St. Valentine’s Day is near and soon the media will be throwing at us avalanches of pink hearts and romantic messages. Be my Valentine! Romantic love is in the air and if you happen to be without a partner, you’re bound to be feeling like you are missing an important part of life.
What is romantic love, actually, and what purpose does it serve in our lives?
Romantic love is a myth. A beautiful one, but still an illusion. And a dangerous one, too. It is difficult to find a song a movie, or a novel that doesn’t maintain, at least in part, that romantic love is that magical meeting of two soulmates who are magnetically attracted to each other and instantly form an everlasting bond, a relationship that will sustain all the tests of time and life, until death two us part. All you need to do is find him or her, and the rest will become history.
Falling in love is an experience of altered consciousness. If you’ve ever had a crush, you probably remember how it was to be head over heels in love—when passion and intense erotic or romantic fantasies cause the brain to experience a pleasurable rush. Infatuation releases hormone dopamine and rids the brain of all negative emotions. Suddenly, the pain you feel is gone—all thanks to this new relationship. Helen Fisher, a researcher who has spent her academic life trying to figure out what goes on in the brains of those who are passionately in love, found that the brain areas associated with the production of dopamine and adrenaline are stimulated in those who are freshly in love.
However, when the first rush of romantic infatuation wears off, another mechanism takes over. We start to see our new partners as they really are, and feel friendlier toward, rather than infatuated with, them. During this stage of a love relationship, oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone,” is released in the brain, stimulating the formation of a real, lasting attachment between partners. While this hormone prompts trust and bonding, the attachment formed can also have negative aspects, inciting feelings of jealousy, envy, and suspicion. But if your partner leaves you, you will experience the feelings that mimic addictive cravings and withdrawal symptoms. In some people, a relationship addiction can develop.
Addictive love is an attempt to satisfy a fundamental, instinctive hunger for security, power, belonging, and meaning that everyone feels in early childhood.
Relationship addiction develops in people who have experienced emotional abandonment by their caregivers in their childhood, and who try to heal (or at least hide) that pain by daydreaming about an ideal relationship with an imaginary person, in which they will eventually be repaid for the suffering they endured. They fantasize that their chosen partner will notice and recognize the depth of their pain and will understand that their love is sacred and special. After all, they have already experienced the pain caused by an absence of love, so they believe they understand its true value better than others can.
As a result, they believe no one else could love their chosen partner as well and deeply as they can, and that no matter how many obstacles come their way or how many times they are abandoned, someday, they will make their partner realize how precious their love is, making them want to stay with them forever. Waiting for that “someday,” they ignore the warning signs in their relationship today, and subconsciously look to their love partners to “fix” the innate fear and discomfort left over from their painful childhoods—often tolerating abuse in the process, or even inflicting it themselves. In many cases, they even use and abuse the partners they claim to love.
But what exactly sets the stage for addiction such as this in relationships?
Growing up in a dysfunctional family in which a parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol or is emotionally distant forces a child to adapt to survive. When their parents don’t meet their needs, children may take on some of the adult’s responsibilities, like caretaking, rescuing, and nurturing. They behave as “little adults,” and often receive some praise for it from family members. But as children, they have not developed enough to understand the tasks they take on—so they often fail, and experience feelings of powerlessness and incompetence, or receive criticism instead of praise. Under these conditions, they fail to develop self-esteem. When they grow up, they lack confidence in themselves, and remain dependent on the praise of others.
In adolescence, the instinctive expectation that someone will take care of them and satisfy their need for intimacy is maintained; but in the mind of a potential relationship addict, the responsibility for fulfilling those expectations is transferred from the mother or father to an imaginary Mr. or Mrs. Right. The potential addict starts daydreaming about the “right” partner, with whom they will form a romantic relationship so perfect, it will be worth the pain they suffered and the sacrifices they made in childhood. They expect that their chosen partner will not only offer them love, intimacy, and sex, but also compensate them for their lost childhood. This is why the relationship addict’s ideas about love often don’t fit the model of a love relationship between equals, but rather a parent-child relationship. However, while it’s normal for a child to be dependent on their parents, this same dependent behavior in a thirty-year-old woman, for example, becomes a problem.
As a result of their painful childhoods, relationship addicts obsess about other people, crave intimate relationships, and have unrealistic expectations about their own unconditional affection, believing it should provide a solution to all their problems by attracting people who will fulfill their every need.
This influences their love relationships, because nobody could ever completely satisfy their deep addictive cravings. By the same token, whenever these addicts are not in a relationship, they feel inadequate and unworthy. Their greatest fear is that they will be abandoned; to prevent this, they rescue, control, or try to change other people. Believing that they are somehow inadequate, a feeling that resonates their childhood traumas, they are trying to merge with the other person and not reveal their self. They develop a Mask, a false self, trying to match their partner. By trying to be their perfect match, they keep losing sight of their inward treasure and trading in their self-respect, continuing to erase themselves to sustain relationships.
However, that very tendency toward clinging and obsessive control often makes their relationships so unbearable that their partners finally decide to leave—making the relationship addict’s fear of abandonment a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What is true love?
It is not just a phrase that one should first learn to love themselves, and only then try to love another person. But what does this cliché mean?
It means that we should be looking for answers to the problems of adulthood and intimacy in ourselves instead of in each other. We need to develop social confidence, spirituality, independence, learn to find sources of support and appreciation! And, most of all, become brave and confident enough to let ourselves be truly seen. Intimacy, the essence of true love, involves the courage to let yourself be truly seen by your lover!
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.