04/02/2013 12:24 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Falling Out of Love

It's a natural and inevitable stage of every relationship, whether with a friend, a partner, or a pet: the zest and sparkle that characterize the early stages fade away; the ease and lightness narrow into more distance or tension; the openheartedness that elevates the two of you to a state close to divinity settles into the everydayness of real life. Sometimes it happens when fear pricks the heart. Other times it happens because conflict enters the relationship. Mostly it happens because of time and the hard reality that we're not meant to live in the first stage of a relationship forever.

There's no problem with falling out of love except for one thing: when it comes to partners and even children, we expect the bliss or ease of the first stage to last forever. As with so many areas of a relationship, it's the expectation more than the reality that creates the problem. If you've had a long run of the infatuation stage with your romantic partner, for example, and you wake up one day with the thought, "I'm not feeling overjoyed to see him or her," your next thought will likely be, "There must be something wrong." We're deeply conditioned to believe that love is only a feeling, so when that magic of the butterflies and rainbows gives way to regular life, many people panic.

Why do we resist falling out of love? Culturally we don't understand that relationships are work and that it's through this work that we can evolve in our capacity to face our fears and grow our love. We believe it should be easy. We believe that romance and sparkle should last forever (that's how it is the movies, after all). We believe that having a baby will fill in the holes in our life (if only the newborn stage lasted forever). We're constantly looking for the easy way out, the solution to our pain, the answer to our emptiness. And living in a culture that drip-feeds the message by media transfusion that the answer to eternal happiness lies in finding the perfect partner followed by having the perfect baby, it's no wonder that most people hang on to these fantasies for dear life.

When are we going to stop setting people up to fall by jamming unrealistic expectations down their throats? When are we going to tell them the truth: that there is no "answer" to happiness, that relationships and children are not dangling carrots, but that the fullness of life well-lived comes from having the courage to attend to your empty places and address the fears that are most often unleashed through intimate relationships? As Linda and Charlie Bloom write in their fantastic book, 101 Things I Wish I Knew When I Got Married:

"From our experience, the deepest satisfaction that life has to offer comes from our most intimate relationships. By taking on the challenges of committed partnership we are prompted to realize the fullness of our being. More than any other relationship, marriage has the potential to awaken our deepest longings and needs, as well as our deepest pains and fears. In learning to meet all of these powerful forces with an open heart and authenticity, we can grow ourselves into wholeness, maturity, and compassion. In one of his workshops, Stephen Levine, author of Embracing the Beloved, called marriage the "ultimate danger sport." People can, he said, learn more about themselves in a week in a relationship than by sitting in meditation in a cave for a year. Having tried both marriage and meditation, we'd have to agree."

Perhaps it's not accurate to use the phrase "falling out of love" as the title of this post. It's more that we fall out of infatuation so that the work of learning about what it really means to be in love can begin.

Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether single, dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of her popular E-Course.