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The Paradoxical Magnet of Love

"Stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart"

- from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran


Part of our psychological nature is to perceive others, especially those we love, as part of ourselves. Stories I have heard from partners describing how they met almost invariably attest to the strength of the pull towards one another, never wanting to be out of each other's sight. The magnetic attraction felt strong and wouldn't let go, ultimately solidifying the relationship through bonds of deepening intimacy - most often, the chemistry and fire of sex.  

But later on, if the relationship sustains far beyond the "romantic phase", partners' knowledge of each other deepens even further.  A relationship that felt so good seems to turn an unfamiliar corner and we ask ourselves "What happened to the familiar pull of attraction?" which characterized the romantic phase. Couples notice a wish to spend some time apart.

During this phase, some partners take offense and blame one another, but if the "push away" is not acknowledged and welcomed, resentment can set in and blame can worsen and enhance the repulsion even further. 

It's important to realize that this is a natural part of the growth of the relationship and it isn't the fault of either partner. After all, we enter our relationships with our own personal life histories. The direction of our lives can be radically altered by falling in love with someone, often unexpectedly. 

I might get in trouble for saying this - it might sound callous - but a marital partner is just another event in the rich personal history of our lives. Our partner could be among the most important events in our lives, but this doesn't take away our need to have our own perspectives, our own interests, needs, friends, and work beyond the bounds of the marital relationship we have chosen.

Naturally, the strength of our emotions and thoughts about our partner reflects the strength of the ever-present magnet. But we don't know when the magnet is going to turn. Early in the relationship, the opposite poles (which attract) pull us together. 

The opposing charges are a metaphor for complementarity - the idea that "You complete me". Later in the relationship, it is as if the magnet turns, unexpectedly exposing poles with the same-charge. The same charges are analogous to the need to nourish oneself - the idea that, with each other's support, " We can complete ourselves".

But one or both could be out of sync with how the relationship is naturally growing. Jealousy can fuel anger at our partner who "never spends any time" with us anymore. Regret can fuel sadness and resentment that our partner's needs have become more important than interests and friendships that we have let fall by the wayside in favour of our marital commitment. 

In these circumstances, when we feel pushed away from our partner, we may naturally feel magnetically drawn to others outside the marriage. And the cycle of attraction and repulsion can begin again.

Where can we go with this? At times when the repulsion feels overpowering, we might notice ourselves wishing we had some time on our own, away from our chosen love. But don't wait till then! 

My wife and I used Gibran's poem on Marriage to incorporate the need for time to ourselves into our marriage ceremony. It became a symbol for the need to spend time on our own. No, it wasn't a way to start an affair. It became a point of conversation about when and how we wish to spend our time, together and apart. During our 26 years together, we have often revisited the value of meeting our own needs of various kinds, such as having our own interests, work, and friends.

To keep the temple of your relationship strong, it is critical to nurture your own health, including your friends, work, and interests. We cannot always meet each other's needs because our partner is busy holding up their part of the temple. They are busy looking after their own needs, just as you are.

If we are to remain committed to our chosen love, the unpredictable turns of the relationship magnet require us to hold fast to the value of our partner's time to themselves. But spending time apart can become overwhelming and even painful. Thus, a better understanding of how the relationship magnet works might be the key. In her BrainPickings article about poet Rainer Rilke, Maria Popova writes:

"Under this unforgiving magnetism, it becomes an act of superhuman strength and self-transcendence to give space to the other when all one wants is closeness. And yet this difficult act may be the very thing — perhaps the only thing — that saves the relationship over and over...." For more on this topic, see https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/09/03/rilke-love-marriage/