to live with a familiar looking stranger. If you haven’t consciously built true intimacy, the relationship is going to collapse right at this point.
Some couples have to wake up to the reality that they’ve been living relationally on shared tasks, not shared intimacy. They haven’t prayed together. They haven’t shared their dreams. They haven’t carried each other’s burdens and then built that all-important empathy for each other. They’re teammates, not spouses, but now that the season is over, what’s to hold them together?
I can’t prove this with any scientific study, but it’s my belief that this in part explains why so many couples suddenly declare “incompatibility” even though they obviously once thought they had found their perfect match in each other and have lived together for over two decades. They’ve simply come to the end of this false compatibility and realize they have very little common ground with which to face the rest of their life together.
When couples get divorced and start over with someone else, the second relationship initially feels more fulfilling than the first because, once again, it’s existing on artificial intimacy: infatuation and sexual chemistry retake their place on center stage, the two once again enter the relationship building of sharing past histories, planning a ceremony, setting up a new life together… But the same dynamics will bring this affection to an end as well if the couple doesn’t consciously build true intimacy.
Making a marriage
One of the main messages of my writing/speaking career on marriage has been this: a good marriage isn’t something you find, it’s something you make, and you have to keep on making it. Just as importantly (and herein lies the hope), you can also begin “re-making” it at any stage.
If you wake up to the sobering reality that you’ve existed on artificial compatibility, that doesn’t mean you can’t begin now to build true intimacy. True intimacy can be pursued at any stage of marriage. It would be much better for everyone involved if, instead of seeking a divorce and building yet another relationship on artificial intimacy, the couple chooses to begin building true intimacy, with God as the center of the relationship.
As a Christian, I believe we are so self-centered that we need to be transformed and to have God’s Spirit working within us to give us even the capacity to know true empathy, a willingness to sacrifice, and the ability to overcome the petty sins that destroy affection and create bitterness. That’s just another way of saying that building and sustaining true intimacy requires nothing less than God’s direct intervention through His Holy Spirit. It’s no good just starting over with another sinner who simply sins in different ways, because eventually, I’ll grow just as weary with the second’s wife sin as I did with my first wife’s foibles. How much better to attack the sin and grow in the grace of forgiveness than to live on a carousel of ever-changing spouses.
True intimacy is, I believe, rooted in worship, in which I learn to love my wife out of reverence for God. This lifts our love away from the subjective, “does my spouse deserve my love today?” to the rock solid and never changing truth of,
God always deserves to be revered, and He calls me to love my wife as Christ loves the church.”
In addition to worship, true intimacy is built via thoughtful, God-empowered and God-directed perseverance: the commitment to keep doing small things that feed relational intimacy, in their proper order and priority. As married couples:
- We persistently communicate; there is no relationship without communication.
- We don’t let bitterness grow.
- We keep caring enough to resolve our differences, and we go to God to forgive each other’s weaknesses.
- We reserve time for each other. We make memories between the two of us—this is an intentional pursuit of deciding to do mutually enjoyable things together, without the kids.
- We remain the best of friends and alarms go off if anyone else begins to feel closer.
- We keep praying for each other.
- We learn to laugh together, we play together, we work together and cry together.
- If there’s not a physical reason why sex stops or becomes less frequent, we find out why our intimacy is on the wane and address it.
If we stop doing the things that sustain marital intimacy, the relationship withers and dies. What’s so sad is that when couples get to the end of all artificial intimacy they often blame it on the person instead of the relationship. They say, “I must have married the wrong person” instead of “we haven’t nurtured the relationship.” This is tantamount to buying an expensive ornamental tree, never watering or feeding it, and then, when it dies, saying, “This is just a defective tree.”
Intimacy is something we can choose to build and even re-build if it has been lost. It has to be two-way; if one partner resists, intimacy will suffer. But if two people want to rekindle their love, by God’s grace, they can, just by doing the things couples do. Pray. Talk. Spend time. Laugh. Have sex. Build friends. Seek first God’s kingdom (be involved, together, in Kingdom work). Quit worrying about how romantically intense you feel and focus instead on your call to love.
Here’s an analogy that might help bring this truth home. I’ve qualified for and have run the Boston marathon three times. After my third Boston, I moved to Houston, where the heat and humidity index make long runs painful. I left the Pacific Northwest, home of Sushi and organic greens, neither of which is a particular temptation for me, to move to a city besieged by Barbecue and Mexican restaurants—temptations over which I have the control of a six-year-old boy. My weight went up accordingly. I could not run a marathon now in a time that would qualify me for Boston, because I haven’t been doing the little things you have to do to run long and fast: maintain a certain mileage base, maintain a certain body weight, perform speed workouts. Having once been in shape—even having been in that shape for several years’ time—doesn’t guarantee that I stay in shape. Once I stop doing what keeps me in shape, my fitness level decreases.
I don’t need to find a new heart, or buy new legs. I just need to go back and train that old heart and those old legs to do what they are capable of doing by performing the same things I did before, faithfully, persistently. If I’m seriously out of shape, I can’t decide to get back in shape in one day, or even one week. When it comes to marathon shape, it’s going to take several months of persistent, faithful training.
The same thing is true for relational intimacy. You can have true intimacy with an “old” spouse, but you can’t turn it back on overnight. You have to start feeding it, slowly build it back, be faithful in pursuing it even when you don’t see the initial returns, and watch it slowly come back to you. When it does, it won’t be artificial. It’ll be real. It’ll be satisfying. It’ll be less than perfect, because it’s not an imagination. But it’ll be more than enough to sustain you in your later years.
Gary Thomas (www.garythomas.com) is the author of Sacred Marriage and the newly released The Sacred Search: What if It’s Not About Who You Marry, but Why?” from which this article was adapted.