Where do the butterflies go?
June 6, 2014 4:03 PM   Subscribe

Core attraction: does it go away? Looking to hear from people who have been in a relationship for 15+ years.

I’m 39 and have been married for over 15 years. It was a semi-arranged marriage; we dated and got to know one another, but there was a lot of pressure from my family to formalize the relationship, so we got engaged within 6 months of meeting.

I had my doubts about whether we were really compatible. I found him to be sweet, funny, caring -- on paper, he checked all the boxes -- but I wasn’t particularly attracted to him. I didn’t find him unattractive (objectively, he’s nice looking) but I didn’t connect with him intellectually, which is what really turns me on. I weighed this against all his other great qualities and decided (sort of decided; see family pressure above) that I could deal with this. Marrying him was definitely a measured decision, not an act of passion or “true love”.

In the beginning, our relationship was happy; we did all the things newly married people do: travel, try new things, have lots of great sex. Though I never developed that physical attraction, I did come to care for him deeply. He’s a wonderful person and I've built a life and family with him. We have two beautiful children together.

However, over the years I have come to realize that base attraction to your partner is indeed a very important thing; what I thought was a small thing has started nagging me and grown into something I can no longer ignore. Though we have regular sex and it works well physically, I am not there emotionally. I feel no chemistry, no attraction, no passion. When we kiss, I feel nothing. It’s like having sex with a very good friend, one who knows how to push your buttons and take you to orgasm, but who nevertheless doesn’t turn you on. This isn’t fair to either of us. He doesn’t seem to notice how truly disconnected I am from the experience; he knows there is a difference between his level of attraction and mine, but he doesn’t realize the extent of it. He is very, very into me. But if he knew how I felt, he’d be extremely hurt.

When I contemplate leaving him, I am held up by this one question: what if I find someone who I AM attracted to in all the right ways; will it eventually end up like my marriage anyway? Everyone says butterflies go away. But because I never had butterflies to begin with, I can’t know how true this is. What does it mean when people say this? What does attraction look like in a very long term relationship?

I’m really struggling with my feelings here; please be kind with your responses.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

When I contemplate leaving him, I am held up by this one question: what if I find someone who I AM attracted to in all the right ways; will it eventually end up like my marriage anyway? Everyone says butterflies go away. But because I never had butterflies to begin with, I can’t know how true this is. What does it mean when people say this? What does attraction look like in a very long term relationship?

There are no guarantees in life. You might find someone you find extremely attractive, but they are a huge jerk in the end, or maybe not, maybe a great person who you find attractive. A lot of people in the US, who are tasked with finding a partner themselves and find the idea of a fixed marriage abhorrent, learn this through heartache (this is my voice of experience and I am sure someone will come along and share theirs) and learn a lot about separating physical attraction from judgements about deep compatibility. This sums up my romantic life during my 20's really. I figured out that I could fall deeply and madly in love with someone who shared my values regardless of the initial physical attraction and no matter how attractive I found that person, if they did not share those values or weren't going in the same direction as me just led to heartache and loneliness.

That being said, and I have been with my wife for 7 years now and I met her later in life than most people do for their first marriage (I was 35), attraction comes and goes (on a physical level). I have always found her beautiful though, regardless of how attracted I was to her at that moment. The rush, and 'butterflies' do indeed go away and I feel that the culture in the US (I have no idea where you are from so YMMV) places way, way to much importance on this limerence and not nearly enough on actually living with someone and a far deeper compatibility than just a 'gives me the hots' kind of attraction.

The fact you have found this man (who you admit is good man, caring, kind and supportive) and built a life with him for 15 years is no small thing. There are a lot, A LOT of people with strong mutual physical attraction, who can't manage that.

My suggestion would be to look for the things you do find attractive in this man, and focus on that, not on some ephemeral sense of attraction you might feel a lack of. Perhaps you (meaning the two of you-and like it or not you are in this together and your decision is going to affect more than just you) have developed into a rut and you just want more excitement in life and perhaps you can find it with this man together. Leaving this steady, sure relationship for something without a guarantee might lead you to more happiness in the end. It might not. You pays your money and you takes your chances, to borrow a phrase.

However it sounds like you have been thinking about this for awhile and you have to live your life as best you can-you only get the one afterall.
posted by bartonlong at 4:27 PM on June 6, 2014 [13 favorites]

My first relationship lasted about 7 years, my current one has been 15 so far. Both had their ups and downs, the times when I was achingly in limerence, the times when I was breathing to get through the day. Right now, the current one is pretty good.

For me, love is a conscious process. I have to continue to think about ways that I can stay "in-love", continue to think about how I can improve communication, how we can have that feeling, but I acknowledge that not everyone is compatible, it doesn't always work. In my current relationship we've been told with some surprise that we look like we're newly in love, and there has also been shouting.

I'd offer this: You said "But if he knew how I felt, he’d be extremely hurt." Think about how he'd feel if you left: extremely hurt, too.

Which means that you don't have anything to lose. You tell him, he's hurt. You leave him, he's hurt. So start with telling him. "I feel disconnected from you. I don't like that feeling. I want to work with you to figure out how I can feel more in love with you."

If he sulks for a bit, but then says "Okay, let's figure out how to find that space for you", then he's a keeper. If not, well, he's still hurt, and you can leave. I realize it's scary as hell to initiate the conversation, to say "these are my needs", but...

That 15 years can be a detriment, a history that you can't recover, but it can also be a valuable familiarity, a basis for further growth. I can't tell you which it is, and I'm as quick as any MeFite to jump on the DTMFA bandwagon, but it doesn't sound like you've got an insurmountable past, it sounds like you've got doldrums and need to get the wind back in your sails.

You can't do it alone, you need his active participation, and communication is scary, but both alternatives risk making him extremely hurt, so why not try for the both of you win option first?
posted by straw at 4:51 PM on June 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I contemplate leaving him, I am held up by this one question: what if I find someone who I AM attracted to in all the right ways; will it eventually end up like my marriage anyway

Although this is a valid question, it seems very strange to me that it is your primary question. The one you should be asking (IMHO) is, what if you leave him and you never meet anyone else? I think the decision has to be about whether your life would improve significantly if you were single vs. if you stay married to your husband. It's simply not realistic to choose between him and some theoretical future partner with whom you may or may not have butterflies for ever and ever. Go search for all the threads/comments on here about women over 30/32/35 trying to find men. Unless your circumstances are very unusual, this seems sort of like wondering whether to quit your current job based on the assumption that you'll definitely be offered your dream job later but maybe, in ten years, the dream job won't be as fun as it seemed at first.

If you decide you (and your kids) would be much better off if you were single, and then you meet a man, you can evaluate the pros and cons of getting into a new relationship at that time.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:51 PM on June 6, 2014 [24 favorites]

I feel like I'm somewhat of an outlier, but I experience a few distinct types of attraction when I first meet a potential romantic partner:

1. OMG HOLY SHIT UR HOTTTTTT DO ME NOWWWWWWWWW. This is the butterflies and the nervousness and the "love at first sight" feelings. The times I've not been able to restrain myself from having sex on the first date. The times I've felt out of control. I will say that this never lasts. In fact I don't think I've made it a year in a relationship with someone who made me feel that way upon first meeting them. This is the kind of attraction that fades.

2. O HAI. This is probably where all of my long term relationships have landed. I meet someone, and I'm definitely attracted to them, but more than that I just feel relaxed and like we make sense, as people. I'm able to concentrate much more quickly on who they actually are rather than just that I want to jump their bones. I wouldn't call it a lack of attraction, but it's a more measured thing. Usually once we've established that we like each other, yeah, all the butterflies and can't-keep-our-hands-off-each-other stuff starts up like clockwork.

3. Complete lack of attraction. These are the people I just could never envision myself being romantic with, no matter how many times we hung out. This is the point at which I wouldn't become involved with someone, no matter how nice they are and how good things are on paper.

It's hard to tell from your account whether your husband is type #2 or type #3. If #3, I'd say, yeah, girl, you are really missing out and maybe you should reconsider whether you're really happy where you are. If #2, I'd say, yup, welcome to being an adult, and don't worry, it would never have worked with the guy who made your heart skip a beat, anyway.
posted by Sara C. at 4:59 PM on June 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

I agree with DestinationUnknown that you shouldn't compare "current husband" with "future imaginary partner," because of course your husband could never win that competition (since you can fill in all the blanks in your imaginary partner with perfection) but I wince a little at her framing, especially the bit about "30/32/35." It seems equally as sad and wrongheaded to me to stay in an unhappy relationship because you assume that as a woman approaching 40 you're doomed to be alone forever, as to leave an otherwise good relationship in favor of a dream man you haven't met yet.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:06 PM on June 6, 2014 [32 favorites]

Now that I think about it, your framing actually makes me wonder: OP are you feeling that limerence for someone right now? Is that an aspect of the question you've left unasked? Because if so, I think it's very importance that you step back and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of your marriage as best you can without taking that person into account.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 5:10 PM on June 6, 2014 [13 favorites]

I've been married for 16 years and have found that physical attraction and emotional connection ebbs and flows for me, personally. I was initially very attracted to my husband physically and still am, but the butterflies while kissing feeling can be blunted if other things are going on, such as my mother's terminal illness. Other times, I feel exactly like I did 17 years ago on our first date. Early in a relationship there aren't the same stresses and lifestyle that you have in a typical marriage.

I do, however, know a couple who have been married 20+ years where the husband is still giddy and is in full on puppy love. That relationship is very unbalanced and his wife is manipulative and emotionally abusive. She doesn't feel that way about him, though, so it's not reciprocal and they don't have a happy or calm home, instead it's full of drama and turmoil.
posted by hollygoheavy at 5:44 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Even as I start writing all this out, I'm unsure if it's anything I'm going to want to post, as I wonder how helpful this story is to anyone but me, and to be honest, it's a little terrifying to put this out there for judgement in front of those who will think I failed.

I met my husband when I was 25. I'd had strings of horrible relationships, and while he never made me feel butterflies, he was nice, stable, sane, interesting, and responsible. It was a fine relationship. Just fine. We had fun together. He made me laugh. But there was no passion. No chemistry (for me). After we'd dated for about 6 months I had a crisis: is this it? Is this what a real relationship looks like? I told him about my doubts and almost broke up with him. But I didn't. Because I thought, much like you are thinking, and people here are telling you, yes. This is as good as it gets.

And it was good. We had 2 children. He's an amazing father. He was unbelievably supportive through some incredibly trying times. I changed my own goals in order to support him. And it was fine. He still made me laugh. We had fun together most of the time.

But I had also checked out emotionally from any kind of physical intimacy. I totally understand that feeling of having sex with a friend, (or worse, a sibling). We went through the motions for years. It began to wear on me. I begged him to go to counseling with me, he declined. I went on my own. The lack of emotional intimacy turned into resentment. The idea of putting up with sex to maintain a very nice, grown up, enviable relationship became repellant and abhorrent. I have a trauma history and it began to trigger thoughts and feelings about my rape. I began to loathe every minute I spent with him. Our entire dynamic shifted. We no longer made each other laugh. Any time we went out to do something fun ended up in unsubtle digs at each other, or trying to avoid each other's company, or silence.

I continued to go to therapy alone. And decided to leave, after 15 years. He eventually - when it came down to the fact that I was really leaving - said he would go to counseling with me, but by then it was too late. The thought of him touching me ever again was so repulsive I didn't want to do it anymore.

In leaving, I knew that I was walking away from what could have been a nice grown up relationship. I knew that I may not find anything like that again. I knew that, at 40, I would have a harder time dating than I did at 25. But to me, it was worth it, even risking that I might be alone forever. I actually relished the thought of being alone forever.

Now, a year later, I've learned I'm not undatable. I've met men who have done nothing for me and effortlessly moved on with perspective of the long term implications of that. I've met a man who positively curls my toes, and even knowing there's no future in our relationship, enjoyed it for what it was and the knowing that there was indeed something different out there for me to experience. I might still die alone. And that's still ok, because I like myself, and I like my life, and I love my children and my friends, and I'm really quite content.

And my husband - ex-husband - and I are much better as well. We are the best friends we should have been. He's an amazing dad. He makes me laugh all the time. I'm a better person for having him in my life. But I'm really glad we're not together anymore.

What's the moral or take away here... I'm not sure. I think that sweet and funny and caring and responsible are necessary qualities in a relationship, but passion and communication are also critical, and I didn't have those. Maybe you just lack one. You should find out.

These are hard thoughts. Sad thoughts. Scary thoughts. I hope you find the answers you're looking for. Best of luck to you.
posted by lilnublet at 6:08 PM on June 6, 2014 [60 favorites]

I was married for 17 years, got divorced, and then single-handedly raised three kids for the past eleven years.

What you're suggesting equates getting a lobotomy because you have a headache. Slow down, friend.

You're suggesting divorce, becoming a single parent, and splitting your family apart because your husband doesn't turn you on? Do you have any concept about how dramatically your life and the lives of your children will change if you get divorced? The massive economic changes that will happen? The emotional upheaval this will cause everyone? What this will do to your kids? And your husband? If you got custody of your kids, do you have ANY idea what it's like to work full time, come home and single-handedly parent kids, have to go to all of their school functions, extracurriculars, to do EVERYTHING with no relief? Do you have ANY idea how exhausting that is?

And your sticking point about whether or not to blow up your family is what if your next marriage ends because after 15 years you may not be turned on by a future imaginary partner?

You're asking the wrong questions. You have got to talk to a professional about this. Please stop considering divorce right now. Get some help and seriously, good luck.
posted by kinetic at 6:09 PM on June 6, 2014 [34 favorites]

Were I you, I'd focus on building overall emotional intimacy with your partner, rather than looking at the sex in isolation.

One of the totems of emotional intimacy is honesty. You can start here: if he knew how I felt, he’d be extremely hurt. Because whatever pain he'll feel when you ask him to step forward with you in working to build a better emotional bond is nothing compared to the pain you will cause by filing for divorce.

Get professional help. Shrinks cost less than lawyers.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:22 PM on June 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Who cares about attraction/"butterflies"? What matters is if you love each other. And you don't mention if you love your husband (because love is, after all, a verb - something you do, not just something you feel).
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 6:39 PM on June 6, 2014

I think the question here really is, as the song goes, "Is there life out there?"

It sounds to me like you settled for a good guy, but you settled due to family pressure. You knew in your heart he wasn't quite the right one for you, but....eh.... close enough, right?... You were never crazy go nuts about him and still aren't. You're trying to justify staying with him because a bird in in the hand is worth two in the bush. If you married someone you were crazy about, wouldn't it just end in the same kind of "meh" you're in right now? You're trying to justify still settling for this guy that you're still not 100% into because you have kids--which is somewhat reasonable given what kinetic mentioned. But also, there's what lilnublet mentioned.

Well, nobody can guarantee that it will last or go away for you, and god knows I am not a marital expert. But I've seen couples who still seemed to have the happy joy feelings for each other after many years, regardless of "butterflies" or not. So it's not a guarantee that all marriages go "meh." Yeah, things can still go wrong, but that's probably more due to life circumstances changing (stressful jobs or family situations or whatever might make you stressed or drift apart) rather than losing that loving feeling. And it helps if you guys went into the marriage mutually adoring each other, which isn't the case for you.

I don't know if you'd find someone better for you or not if you got a divorce, and if that is worth the drama that comes along with divorce. But I strongly suspect that you're starting to go the way that lilnublet did: after awhile you just can't take settling any more. And then you may just have to face a divorce because your soul needs the hell out. Or you suddenly do find someone you have feelings for and have a flaming affair and that gets you out of the relationship.

My suggestion would also be to talk to somebody professionally. I don't know if things as they are are worth ending the relationship for you yet, but it sounds like they're going that way.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:51 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was with someone for about 17 years and we maintained a very strong physical/sexual attraction to each other throughout most of that time. Things waned in the early parenting days, but apart from that we stayed pretty hot for each other and had a very strong emotional, intellectual and philosophical connection. Sex became infrequent (monthly) in the latter years, but was still intense and deeply satisfying when it happened. We also never found a way to manage conflict and that was part of what did us in in the end. Our relationship was possibly something like the opposite of what you have; exciting and full of thrills but exhausting and not healthy.

I also know a couple in which the woman could easily be you if you decide to pursue something more. They've been together for over 20 years now and she was around your age when they got together. They have what looks like a very healthy and respectful relationship with lots of the things I had with my wife as well, but she says that leaving her first husband cost her very dearly.

Her first marriage was probably very much like yours I'd say. She seemed very happy in it and I no have idea if she pined for something more, but it was very clear that once she met her current man, she started to have very strong feelings for him that ultimately caused her to leave her marriage.

Her children were very angry with her for a long time and, due to the circumstances surrounding the beginning of the relationship, which may have involved infidelity, she lost friends too. Also, and partly because her ex is a good man, many of her friends were extremely judgemental toward her for leaving him. I watched it at close quarters. It was very full on. A lot of people were angry at her for daring to want something better than the obviously good man she already had. Patriarchal stuff about what women should aspire to tied up with sympathy for him I guess. Interestingly, her husband was cooler with it than most other people. He accepted it graciously and remained decent throughout. I couldn't have done what he did, I'd have been devastated if my wife had done that, but our circumstances were very different.

So, the price was high for her, but they've been together now longer than either of their first marriages and, as I say, they look to have a loving and respectful relationship that includes the things you're missing out on.

Some of the conclusions I draw from all that are:
• Finding the passion and emotional intensity you seek is possible and it can be lasting;
• It won't necessarily be better overall than what you have, but it could be;
• You may find that a different kind of relationship, with its own strengths and weaknesses, will be easier to live with;
• If you choose to look for something else, it may end up costing you a lot.

To this I would add, that in my opinion:
• You have every right to pursue something better, no matter how good your current situation might appear;
• You should listen to your heart and try to have the courage to do what it tells you, even it seems crazy or stupid to others;
• If you decide to leave your husband, you should do it before you fall in love with someone else;
• Be prepared for the possibility that you may end up worse off for a time, maybe a long time.

I really feel for you. It must be a difficult situation to be in. I wish you all the best, whatever you do.
posted by mewsic at 9:32 PM on June 6, 2014 [9 favorites]

• You have every right to pursue something better, no matter how good your current situation might appear;
• You should listen to your heart and try to have the courage to do what it tells you, even it seems crazy or stupid to others;

Well, yes, but you also have a very serious responsibility to your marriage and your family. So choosing to end your marriage and blow up your family because you want to pursue something better without committing 100% to first working on your current relationship isn't fair to your husband, your kids, or to you.

You're not describing an abusive marriage, a hostile marriage, or even an unpleasant marriage. He just doesn't turn you on. I understand that's making you unhappy, I'm just saying that you're not mentioning any big red relationship flags.

I recognize your unhappiness, but you really should work on your marriage before you decide to bail.

And consider this in your process: you may NOT ever meet anyone else. It's an absolute possibility that you will end your marriage and this other imaginary man...you won't meet him. So don't have your exit predicated on Prince Charming around the bend.
posted by kinetic at 6:20 AM on June 7, 2014

what if I find someone who I AM attracted to in all the right ways; will it eventually end up like my marriage anyway? Everyone says butterflies go away. But because I never had butterflies to begin with, I can’t know how true this is. What does it mean when people say this? What does attraction look like in a very long term relationship?

If you find someone you are attracted and compatible with on the intellectual level you need and have been missing, then no, the butterflies won't go away. They'll change maybe, become a bit less intense, but they'll also grow stronger and deeper as they grow roots in both of your hearts. You two will bound and continue bonding in those intellectual ways you like.

As to your marriage, it's been 15 years and you haven't developed what you need and crave with your husband. So it may be time to leave him. But consider why and how you married him. You say you were more or less bullied into it by your family. Is that dynamic still there i.e. will they pressure you to stay with him or some such? Do they still have that power over you? Recognize your own agency in doing what they wanted and ask yourself if you're able to deflect or deal in a stronger fashion this time around. You've been living a bit of lie for 15 and everyone around you has been seeing that lie as reality, so they may not handle the truth well

Finally, if you are headed for a divorce, remember to be an adult and treat him amicably if the's doing the same to you. Look after your kids and try to make it as painless as possible for them.

If your relationship remains unfulfilling after 15 years, you have every right to terminate it. Just do so with care for those who will be effected by your decision.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:24 AM on June 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

I describe relationships as like sine waves which come together and flow up and down together in sync and then go their own way. Some run in sync longer than others.
There is nothing wrong in this though others may be judgemental. You could consider an affair to see if that produces the frission you are seeking. Again others if they find out may be judgemental. Different societies have different norms. The decision is yours.
I wish you joy.
posted by adamvasco at 2:37 PM on June 7, 2014

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