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The Cost of Love

Love is never free. There is always a price to pay for what each partner gives.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

People newly in love joyfully care for each other in every way they can. They strive to fulfill each other’s every desire, and even attempt to anticipate them in advance. Their “generosity-coffers” are overflowing, and they easily forgive when disappointments emerge.

When new love wanes, as it often does, the once-devoted lovers often experience just as an intense set of emotions, but on the other side of the spectrum. The “unconditional acceptance-reservoirs” they once felt for each other are now running on empty, and feelings of anger, guilt, blame, and disillusionment have replaced them.

Whether a relationship last for only a few weeks or for many years, this all-too-often transformation from joy to sorrow, from forever to no more, is a heartache for anyone who experiences it. When a relationship ends rapidly, the partners can usually move on more easily. But when it is a slow decline, which is often more the case, many are caught off guard and are left wounded and confused.

From the beginning of any intimate relationship, love is never free. There is always a price to pay for what each partner is giving or receiving. If new lovers do not pay attention to that reality, they will unknowingly charge what they are getting on “emotional credit card” that will eventually come due.

A more successful option is for the partners to recognize what those costs are from the very beginning, and to pay that price forward when it is so much easier to do.

That process is most easily accomplished when both partners are willing to ask themselves the following questions and share the answers with each other:

  • What thoughts and feelings are you suppressing to avoid challenging the relationship?

  • What sacrifices are you making that seem easy in the moment, but might not be over time?

  • What red flags are you seeing that might be acceptable now but you know would not work over time if you don’t face them now?

  • What are you holding back about your personality and history that you fear might turn your partner away?

  • What attitudes or behaviors in your partner bother you that you are not sharing?

  • What parts of you would you need to be sacrificed, and can you do that without resentment?

  • What other significant compromises would you need to make?

The answers to these questions will help both partners realize what the relationship will realistically cost each of them and what they need in return to stay committed to each other.

If either partner is not able to identify and recognize these potential costs, he or she may end up unable to reconcile the debt because the debt has become too steep to reconcile.

No matter how long a relationship has lasted, there are always four stages where the costs of the partnership are accruing.

Stage One: The Beginning of Love

This first phase of a relationship is a symbolic parent/child “crisscross.” Both adult partners provide unconditional love to the child in the other. When they add sexual passion to that mix, the blend of chemistry without fear of abandonment or rejection is magical. The child in each feels wrapped in a fantasy haven that can heal past wounds and promise a secure future. New lovers often refer to each other as “baby,” or create other special diminutive words to guarantee those expectations.

Both are on their best behavior, careful to hold back any needs, desires, or expectations that might negatively change the formula, like relationship mistakes or embarrassments, personality characteristics that might be harder to deal with, family histories that might be less acceptable, physical problems, emotional insecurities, or deeply held beliefs that could clash if expressed.

As a result, both believe that the person they have fallen in love with is exactly as he or she presents, able to give without reserve because of the seemingly perfect compatibility that is happening. But the price is accruing.

It is during this time that most people make the most egregious errors in believing that the unconditional love they are experiencing is free of cost and will last forever.

Stage Two: Exclusivity

The partners now feel enough comfort with each other to become a couple in the eyes of their friends and families.

In this phase, each partner slowly becomes more authentic both by words and behaviors. It is a gingerly process, fraught with unexpected or unpredictable responses that must be repeatedly recognized and negotiated. There are often more conflicts and subsequent disputes, but still enough positive thoughts and feelings to keep both searching for resolution.

If the partners are open to accepting that fact that emerging disappointments are par for the course and want to work them out, they will increase their understanding of each other and maintain their commitment.

Stage Three: Commitment

The partners have successfully negotiated and weathered their new authenticity and still feel “in-love” enough to renew their commitment to the relationship together. They have gained faith in their capacity to get through the rough times and still emerge victorious. They are aware of the costs to both of them to stay in the relationship and are able to pay them.

This is when the relationship becomes will endure more scrutiny from the outside world. The couple’s social network and families “activate” and feel free to weigh in on the couple’s future possibilities and what they want from the partners. Once willing to watch from a distance, they now want their opinions to matter.

As a result, the distribution of resources; time, energy, money, availability, must now be re-negotiated as two prior independent worlds must now successfully merge. Where the relationship was once limited to the partners involved, it is now forced to face the new requirements of others that may have had prior priority.

The relationship has now inherited the past in all its dimensions, and the partners must individually decide if they can still pay for what is now expected of them. New conflicts emerge: how will they be able to negotiate different religious desires, family expectations, conflicted financial allotments, geographical locations, career changes, or whether and when to start a family?

What will those costs be, and can each partner afford to pay them without losing the other if he or she cannot?

Stage Four: Settling In

The couple has now more realistically appraised what their combined resources are and are willing and able to share them with each other. They have successfully weighed the value of their commitment to each other and are ready to commit to a long-term relationship.

Now they can re-give to each other those original offers of safety and support they naively offered at the beginning of the relationship, but with deeper knowledge of what is possible over time. Their understanding of each other’s true assets and liabilities now replace the fantasies they once shared. They are fully aware of the costs they will be expected to pay and are comfortable with that exchange.

What If the Price Becomes Too Much to Pay?

Sadly, in this process of continual exploration, there are times when one or both partners cannot afford to continue to pay the price for a relationship, even if there are still positive connections for them both. The relationship just doesn’t have enough value to make it worth the cost to the person who wants out.

Unless that is true for both partners and they have tried everything they could have to negotiate the difference, heartache will often occur for one and guilt for the other. It is crucial for both to take the lessons they have learned and to negotiate these differences early in any new relationship so that they will not be faced with these sorrows in the same way again.

It can be helpful if people understand some the many legitimate reasons these sad endings occur so that they are better prepared in the future:

  • A situation occurs that is beyond the control of either or both partners and the relationship doesn’t have the bandwidth to survive that onslaught.

  • One partner changes and can no longer offer what the other needs, or get what he or she needs in return.

  • A breach in trust has occurred and is unhealable.

  • Illness strikes and starves the caregiving partner’s resources.

  • The grief of unbearable loss is not shared.

  • Boredom has triumphed over excitement.

  • The percentage of positive interactions has been eclipsed by negative ones.

  • Addictive demons seduce.

  • The partners have given away their prime-time energy outside of the relationship and forgotten to keep investing in each other.

  • Other people or situations seem better options.

  • Their compatibility has diminished and they cannot support each other’s dreams anymore.

In all of these scenarios, the price of the relationship exceeds its value over time for one or both partners. And, because that imbalance has occurred gradually, they have not realized the debt they have created and no longer have the resources available to pay it.

Had they understood, from the beginning, that relationships always come with a price, they could have acknowledged that from the beginning of their relationship, when the coffers were overflowing and their partnership was more resilient.

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