Navigating the dimming spark in relationships

I'd like to share, with her permission, an anonymised story about how a close friend called Isla survived 'losing the spark'. Two years ago, I attended Isla and Troy's wedding. Their relationship was defined by an undeniable 'chemistry'; predictably, by their last dance, the couple was playfully heckled to 'get a room' due to their inability to keep their hands off each other.

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However, eighteen months later, a more subdued Isla hinted at a growing concern during a gathering with friends after work. She confessed that intimacy with her husband felt stale. Blushing, she divulged a consuming crush she'd been harbouring: an actor from a well-known series of vampire movies. Isla would eagerly await her husband's nights out, using the time to binge-watch her beloved vampire on the sofa. She resented the sound of her husband's return, finding it difficult to tear herself away from the screen. This actor was opposite her husband, a burly rugby player, adding to Isla's confusion. Isla stalked the actor obsessively online, even during her breaks at work. Despite the mirth around the table, it was evident that Isla was wrestling with her inner world.

Isla longed for the feeling of being 'in love' with Troy, missing the excitement that had marked the earlier stages of their relationship. After their wedding and honeymoon, life had settled into a predictable routine that left Isla unsatisfied. She was also disappointed in herself. Staying motivated for her fitness regimen, which had been driven by the vision of her wedding day, had become a challenge.

Most weekends, she and Troy now found solace in binge-watching Netflix. Before their marriage, Troy's frequent work-related travels would send her heart aflutter, making every message or call from him a source of euphoria. However, the initial excitement had turned into boredom, frustration, and a nagging sense of 'Is this all there is?' In essence, Isla described the all-too-common experience of 'losing the spark' in a long-term relationship.


The spark and limerence

The renowned American psychologist, Dorothy Tennov, offered a compelling explanation for this state of being intensely 'in love,' which she called 'limerence' (Tennov, 1979).

Limerence is a distinctive emotional state that has inspired poetry, art, and music for centuries. It's characterised by a deep infatuation and preoccupation with someone to the point that focusing on other aspects of life becomes challenging. Limerence often involves the idealisation of the object of affection, where even their flaws can appear 'cute' or endearing.

Yet, limerence is far from a comfortable state; it often accompanies a rollercoaster of emotions. Reciprocated feelings bring extreme highs, while perceived rejection or distance leads to profound dejection. Physical sensations such as butterflies in the stomach, a racing heart, euphoria, and a general sense of being alive and excited are all part of the limerent experience. These heightened emotional and physical responses can be attributed, in part, to our biology.

Being 'in love' has been associated with increased dopamine levels, our brain's reward hormone. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, emotions, and social behaviours, tends to fluctuate, contributing to intense emotional highs and lows. During positive social interactions and moments of intimacy, oxytocin – often referred to as the 'love' or 'cuddle' hormone due to its association with social bonding and attachment – is released. Our bodies reward us for these feelings. If we're fortunate, the rollercoaster of limerence can evolve over time into a more mature and stable form of love.

As Isla discovered, this transition can be pretty complex. As the rollercoaster of limerence gradually levels out, one may feel something crucial is missing. Her intense infatuation with 'Vampire Boy' was a poignant signpost to what she felt was lacking in her relationship with Troy.


The intersection of attachment styles

Isla's response to the fading spark was quite different from Troy's. Before Troy, Isla's previous partners tended to be emotionally unavailable. Troy, however, was a departure from the norm. He came from a different background than Isla, whose parents had divorced when she was four. Troy's unwavering confidence in their relationship was in stark contrast to Isla's increasing doubt. She began to believe that Troy no longer found her attractive. At the same time, he expressed contentment with simply being with her as he adjusted to the demands of his new job.
 
When Isla decided to 'confess' her crush on 'Vampire Boy' to Troy, she expected a reaction of anger and judgment. However, to her surprise, Troy responded with understanding. He listened attentively and asked questions. Isla seized the opportunity to share her fears, from the worry that Troy might find someone attractive at his new workplace to the belief that she had 'let herself go' since their wedding. Instead of judgment, Troy's response was marked by empathy and reassurance.

Isla's revelation prompted her to question whether her attraction to 'Vampire Boy,' which waned as soon as she shared her vulnerabilities with Troy, was indicative of a personal issue or an underlying concern within their relationship. Subsequently, Isla embarked on a journey of self-discovery through therapy, driven by the desire to unravel the complexities of her identity and relationship dynamics. This process became even more pertinent as she and Troy discussed starting a family in the coming years.

Attachment styles and relationship outcomes

The differing reactions of Isla and Troy to the fading spark can be attributed, in part, to their attachment styles, which encompass interpersonal dynamics and emotional behaviours developed in early childhood and continue to influence their adult relationships.

Attachment styles are based on attachment theory, first proposed by British psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s and further developed by Canadian-English developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, in the 1960s.

Attachment styles can be categorised into four main types:

Secure attachment: Securely attached people like themselves and their spouses, are comfortable with emotional intimacy and independence, can develop strong emotional connections, and maintain healthy, balanced relationships. Able to communicate their needs and respond to their partner's needs, they resolve issues constructively.

Infatuation and attraction can occur in secure attachment patterns, although extreme limerence is less common. Limerence is typically balanced for them, recognising its strength without being overwhelmed. They can stay emotionally stable and adjust as the relationship grows from limerence to more profound love.
 
Anxious-preoccupied attachment: People with anxious attachment styles dread abandonment and want intimacy and reassurance from their relationships. They doubt their partner's devotion and seek self-worth. These people understand relationships but require reassurance, and fear of abandonment may cause relationship problems. Anxious people who crave emotional intimacy and comfort may idealise and obsess over their partner.

Dismissive-avoidant attachment: Dismissive-avoidant attachment styles preserve emotional distance and independence in partnerships. They may value independence over emotional closeness, struggle to articulate their needs and emotions, and fear emotional vulnerability. Their partners may feel ignored or emotionally distant.

Avoidant attachment types can feel limerence, but differently, perhaps chasing their partner and then withdrawing to preserve emotional distance in a 'push-pull' pattern of behaviour.

Disorganised fearful-avoidant attachment: People with a fearful-avoidant attachment style want emotional closeness but fear intimacy and rejection. They may oscillate between seeking and distancing themselves from their partners. Unpredictability and relational instability characterise this attachment type.

Should you recognise yourself or others in the description of attachment styles, it is essential to note that attachment styles are not rigid categories. Individuals may exhibit elements of multiple styles or change their attachment style over time. Early experiences with caregivers shape attachment styles, but they can be modified through self-awareness, personal growth, and therapeutic interventions.

Understanding your attachment style and that of your partner can be valuable for improving the quality of your relationship. It helps you recognise your emotional needs and those of your partner, leading to more effective communication and stronger emotional connections. It also encourages self-discovery, fostering more secure and fulfilling relationships.


Impact on relationship outcomes

Transitioning from limerence to deeper love

Attachment styles are pivotal in how individuals navigate the shift from limerence to lasting love. Anxious individuals may grapple with the potential loss of intensity in their relationships, striving to preserve the heightened emotional state. Avoidant individuals may be cautious about becoming too emotionally involved and tend to withdraw as the limerent phase subsides.

In Isla's case, she experienced elements of both dynamics: the diminishing intensity with Troy led her to question her attractiveness and seek fulfilment through fantasies while maintaining an emotional distance from him.
 
Isla's decision to explore herself through therapy stemmed from her desire to delve into the behavioural and thought patterns that had developed in early childhood long before her memories could be recalled clearly. She embarked on a journey of psychodynamic psychotherapy and is currently pursuing training to become a therapist herself.

Her relationship with Troy continues to evolve and transform, driven by her newfound self-awareness and confidence. She now shares parts of herself with Troy that she wouldn't have dared to reveal in the past. Isla humorously notes that she found herself loving Troy even more when he dressed as a vampire for a Halloween party – a crush she once considered shameful had transformed into a delightfully intimate inside joke shared between them.

A message from Isla

If the spark has dimmed in your relationship, consider exploring yourself. Ask: Who am I, and what do I need from my relationships? Is there something missing from my life in general? Am I expecting too much from my relationship? Approach both yourself and your partner with curiosity. Change is the one constant in life, and though it can be challenging to navigate, therapy can serve as a valuable tool to guide you through it. Therapy offers a path to deeper self-understanding, a better understanding of others, and a more profound, intimate connection with your partner beyond 'the spark.'


References

  • Tennov, D. (1979). Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. New York: Stein and Day.
  • Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and Loss, Volume 1, Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
  • Ainsworth, M., & Bell, S. (1970). Attachment, Exploration, and Separation: Illustrated by the Behavior of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation. Child Development, 41, 49-67.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Gerrards Cross SL9 & London W10
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Written by Helen Hadden, Adult Psychotherapist; psychodynamic & EMDR BPC, MBACP.
Gerrards Cross SL9 & London W10

I am a psychotherapist working with adults using one-to-one talking therapy in the NHS and private practice. We can work together long- or short-term, according to individual needs, and meet face-to-face, online, or hybrid. Some of the issues that I regularly work through with clients include: Anxie...

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