"I love you, but I'm not in love with you."
In this podcast episode, Neil Venketramen, staff therapist at The Family Institute, interviews Cheryl Rampage, our senior academic and clinical advisor and clinical associate professor who has more than three decades of experience treating individuals, couples and families. Dr. Rampage addresses the misconceptions that many couples have about the experience of "being in love," and explores what the partners themselves or couples therapy can do to rekindle the intimacy and introduce novelty into their long-term romantic relationship.
Neil Venketramen: Hi, everyone. My name is Neil Venketramen, and I'm a staff therapist in the Couples and Marriage Family Therapy Program here at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. I am part of a team of psychotherapists specializing in helping couples and families at different stages in their relationships create pathways to greater understanding and connection.
As a couples' therapist, I'm experienced and specialized in helping and specifically addressing issues like emotional distance, disconnection, conflict, financial stress, work/life balance, and so much more with couples. I've created this podcast series to help you navigate through some of the challenges as a couple that you may face on your journey.
In today's podcast, I'm really excited and have the privilege of hosting Dr. Cheryl Rampage. Dr. Rampage is a senior therapist with over three decades of experience treating individuals, couples and families. An interesting fact is that Dr. Rampage is one of the founding directors of the Marriage and Family Therapy Graduate Program we offer here at Northwestern University. We're fortunate to have her today because she also teaches in the graduate program in a course called Intimate Relationships for the second-year graduate program students.
Welcome, Dr. Rampage. I'm really excited to talk to you today and learn more about your experience. Hopefully you can share with us some knowledge. What we're going to be talking about is a common presenting problem that I see most times dealing with couples and families in my session. One partner says to the other, "I love you, but I'm not in love with you." Dr. Rampage, as a relational therapist, what in your opinion is the clinical difference when one partner in the relationship states, "I love you, but I'm not in love with you"?
Cheryl Rampage: That's a really good question, and it does come up fairly often in couples' treatment. It's based on, I think, a faulty understanding of the nature of love so I'd like to talk about that first, because being in love and the experience of loving are two different things. Being in love is an experience that human beings have in the early stages of a romantic relationship. It's experienced as a time of heightened awareness and a great sense of well-being and being deeply understood by the partner and understanding the other, and it's a very heady experience. So who wouldn't want it, right?
Unfortunately, it is also pretty much a time-limited experience, and it tends to last between 18 and 36 months, and that's about it. The reason for that is because early romantic love is fueled by two neurotransmitters in the brain — dopamine and testosterone. Testosterone drives lust, whether it's male or female, and dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for a lot of pleasure. So dopamine also comes into play when you take recreational drugs. But without any drugs at all, the experience of falling in love is a lot like being high. It's a global sense of wellbeing, intense awareness of oneself and the other, and great closeness.
It's a wonderful experience, but it's also kind of mind-blowing and if we were like that our whole lives we probably wouldn't get much else done. So nature has arranged for after that first period, if the relationship is good, we settle into something that's a little different, more like what a psychologist would call attachment, that is, a companion in love that is based on feeling secure in the presence of the other, feeling warmly about them, wanting to engage with them, wanting to build a life with them, and maybe raise children with them.
That kind of love is quite sustainable over decades of time, and it's fueled by different neurotransmitters, oxytocin and the suppressant of the neurotransmitters that account for attachment love. So when someone says, "I love you, but I'm not in love," they're saying, "It must be a problem with you, because otherwise why wouldn't I stay in love with you?" not realizing that it is a time-limited experience in almost every case.
NV: When a couple actually shows up in therapy, what are some of the situations or examples that leads to this lack of attachment experience and falling out of love experiences?
CR: Okay, so just to be clear, it's not a lack of attachment necessarily. It's this lack of intensity. Usually, by the time it presents in therapy, someone is thinking, "So probably we don't belong together. Probably we should get divorced, because I'm not in love with you anymore." What they're not realizing is, number one, this is kind of a normal transition, normal developmental path, and two, there are things that can be done that would make the intensity of the erotic or romantic attachment greater again. But it requires effort. It doesn't just happen, unlike falling in love. The reason we use "falling" as the verb there is because it feels like it doesn't require any work. It just happens. But in a longer-term relationship, if you want to have that kind of experience, you're going to have to work at it.
NV: What types of couples are at risk for this type of emotional disconnection?
CR: I think all types of couples are at risk for this. Some couples bear it up better because they don't have the expectation that they are going to be romantically in love with their partner all of their lives every day. So they expect that, as time goes on, we'll settle into something that's a little different and we'll be busy with work and family and home and it'll all be okay. But for individuals who feel like that's not enough for them, they want that experience of that intense connection, they'll feel it as a loss but they often don't know what to do about it. They attribute the loss ... Sometimes they'll say, "It's not you, it's me." What they really mean is, "You're not making me feel the way I used to feel, and so it's kind of about you, isn't it?" But they don't know what to tell the partner to do, and they don't know what to do to make it different.
NV: Cheryl, in your experience, the $67,000 question here for the partner who says, "I'm not in love," can they fall back in love with their partner?
CR: The water only passes through the river one time, so you can't go back to the beginning. But one of the reasons why people have trouble in the mid-stage of a relationship is because they've also stopped trying very hard. They're not doing much anymore. I have people frequently who say things like, "I just want to be loved as I am," or, "I want to be adored." I always think, "Are you being adorable? What are you doing that would elicit that from a partner?" Because we tend to not think about, "What do I need to do to be in love with you?" as opposed to, "You should be doing something to make me feel that way."
The reason why we fall in love with someone we don't know yet is because there is novelty and mystery and excitement, and those things are hard to sustain when you know somebody very well. But you can do some things. One of the things we know produces an increase in satisfaction in a long-term relationship is doing something different together that you've never done. Take a trip, ballroom dance, learn how to play bridge. Doesn't matter what it is if you both like it and it's something that neither of you have done before. It's probably going to heighten your attention and your experience of the other. That would be something.
In the sexual realm, most couples settle into a very patterned kind of sexual interaction after the first few years. We do that because the certain positions feel better and they're more comfortable and they work, and so we do that. Couples who have active and mutually meaningful sexual life usually also are more open to experimentation, doing different things in different places at different times, being open to the suggestion of the partner, trying to do something to keep it from becoming completely habituated. So introducing novelty and being aware that the experience of being in love as you move on through a relationship is going to have as much or more to do with you and the efforts you are making to show up in a certain way in your relationship as it is about your partner.
NV: So I'm hearing two things, something new coming out of you and your relationship, the novelty, the experience, and also an awareness that something new has to come out of you.
CR: Right. Just saying, "I'm just not in love with you anymore," that's not going to move the needle. If anything, it discourages the partner who feels like, "What am I supposed to do now?" and it doesn't really move the ball forward. It may be an important first step to acknowledge, "Something's wrong here. We’ve got to do something," but it's hard for people to move from that to, "Okay, so here's the action plan," without some help.
NV: For the spouse who hears this news — sometimes I see clients that are inwardly tortured by hearing this news for the first time — what advice or ideas would you share with them?
CR: The best thing to do at a time like that, the best thing to do anytime your spouse tells you something that has previously been unknown to you and is upsetting, is don't shame them about it. Don't tell them they're wrong to feel that way. Don't tell them they're being infantile. Just listen as well as you can. I'm saying this knowing it's a hard thing to listen to news that you don't want that may be very threatening that you're not sure what to do about.
But if you listen to it in a leaning in kind of way, being receptive, that's the beginning of understanding, "What do we need to do here?" and it will probably in and of itself be an encouraging move to your partner, because what your partner is expecting is for you to be rejecting and be critical and say things like, "Why don't you just grow up? Life isn't all about romance," something like that. Life isn't all about romance, but the partner probably already knows that. But the partner is feeling the loss of something that they would like to have more of.
NV: Are there times when a couple should not work on this and save their relationship?
CR: Yeah, of course there are times when the problems in the relationship are so severe or dangerous that it's really questionable if the relationship should go on at all, if there's violence, if there's been terrible betrayal, being very deceitful about money, about infidelity, about things that would really rock the foundations of the partner's world. But this in itself, I would not regard it generally as a reason to end the relationship because there's no hope, because I think there is hope.
It is easy to end a relationship, relatively easy. One could end a relationship, find a new partner, and fall in love again. But what that partner doesn't realize is the same thing will happen, because that experience of falling in love is not about your partner. It's about the experience of being in a new relationship. That can't be sustained in the long haul. So one of the reasons why second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages, because if you think the problem is your partner, and all you have to do is to change partners, you'll find out that that wasn't the problem.
Now, I can also say that there's some very interesting research that indicates that, in a small percentage of cases, although it's not quite the same intensity, some long-term couples are able to maintain an experience of great attraction and the experience of being in love with their partner over time. Unfortunately, we don't know enough about why those people are able to do that, how they're able to do that, and it seems from the little bit of research about it, it's a relatively small percentage, maybe 5% of married couples over 10 years or more of marriage. But it's intriguing that some people ... And how we know that they do this is because when you put them into an FMRI machine and you ask them to think about their partner, the dopamine center of the brain lights up just as it does when someone's in love and they think about their partner. So very interesting.
NV: It's fascinating what you just mentioned there, because you can get a dopamine hit in the way you think and sustain pockets of that throughout time.
CR: That's right, but for most couples it's going to be related to novelty. Now, the novelty doesn't have to be like, "We're going to go bungee jumping." It might be, but it doesn't have to be. It could just be, "We're going to talk about something we've never talked about before. I'm going to tell you something about me I've never shared. There's a thing going on in my life right now at this stage that wasn't going on 20 years ago. Now it's going on, and I want to talk to you about it." That kind of verbal intimacy can also be the novelty. Well, this is a different kind of attention and connection between us. So it's not just doing new things that are going to raise your blood pressure. It's being different in the relationship, bringing oneself in a different way, in a more vulnerable, open way.
NV: I like that and would like to build on that, because my follow-up to that was, what are some clinical steps you would recommend for a couple to reconnect with one another? It's very clear the novelty should be part of that sequence in rebuilding the feelings of being in love and the attachment and growing that. What if couples just don't have practice in sharing? Here there are a lot of types of clients. One person's more withdrawn or doesn't have the experience or doesn't feel like sharing or is maybe introverted in nature and really taking these steps of doing something new for the relationship or internally finds it difficult to experience something new because people like the status quo. They don't like to change much. What are some of the ideas and steps that you could share with someone that's constrained from experiencing or wanting to delve into these new experiences?
CR: I start with the premise that, if someone has taken the trouble to make an appointment to come to therapy, they have some motivation to change. They may be thinking, "Let's you and me help my partner change." That's okay to start as far as I'm concerned, but if they’re in the office, they want change. They're not comfortable with where things are, and they want to be in a different place and they don't know how to get there.
So some of what a therapist can do is to help people understand where the roadblocks are and what it would take to get around them. I find, for instance, when I explain to people what I said earlier about the difference between the neurotransmitters of romantic love and the neurotransmitters involved with long-term companion in love, it's very helpful to people. It makes them not feel shamed. It makes them feel like, "Oh, it's not that I'm not doing something, it's my brain is working differently now. Okay."
But if you still would like to have that experience of feeling close to your partner, then there are some things to do. Most of the time in therapy, we need to help our clients do things that don't feel natural, because doing what feels natural to them is part of what's gotten them into the dilemma to begin with. They have to stretch a little bit, and the therapist's job is to figure out how much stretch is going to be tolerable and actually have an influence, and what is too much to ask and what is too little to expect. It's figuring that out, which is a dynamic thing in any therapy situation, "Am I pushing you too hard today? Could you do this? What's getting in your way of trying this?"
One of the basic premises that I always have in my head and I share with partners is that when you are trying to change, there are really only three things that human beings can change. You can change your thinking, you can change your feeling, or you can change your action. But of those three things, our feelings don't seem like something we can just will into changing. So I don't start with that. You start with action, because people can always act differently in small ways. If I say, "Sit up straight," or, "Stand up right now," they'll do it. I don't even have to explain why I ask them to do it. They'll do it. If I say, "Try doing this; saying this thing," or, "Try looking at your partner in this way," they'll usually do it.
Then, you sometimes find their feelings do change, and the same pattern can be true of thought. If you stop thinking, "The problem is I'm not in love with my partner. The problem is there's not enough excitement or a sense of adventure or novelty between us anymore, and that's what we need to create, and then we'll see what happens. Will I feel more in love? What will happen there?" Because I can't instruct people to be in love, but I can instruct them how to coordinate and organize their relationship in ways that might lead to more of a sense of being in love.
I think actually in a long-term relationship, my experience of it is in a good long-term partner relationship, there is a great sense of attachment punctuated by moments, which can be sexual or not sexual, but these moments can be very sustaining. A minute or an hour of something that feels highly meaningful and highly gratifying to the two of you can sustain you for a long time. That's how I try to help couples move toward something that will feel better to them, is by understanding it is going to take action, and some of the action won't feel natural.
NV: For a couple who wants to do this on their own and they're hearing the news or they discuss this with their partner, what resources would you share with them?
CR: Well, there is a lot of people who have been writing about how to help couples have better relationships over time. John Gottman's research has been very helpful, though he doesn't focus so much on intimacy as he does explaining what the building blocks of a good relationship are. If you have that, you're more likely to have a sense of intimacy and romantic attachment.
For couples who like the challenge of thinking about this in a more psychodynamic way, Stephen Mitchell's book Can Love Last? is a great book about how the very elements that we seek in a long-term relationship of safety and security work against the novelty and newness of a romantic falling in love experience, but he does it in a very gentle way that's quite helpful.
I think our own Alexandra Solomon's book, Loving Bravely, the target audience for that probably skews younger than the couples that are coming into therapy after several years of relationship. But, again, the building blocks of what it takes to sustain a long-term romantic relationship, and she says very clearly in there, the first part of it is about knowing yourself, knowing who you are and what really makes you tick, and then learning about the other and creating opportunities for a successful experience in the way of connection and attachment over time.
NV: I know this is a personal question, and I didn't include it in here, but it's come up through our discussion. The question that comes up to my mind is, what are the keys in your own personal relationship that's managed to sustain both romantic attachment and attachment through the period of your relationship?
CR: Well, I would say that this has been a very long-term project. I'm almost 50 years into my relationship, and like most of my clients, when I first had the experience of not being so much in love with my partner, I tried to figure out what was wrong with him and tried to get him to stop being the way he was. And it was only over time that I started realizing that it was a mutual thing and I was just as much a part of it, which is a huge part of the solution once you realize you're part of the problem, because all of us have much more influence over ourselves than we have over any other human being, so I could change something about me.
Introducing that novelty has been part of what we have done in our relationship. In fact, after 30-some years of me bemoaning the fact that he didn't like dancing as much as I did, he gave me ballroom dance lessons for us as a Christmas gift one year, and indeed, it was a wonderful little lift to our relationship to do that together. We had a great dance instructor, and she was just a hoot. But it was that kind of a thing, like he was willing to go out of his comfort zone to do something that he knew would please me, and learning about it together, it actually brought us closer together.
I think another thing is being in a long-term relationship, unless you're married to a saint, which very few of us are, requires patience. It requires a lot of patience and discernment to decide, "What are the things about you I really would like you to change, and what are the things about you that I'd like you to change but you're not going to and I should just accept them and work around them and not try to get you to be different than you are?"
For example, if you're an introvert, I'm not going to get you to be an extrovert. That's not going to happen. So rather than fussing all the time about how your introversion is ruining my life, I need to be able to see it in a different way and decide that if I'm the one who leads us socially, well then, that's great for me because if I'm an extrovert and I get to be the social leader and you're willing to follow along because as long as you don't have to be out there in the front, that might just be fine. If you were as extroverted as I am, maybe we would always be in a struggle about who's going to be the leader and who's going to be the social arranger and all of that. That's a long-term process, I think, of developing the awareness to know where I push for change because I really think this would be better for us and I think we could both do it, and where do I leave it alone?
NV: Thank you so much for sharing that personal anecdote. So many lessons in that. Finally, if someone needs help in this area, how can they get into contact with you?
CR: Well, I'm in clinical practice at The Family Institute, and so people can reach me through the website, looking me up in the Find a Therapist section of the website. They'll find my contact information and can reach out to me by phone or email.
NV: Dr. Rampage, thank you so much. This has been an amazing opportunity for me to talk to you and for you to share the insights that you have with us. So thank you for being on the podcast.
CR: You're welcome. I've enjoyed it.
NV: This podcast is brought to you by The Family Institute at Northwestern University, a nationally recognized leader in the field of behavioral health. We bring together the right partners to support children, adults, couples and families across a lifespan. As researchers, educators and therapists, we work with our clients and partners to seek change. If you'd like to request an appointment, please call us at 847-733-4300. You may also visit our website at www.family-institute.org. And please follow us on Facebook and Twitter for relationship tips and tools and for updates on the new podcast episodes. Thank you so much for listening.