Falling in love can be such a wonderful, transformative experience. The discovery of that special person, with whom we seem to connect so easily, can make everything seem so much brighter, so much more vibrant and meaningful. All those love songs that we might have dismissed as soppy were written just for us. We even become interested in flowers, poetry and long walks. And there’s not a thing we can’t do. For some people: the lucky ones, it is indeed the experience that changes everything. They can leave all their worries behind and plan a life together, forever in love. It is amazing how people stricken with long term illnesses can experience a miraculous recovery when they fall in love. Love is so much better than therapy.
But for others, true love seems an impossible dream. But the more painful it is, the more meaningful. They yearn for love, putting themselves through agonies of self deprecation – I’m not pretty enough, I’m too boring, nobody will ever fancy me. People who have been hurt once or those whose self confidence has been undermined are particularly susceptible. And once they have found somebody, they worry that it’s not as wonderful as they imagined. Nevertheless, they need the security of that special relationship so much that they cling on, fearing rejection and loneliness but not daring to admit that their dreams might just be make-believe. What was once suffused with such hope, inevitably becomes part of their poignant narrative of hopelessness and frustration. So as the reality sets in, they may re-enact the screen play, one partner becoming the victim, the other forever guilty; both wedded to the pain of loss or betrayal and unable to break free. I once knew a patient who became so incapacitated with IBS and chronic fatigue after the disillusion of her marriage that her errant husband felt compelled to stay at home and be her full time carer. One might say that they lived their lives trapped by her vengeance and his guilt.
There are others, who do not even dare to trust, so they bring their distrust into the relationship. Periodic desire then oscillates with doubt and rejection as they try to manage the distance between themselves. This is the kind of courtship we see in some solitary species, the dance of love – not unlike the Argentinian tango.
And of course some may split up and find someone else – the triumph of hope over experience – only for the same thing to happen again.
‘This is all so depressing’, I hear you say. It is indeed, but it needn’t be and it isn’t always. If couples can see behind the romance and the desperation and keep hold of their own individuality, there is every chance things will work out.
So why do some people have such a difficult time with intimate relationships? The answer has much to do with how they were able to negotiate the separation from their parents as they grew up and left home. People, who are so desperate to find true love, were probably never able to separate from their parents and start their adult life with a confident sense of their own independence. Instead they sought rescue from their own insecurity.
Parents so often bring their own unmet psychological needs to their relationships with their sons or daughters, compromising their ability to create uncomplicated attachments for themselves. Philip Larkin got this in his misanthropic poem,
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
We are such a perverse species. Many of us spend the first part of our lives learning how to become independent and separate from our parents. We can’t wait to get away and be free, – only to plunge, at the first available opportunity, into another dependant relationship. And, of course, we carry all the hurt, distrust and disappointment from that primal parental relationship into the second.
People tend to chose partners who have similar childhood dynamics. Those who have felt ignored, neglected or rejected may chose someone who has had a similar experience and understands how insecure they feel. At first, it can feel like they are reborn. They have found their soul mate who can offer the unconditional love and care that they crave. Their love gives them confidence, empowers them, heals the hurt. They grow close and begin to rely on each other, until eventually they become so interdependent that they can seem to lose any sense of their own individuality. So, although they might at times need personal space, their need for support is greater and they lean on each other. Nevertheless, the structure they have have created together is so unstable that any hint of disagreement can cause it to topple over and make them ill.
On the other hand, those whose parents were intrusive and controlling may find the idea of a relationship too threatening to their hard won independence and seek somebody who shares their same notion of independence and freedom and with whom they can balance distance with commitment.
Each type of relationship is an exercise of gauging trust and managing distance so that each partner feels that at least some of their needs are met some of the time. However, in order to develop the resilience to sustain their relationship long term, they may have to go through the whole adolescent process of separation and individuation again, except that this time they don’t necessarily need to leave home: they can stay and work to recover their own autonomy and learn to understand that of their partner. Not everybody has the patience or the will to go through that process. We live in a throw away society. If something is not working, we may try to find an alternative that does.
As love cools and becomes mired in the mundane and mutual recrimination, some may find the excitement they still crave in an ‘affair’, but that nearly always complicates matters. Not only do they submit themselves to the same insecurities of falling in love all over again, but this time they do it knowing that they can never completely join with their lover and they are are betraying their marriage partner. They may, of course, try to ‘have their cake and eat it’, retaining the security of their marriage partner while enjoying the thrill of their lover, but that requires great social skill to do that and costs such a lot in fear and guilt. There is not just one distance to manage but two, and each must remain secret from the other with all the inherent risk, lies, guilt and tension, not to mention the illness that is so often the unconscious consequence of secrecy. They may get away with it for a while, but ‘the body keeps the score’.
A love affair is a creative fiction; an exercise in make believe. Lovers identify with the romantic tragedy, they convince themselves that their’s is the one true love, and they are just kept apart by factors beyond their control: the business, the children, where they live, but the impossibility of their situation can add to the narcissistic thrill of it all.
They said that this thing just couldn’t be done.
With a smile, each said they knew it!
So they tackled the thing that just couldn’t be done.
And they couldn’t do it!
Their hope remains eternal; their frustration and unhappiness can be blamed on his wife or her husband while their love is made all the more precious by the impossible myth that makes it all worthwhile. So, on they go, continuing to suspend the inevitable mistrust and disbelief while betrayal lurks in the wings amid all the stage junk of lies and disappointment.
One curious and complicating side effect of such enforced division, is that during an affair, couples may come to see their core partner as separate again, rekindling their interest and sexual desire.
‘It’ll all end in tears’. Your grandmother would have said as much. The dreadful risk is the double betrayal that undermines the construct of fabrication of hope and meaning upon which both relationships were founded; what was once so attractive: her femininity, his manliness, their fidelity is gone forever and all that seems remains is regret, loneliness and illness. There is, however, another way.
PS. If you can stick with these depressing ruminations, I will offer hope and some resolution in the last post in this series.