“Immature loves says ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says ‘I need you because I love you.’” ~ Erich Fromm
I have been a psychotherapist for 30 years, and a couples therapist for most of that time.
I abhorred working with couples in the beginning, and usually came away feeling tied up in knots. I now realize that it was the “knot” between the couple that I was feeling—and it hurt.
In those early days, I easily fell into hopelessness as I witnessed the heart-wrenching dance every couple played out, in which one person longed for the very thing the other was least capable of giving. I began to feel as if this was some sick joke played on us by the Creator—that we would be drawn to the very person who would pour salt on the unhealed wounds of childhood.
At that time, I was stuck in my own survival dance with my former husband, and every time I sat with a couple, I could see more of my own brokenness mirrored back to me in duplicate. Thankfully, I got myself some great training early on, and I began to understand how much of this “fatal attraction” dilemma was a brain thing.
I learned that, due to the hardwiring of our primitive brains, we are chemically drawn to a person who is like one of our parents—in both positive and negative ways—and if not, we are compulsively wired to see them that way. In other words, we will get the hots for someone who will eventually break our heart—but we cannot see that in the beginning, because we are actually drugged.
When we fall in love, our body is flooded with phenylethylamine (PEA), called the “love drug,” also found in chocolate and red wine, and stimulates the production of endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones. PEA strongly increases dopamine, a hormone that is associated with pleasure and arousal, and leads to the euphoric and intoxicating feelings of erotic love.
It is also what contributes to the saying “love is blind,” which Shakespeare himself declared in The Merchant of Venice:
“But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.”
Modern-day research supports the view that the blindness of love is not just a figurative matter, but that “being in love” actually suppresses the activity of the neocortex, the part of the brain that controls critical thinking and good judgment. We are transformed, as Shakespeare said, to a boy or a girl, and begin functioning from a more primitive part of the Self.
Fast forward many years since my early training, and I have sat with over 1000 couples. I no longer fall into despair (most of the time), and I still believe in love. Couples usually come to me when they have moved out of the “in love” first stage of a relationship and into the second stage, or power struggle. They are doing their survival dance, which has triggered great disappointment, and often outright battle, or a cold war of distance and disconnection.
The first and second stages are unconscious because each person is operating with a hidden load of unconscious or shadow material from their pasts, fueling their behavior, and the intelligent part of the brain is not functioning at full capacity. Once the PEA wears off (and it always does), our partner’s “dark side” or shadow becomes visible to us, which activates our own.
When this happens, it’s like being in a hall of mirrors where it’s nearly impossible to know what is real and what is not. An interpersonal dynamic is cocreated that leads two people who really love each other to project their disowned shadow material onto each other—and it isn’t pretty.
The more unconscious our shadow remains to us, as we project onto our partner, the less substance we have. We are like slivers of who we once were, and we wonder why we end up feeling miserable and why our energy begins to drain. It’s really a blessing when one of the partners begins to feel the rumbling of dissatisfaction and turns inward to reclaim disowned parts of the self. It only takes one person waking up and owning their shadow to lift the spell and open the possibility of the third stage: mature love.
The third stage is the beginning of conscious connection. It is the birthplace of true intimacy, and can lead to becoming a full-fledged adult, which is the higher purpose of any relationship. It is when the projections are taken back and the conflict is used to fuel a deeper connection to the self, to each other, and to the world.
Love wants us to learn how to love more, and stretches and expands us into a brave new world, a higher dimension of consciousness, beyond conflict and differences. Psychologist Eric Fromm says, “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”
The one thing that is in the way of love is fear, and the one power that will set you free is surrendering to love. This is the apparent catch-22 of being a spiritual being in a human body. Rather than return to the fantasy of perfect love, we are called to a more evolved way of loving that embraces all of life, including the conflict and struggle and the apparently unresolvable catch-22’s of life.
When we cling to old ways of loving based on our wounds and then attempt to get what we should have received but did not, too great a pressure is heaped on any relationship. And yet we are wired to choose a partner onto whom we heap those impossible expectations, precisely to re-experience the hurt and to have the opportunity to heal. The more conscious the people involved are about this “repetition compulsion,” as Freud termed it, the greater the growth.
The great lesson of these times is to remain awake as we learn to love, and to be willing to step beyond the limits of the personal into a love that extends beyond ourselves. In the most practical sense, you must first let go of being right and instead, make connection a priority. We all crave connection, but it cannot be on our terms alone. It means that we learn to be relational, taking others into account as powerfully as we do ourselves.
Mature love means we go for the deeper communion that involves a kind of reverence for the people in our lives, while at the same time being deeply true to our own self. Rather than losing ourselves in the other, we look toward a common horizon, sharing a vision that arises from our souls.