Choosing Between Spouse and Lover: What If It's Love?
- Joe Beam President, Marriage Helper
- 2012 14 Dec
“I've never loved anyone the way I love her. I never knew I could feel like this. So deep. Fulfilling. Amazing. I can tell her anything: my dreams, my fears, my strengths, my flaws.” John spoke slowly but fervently as he explained his relationship with Sheila. It was not his idea to visit with me; he had come because another friend asked him to do so.
“I trust her with my secrets. She understands me more than anyone. And I know everything about her. She’s told me everything.” He looked away, apparently visualizing Sheila. “She’s even more beautiful on the inside than she is on the outside. I’d die for her and she would do the same for me. I don’t know why God didn’t send her into my life until now, but He did. We were meant to be together.”
A few days before our conversation, John’s pastor had confronted him about Sheila. John admitted his feelings for her and his intention to divorce his wife and marry her. The pastor lectured John that what he felt was not love, but an unhealthy lust that would destroy him and his family.
“So, do you believe I love Sheila, or do you, too, think that I’m deluded?” he asked.
“I believe you love her,” I replied.
He seemed pleasantly surprised. He figured I would take the same approach as his pastor and others who defined love in a way that denied the authenticity of his intense emotions. I had no doubt that John deeply loved Sheila with a kind of love that involves a concentration of feelings most types of love cannot touch.
“Love exists in many forms, John. For example, your pastor knows that in his Bible the kind of love called agape differs from liking or friendship love. What you feel is a measurable and identifiable kind of love. It’s an intense love we call limerence. So, yes, I believe you.”
He visibly relaxed.
I gently told him that before he made himself too comfortable, he needed to hear the rest of what I wished to share. He had been talking for nearly a half-hour; now it was my turn.
“John, the thing to consider isn’t whether you love Sheila. The most important thing to think about is what you do next and how that will affect the rest of your life, Sheila’s, and the lives of your wife, children, parents, friends, and even your church. I don’t doubt you love her, John, but I urge you to think about where that love leads.”
Before leading John through considering his future, I guided him through his recent past, starting before he and Sheila connected emotionally. I did not ask him to tell me about his past. Instead, I told it to him, though I had not heard it from anyone. It was not an effort to impress him, but to demonstrate to him how deeply I understood him.
“I’ll just hit the highpoints without a lot of explanation, John. Correct me if I get something wrong.
“Though you found Sheila attractive, you initially had no intention of anything other than friendship. At first, your conversations were nothing special, just friends talking about mostly inconsequential matters. However, as you enjoyed being around each other, you became more open and transparent. Gradually, you evolved to discussing personal matters, trusting each other, and liking the attention and validation. Somewhere along the line, one of you began to slip in words of affection, cautiously at first, and then openly. Well before either of you openly professed love for the other, you both knew what the other felt.
“As your relationship deepened, you began to hide the amount of time you spent together, the increasing numbers calls or texts, and the escalating emotions you felt for each other. Neither of you considered the possibility that you violated boundaries as friends, co-workers, or Christians; both of you were still actively involved in your churches. Nor did either of you entertain the idea that by your deepening desire to be with each other you violated your marriage vows to Melinda. You each believed strongly that both of you were good people who had no wish to do anything wrong.
“With time, talking led to handholding. That eventually led to warm, clinging embraces. Next came kissing which finally progressed to full physical expression of your emotions.
“Guilt followed your first lingering kiss. It reached its peak when you became sexually intimate. Before you left each other after that first time, you wept and prayed together, asking God to forgive you and help you not sin again.
“Soon the prayers ceased.
“Now neither you nor Sheila feels a need to ask God to forgive. Instead, you thank Him for bringing you together.”
He stared at me for several minutes before speaking.
“Yes, that’s pretty much the way our love developed. So what does that have to do with anything?” John asked warily.
“I walked you through that very brief history for two reasons, John. First, it’s significant that I told your story to you, not you to me. I probably missed something here or there, but I got the main parts right, didn’t I? Why is that important? It means you aren’t unique. What you have isn’t magic or extraordinary. I’ve heard the story so many times in my work with marriages in trouble – sometimes from the guy’s perspective, sometimes the gal’s – that I know it well.
“Second, John, because I know how you got to where you are, you need to realize that I can tell you where you’re headed. How? Same reason. I’ve heard the stories.
“Hundreds of them. Sure, I might miss something here or there because every situation is a little different, but I’ll get most of it right.”
He was not enthusiastic about hearing my predictions, but realized it would be irrational to refuse.
“John, if you divorce Melinda and marry Sheila, the odds are better than 8 out of 10 that you and Sheila will divorce. Even if you stay together, which is not likely, you will have difficulties in that marriage because of the way it started. I know that you believe I’m wrong. Even when I tell you I’ve seen the same thing repeatedly over the last twenty years, you think that you will be the exception. Everybody thinks that. Nobody is. Allow me to explain what you have before I predict where you will wind up.
“John, you love Sheila so intensely that you think no one else could possibly understand what you feel. It’s so deep that you don’t know how to find words to describe those feelings adequately. Because your emotions exist at a level beyond anything you’ve previously experienced, you believe them to be extraordinary –magical. You cherish those feelings so dearly that you want to do whatever it takes to maintain them.
“I understand that. And I don’t blame you for not wanting to let them go. However, no matter what you do, what you feel now isn’t going to last. We know from science and from our own experience with thousands of people that limerence lasts somewhere between three months to three years and then it begins to fade away.
“How long have you felt this way about Sheila, John?”
John angrily replied, “About nine months. But you’re wrong, Joe. It won’t go away. This is real. Very real. It’s not some infatuation that flashes and dies. I’m not drugged. I’m in love.”
I reassured him, “I have no doubt it’s real, John. However, though you don’t want to hear it, you are intoxicated. Your brain makes the chemicals driving these amazing emotions. I’ve felt it. I know what it’s like. The reason it has to fade, John, is that the emotional state you’re in now would destroy your life and livelihood if it lasted a lifetime. Admit it; you spend a lot of time thinking about Sheila. So much that some things in your life don’t get the attention they need.”
He began to debate, “No. Not a thing. You’re wrong about that.”
“John, think about your children. Do you spend as much time with them as you used to? You still love them, but if you are honest with yourself, you know that you will miss events with them if Sheila wants you with her. Same with your parents and your close friends. Spend much time with any of them lately, John?
“And what about work? You’re not a guy who does some rote work for 8 hours a day and goes home. Your job requires creativity. Isn’t it true that some days when you feel euphoric about Sheila, you find yourself amazingly productive for a few hours, but gradually lose the productivity because you become so focused on thinking about her? And what about the days you get very little done because you find yourself obsessing about whether she’s happy with you? Isn’t it true that if she isn’t having a good day, you worry and find yourself ineffective at everything you do? Yeah, John, I’ve been there. I know all about that.
“Long-term relationships aren’t based on euphoria. They especially cannot ride that emotional rollercoaster you find yourself on because you are so finely attuned to Sheila’s emotions that you react to nearly everything.
“As I mentioned, John, the love you feel is called limerence. It may be more intense than any other form of love. Dorothy Tennov, PhD, named it limerence in 1977 to describe what people feel when they are madly in love with another person. Helen Fisher, PhD, and her associates now do most of the research concerning it. We know from their research that powerful brain chemicals are associated with limerence and, as a result, a person in limerence behaves differently than he did before, and differently than he will after limerence fades. And it will fade, John. It always does. It does not last.
“I’ll run through some characteristics of people in limerence, John. I’ll describe them as if they represent what you feel about Sheila. Stop me whenever I list one that isn’t correct.
“You see no flaws or faults in Sheila. In fact, you cherish and adore letters, words, and events associated with her. Those things are special to you.
“Your life has become crazy both physically and emotionally. For example, you experience some of these – euphoria, energy surges, insomnia, lost appetite, abrupt mood swings, or rapid heartbeat. You may even occasionally feel anxiety and panic.
“When your pastor told you that you were not in love with Sheila and should end things with her, you felt even stronger emotions for her and wanted to go to her immediately.
“You’ve exhibited signs of emotional dependency on your relationship with Sheila, like jealousy, being possessive, fearing rejection from her, and feeling anxiety when separated from her.
“You crave emotional union with her. You feel a sense of understanding for her and connection to the point that you’re willing to sacrifice for Sheila. If it means ending your marriage, losing your job, or even giving up your religion, you’ll do what it takes to please her and to be with her.
“You’ve already reordered some of your priorities for her. For example, to please her have you changed the way you dress, your mannerisms, or maybe even some of your habits.
“Beyond that, you’ve changed some of your beliefs so that you can be with her. Did you once believe that adultery was a violation of the Ten Commandments, but now believe that God sent you the woman with whom you commit adultery? You used to go to church, but now you’re looking for a different kind of church – one that you never would have considered before – a church that will accept you and Sheila though you left your wife for her.
“You love making love to Sheila, but sex isn’t the core of your relationship. You want the emotional union much more deeply that you desire the sexual union with her.
“I didn’t list everything, John, but that’s enough to get the picture. You are in limerence with Sheila, John, aren’t you?”
He tried to look smug, but could not pull it off. Instead, he demonstrated a mixture of anger, frustration, and anxiety. “Okay, mostly you described what I have with Sheila, but not exactly. Besides, when a person is in love, he feels those things. You described true love, nothing more, and I already told you that I truly love Sheila.”
“John, those things describe a particular type of love. Limerence isn’t always a bad thing. When two single people fall into limerence, nobody worries about them. But one reason we don’t worry, John, is because we know that their limerence is going to grow to a different kind of love. No one expects them to be in that euphoric romantic stage for the rest of their lives. If we did, we would worry, because we know that life cannot be lived that way for long. It is too exclusive, too selfish, and too unproductive for them as individuals, a couple, and for society as a whole. We expect them to develop a more mature and broader level of love that is not as intense but is much more fulfilling; a love based on giving as well as taking, a love that is much more secure and less driven by moods, a love that is stable rather than reactive.
“If you think that is what you will develop with Sheila and that will fulfill you as limerence subsides, you’re wrong for several reasons.
“The first is that the best person with whom to have the stable, long-lived kind of love is Melinda, your wife, the mother of your children.
“The second is that when the limerence subsides you will have lost your wife, your children, many of your friends, your church, and probably your own view of yourself. You’re trading all of that for the intense emotions that you feel today. How do you think you’re going to feel when that intense emotion no longer exists as it does now? We know from our work with thousands of marriages in crisis that you have a great likelihood of resenting Sheila. The object of your love probably will become the object of your resentment. While you’re in limerence, you won’t see her flaws. When limerence fades and you comprehend the costs of all you sacrificed for her, it is extremely likely that your mind will exacerbate her flaws. You’ll wonder how you were so blinded and you’ll resent what your relationship with her cost you. We see it every day. Nearly every person we work with who leaves his or her spouse for someone they love with limerence, and then marries that person, winds up divorced eventually.
“The third is how your relationship with your children will change. Same with dear friends, and people you love that you went to church with, but let’s concentrate on the kids. Sheila may love them, but she’ll never be their mother, even if Melinda were to die prematurely. Most kids resent the person their Dad left their Mom for, or that Mom left Dad for. They may treat her kindly, callously, or indifferently, based on how angry they are with you and whether or not they want to keep emotional connection with you. It’s terribly unfair to them, and ignoring reality, to expect them to love and cherish the person they’ll view as the destroyer of their family. If you delude yourself into thinking that they’ll get over it, or that they’re old enough to understand, your delusion won’t last long. Your kids will rupture that fantasy.
“Add to that the emotional logistics concerning who spends holidays and vacations where, what roles people play and who sits in what pew when your kids’ weddings occur, and how people interact when someone passes on.
“Finally, consider God’s view of all this. I bring that up because you mentioned your pastor and your past church involvement. The Bible you once believed says that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:10), and that adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). If you are honest with yourself, you know that you quit believing those because they contradict what you want to have with Sheila. However, as you abandon those beliefs for her, what changes inside of you? You see, part of your identity is your belief and value system. When you change that, you change you. That’s the principle behind conversion. When a person becomes a Christian, she becomes a different person because she changed her beliefs and values. It works in reverse as well, John. As you change your beliefs and values, you become a different person. Right now, in the depth of limerence, you probably don’t see it. If you do, you may not care. Believe me; you will see it in years to come if you pursue this course. If then you don’t care, it will be because of who you have become. Think you want to be that person, John?
“Your future will be determined by whether you choose to continue with the divorce and pursue Sheila, or to end things with Sheila and work out your marriage. I know you feel your marriage is hopeless, but that’s part of being in limerence. I’m fairly sure, John, that if I had met you before you developed relationship with Sheila, you might not have categorized your marriage as great, but you would not have listed any major problems, either. However, I’m just as sure that you now have a list of frustrations and disappointments with Melinda and your marriage. We call it rewriting history. That means that your mind actually focuses on any bad thing that happened with Melinda and makes it worse. Because of the intense emotions for Sheila, your own conscience had to justify your leaving Melinda. If you want to tell me all the terrible things about her, I’ll listen, but what you feel and believe about her now is tainted. Your memory is real, but it isn’t valid. Whether you meant to or not, you’ve changed things in your memory to make what you want to do acceptable.
“In short, John, unlike your pastor, I believe you love Sheila. I also know where this love leads. If you were both single, I’d congratulate you. But you are married. Divorcing your wife to be with Sheila creates negative consequences for you, Sheila, Melinda, your children, parents, friends, and the kingdom of God.
“You may justify it in your mind and proceed. It may even seem good for a while. Nevertheless, the limerence will fade. When it does, you will come face-to-face with the consequences for you and all those others I mentioned.
“We will help you then or we can help you now. If you let us help you now, there will be far fewer awful consequences. Do the right thing, John, and good things happen. They will not be as exhilarating as limerence, but they are much deeper and more fulfilling.”
His eyes indicated our conversation was over; he barricaded his mind and heart from me. I had anticipated that and had come on as strongly as I did because I feared I would have no second chance. Therefore, I had tried to plant as many seeds as possible.
That conversation occurred a few years ago.
Though hardly anyone believed it could happen, John decided to end his relationship with Sheila and try to restore his marriage. About a year after he made his decision, he explained it to me, “I hated you for saying it, but you were right. I’d become someone else because I had let go of what and who I am. After a lot of soul-searching, I realized I wanted to be me again. I loved Sheila, but finally accepted that the future I desired for us could never equal the fantasy I’d built in my mind. I wanted to be with her – there are days when I miss her intensely – but deep inside I wanted peace with myself, with my God, and with my children. At first, I didn’t really care about making peace or reconnecting with Melinda, but with time that worked out as well. I love her…guess in a way I always did. She’s a good woman and we have a good life. Not only did she forgive me, she stood up for me to her family, our friends, and our church when she took me back.
“It feels good to know I did what was right. Always will.”
John and Melinda worked on healing their marriage. They allowed me to help them understand how he had fallen into limerence and how to learn to love each again. Actually, they learned how to love each other more than they ever had before.
It was not easy for John or Melinda. His deep emotions for Sheila did not end immediately. They had taken time to develop and, therefore, they took time to recede. During the process, John went through a grief similar to that experienced by people who lose loved ones to death. However, he worked through it.
Admirably, Melinda understood and coped with amazing strength. She forgave John. She forgave Sheila, though for obvious reasons she maintained no contact with her. Neither did John, though when he ended his relationship with Sheila, he worried about her future. Sheila reacted badly initially, but eventually she, too, healed her heart and moved on. She fell in love with a good man. Wisely, she told him her experience and they sought counsel before they married. They, too, have a good marriage.
The story of John, Melinda, and Sheila is neither unique nor rare. Sometimes the husband falls into limerence with another. Other times the wife. While the dynamics change slightly, the same principles apply. With the right help, their marriage can be saved and they can love each other more deeply than before.
We see it every day.
Joe Beam founded Marriage Helper, an organization that provides marriage help to hurting couples. For more information on getting help for your marriage, click here.
Publication date: December 14, 2012