The philosopher Alain de Botton writes and talks about our current age of romantic love, which differs to an era where for better or worse, partners in marriage were expected to tolerate each other. Nowadays, romance is definitely a big business and February is the month in which several industries capitalise on the elusive L word.
What is Love?
Generally, we are born out of love and live seeking to love and be loved. What we perceive as love, like the other big existential questions like death, I believe is relative to our culture. Love can, and does, manifest in various ways and means different things to the wide range of communities.
A popular idea that we read about today is that love is an experience of ego expansion; we love something that we like or identify with and in that process extend our sense of self. This sounds reasonable when we think of liking flowers or loving a work of art. But when we choose to form a partnership with someone who often tests the weakest elements of our character, the complexity of love and relationships is more obvious.
Many people interested in mental or emotional wellbeing have enjoyed reading Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled. I particularly like his chapter on love, where in a nutshell, he writes that to love someone is to give them your time and attention. I agree that there is no better expression of love than to be available to someone and to give of yourself to them. An indication that we are liked is that the other wants to spend time with us.
An aspect of creating and maintaining relationships that is important to us is attraction. Whether it’s physical, mental, emotional or more in the realm of social constructs, we can call this magnetism, chemistry.
‘To feel or not to feel butterflies in your stomach’ is a question debated amongst therapists and relationship theorists. I am not sure which idea has more support, but I know that I, along with many others active in the world of understanding humans, sit in the pro-chemistry camp.
Why would we avoid someone that we feel drawn to? If in recent years you have been reading articles on the psychology of love and relationships, you will be aware of the consensus amongst experts that we attract and feel drawn to people who eventually challenge us in the most powerful ways imaginable. In some cases, individuals keep getting caught up in relationships that are more harmful than loving.
Pop psychology says: opposites attract. A Relational Psychotherapist can also put it simply; we welcome a partner that complements us. An individual who meets the world primarily through their thinking capacity will feel warmed and excited by another whose primary contact with the world is made via emotion. And of course, the very thing that we lack and therefore admire as it attracts us to someone at the offset will likely eventually get in our way and grind and divide us.
What we tend to do quite effectively is delude ourselves about the other with romantic ideas in the initial stages of a relationship, and then later, when the partnership is more secure, we act out our psychological dramas. In this stage, we use projection and other techniques like selective hearing, to organise others into the characters in our life script that we have unresolved pending issues with, which we need to address.
In the current spiritual movement, it is said that soul mates will present you with the lessons that you need to learn. My psychotherapeutic training is in Transactional Analysis and one of the founding concepts is script theory. At the beginning of our lives, we unconsciously form conclusions regarding ourselves and our relationships with others and the world. This life script then gives direction to our lives and also limits our experiences.
These beliefs that we carry in the form of a script, keep us repeating the patterns established in childhood relationships. We keep repeating these relationships, in pursuit of a different experience; we seek a different ending to our predictable story. But the old neural pathways that were wired through repeated experiences in childhood, are quicker routes for the electrical impulses that run through our brains. Firing new synapses to change our ways takes work and attention.
I understand why some of us might like to or choose to avoid relationships. Many do well to take time to look after themselves or develop themselves and in that period may choose to protect themselves from harmful patterns or simply divert their attention elsewhere. However, I also believe that it is through love that one heals. When someone has been damaged significantly, the help of a therapist is advisable in the process of healing and subsequent opening up to the risk of intimacy.
Despite the need for care and attention, I am not convinced about avoiding chemistry when choosing a partner, as I believe that love is about connection. There needs to be a pull. The more excited we feel about another, the more likely we are to find ourselves challenged. But why shun away from the life’s challenges? If you believe that life is a journey of lessons, then we are here to learn and in that process experience love and hurt – it’s all natural and no life is pain-free.
My client work has been mostly one to one although I also work with groups and couples. One thing which fascinates me about working with couples is how each party in a partnership will give completely opposing versions of their story. Recently, in my social circle, I heard these two versions of a new relationship:
“Her approach is just too much! My impression is that we just had a casual thing, we are essentially friends but she is taking this as something serious and really, that is not for me.”
“He is SO into me! Even his friends are really rooting for us. But I really don’t think he is right for me, I mean we don’t really have much in common. I don’t see anything serious will come of it”.
Conflictive yet reflective statements like these are common amongst couples and demonstrate how elusive our reality is when it comes to intimate relationships, and how tainted they tend to be by projections and distortions.
When approached with acceptance and respect, difference lends itself for a lot of humour. My impression is that this is the case with many older couples who managed to achieve longevity in partnerships, as well as many younger couples I know who give their time and attention to succeeding in maintaining relationships.
Through love, everyone finds their complimentary script player. When two people are mature enough and have sufficient awareness, they can find health in the middle ground, balance each other out.