As a teenager I experienced a fair amount of heartbreak. Sometime after falling in love my partner would gradually lose interest, becoming distant and indifferent, and eventually deciding to call it off. The breakup would leave me with a sense of despair and sometimes anger. But I wanted to understand why. I wanted to know how it was that something so sweet could turn so sour. I wanted to understand this thing called love.
In trying to find answers I came across a great deal of scientific literature on neurochemicals and the brain. I came to understand the biological nature of physical attraction, sexual arousal, and pair-bonding. I came to understand that during these interactions the brain releases a number of chemicals that cause us to feel euphoric, urging us not only to procreate but to remain with that partner for a length of time. What I concluded from all of this was that love is nothing more than a biological function of the brain, a chemical cocktail, and a temporary one at that.
Do I still believe this? Not quite. I’m not suggesting that the science isn’t accurate. It’s very precise. It does explain a lot about why we feel the way we do when we begin engaging with a new partner. And it does reveal that much of what we feel is transitory and misleading. That is to say that we’re experiencing a high as a result of these neurochemical reactions. In fact, some of the chemicals involved in this process are the same ones triggered by drugs such as cocaine and meth. And just as a drug addict experiences a certain degree of withdrawal, so does the “love addict” in the form of melancholy and loneliness.
What I have come to understand in the years since is that these scientific findings do not explain anything at all about love, because love is something entirely different. What these findings pertain to are feelings of attraction, arousal and infatuation, which we unfortunately mistake for love. And it’s because we confuse these feelings with love that we rarely truly experience it.
Now I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with these feelings. They are perfectly natural after all, and very much necessary for the survival of any specie. But it’s important to understand them, to be aware of them, especially when they present themselves. It’s important to be able to distinguish between these feelings and authentic love. One is intrinsic of the body (and brain), while the other is intrinsic of the soul.
One reason why love seems so difficult to find is because we grasp at illusions. We grasp onto transient emotions, thinking that its love, and so it clouds us from going any deeper. Infatuation, attachment, lust and the like become barriers to discovering the authentic love that lies dormant within us. Not only this, but we also maintain a number of other illusions concerning love.
When it comes to relationships we all have some fantasy of how our ideal partner would be, or what a relationship is supposed to be like. And a great deal of this comes from social conditioning, literature, music and films. We talk about our dream partner, and sometimes we think we’ve found that person.
But often we find, after some time has passed, that the euphoria wears off. This is in part due to the brain no longer producing the chemicals I spoke of earlier. But this also has to do with our own projections. The person we are with is not who they initially appeared to be. They may fall short of our expectations, or worse, they may turn out to be quite the opposite. We find ourselves disappointed, even frustrated. We find ourselves falling out of love.
The problem isn’t with the other person, however. The problem lies with us and our imagination. We imagine what the perfect partner would be like, and the perfect relationship. And we look for someone who seems to fit that ideal. And when we meet someone we try to project that ideal onto them. In some cases it seems to fit. But it requires that we exaggerate their desirable qualities while at the same time ignoring or downplaying the undesirable ones. The other thing is that it takes time to really get to know someone. In the initial phases there’s so much we don’t know, and so we tend to fill those gaps with our imagination.
Because we’re caught up in fantasy and imagination we see everything through a narrow and cloudy filter. We see only what we want to see, only what fits with our ideal, even if we have reshape it a little. And it’s not entirely in our own head either. The other person is likely filtering their own behavior, giving you the best of themselves while hiding their imperfections. We want to please the other. We want to secure them. So we go out of our way to be a little more desirable, a little more attentive and affectionate, a little more agreeable and pleasant, and to distract from any qualities the other might find displeasing.
It’s like we’re interviewing for the position, so we’re on our best behavior. We want to convince the other that we’re the most suited, so we put forth an extra effort to please. But once we secure the position and we’re a little more comfortable we gradually decrease that effort and our authentic temperaments and habits begin to come out.
Even if we’re able to recognize some of the undesirable qualities in the other, we may do so with the expectation that these qualities may change over time. We might see someone as having great potential, but the truth is that within each of us lies enormous and unbounded potential. And while everyone has this potential, very few exercise it. So recognizing the undesirable qualities in this way is not acceptance. There’s still that desire for the person to eventually change, to live up to that potential. This means we don’t accept them as they are presently. We have this expectation for them to become something different, and the reality is that people seldom live up to our expectations.
So in the beginning of the relationship there is so much illusion, so much fantasy. But we like that. It makes it exciting and passionate. But the problem with illusion is that it’s difficult to maintain. In the beginning we’re trying to appease one another, whether we realize it or not. We are trying to keep their attention and interest. But once we feel that we’ve secured the relationship, we begin to relax. We begin to settle down and revert to our regular way of behaving. This is when the relationship becomes dull or dissatisfying. This is when tension and conflict begins to arise.
We think that the other has changed. Really, they’ve just reverted back to their usual self. For a while they were playing a game, likely unaware of it, just as you’re likely unaware of your own game. And now you’re truly beginning to see one another more authentically. Also, your perspective is broadening. You’re no longer focused primarily on the desirable qualities. Now you’re beginning to see the flaws and imperfections. And there isn’t anything wrong with this. But it seems such a drastic change because we compare that reality to the image we had of them. We compare to the fantasy which is now beginning to fade.
We need to be very aware of the illusions we hold concerning love and relationships because this is what creates so much of the conflict. We think the other is to blame for not living up to our standards, by not meeting our needs. The truth is that they aren’t living up to our illusions and expectations, and it isn’t their responsibility to do so. They’re your illusions. So recognize that. Own up to them. Take responsibility for your disappointment by taking responsibility for your expectations.
It’s this point in the relationship when love is truly tested. Because those illusions which we so often mistake for love are wearing thin. They’re temporary and cannot last. And if there is no genuine love existing beneath them, then there’s no foundation for a healthy relationship, and the whole thing collapses.
So, if we want to have a relationship that’s healthy and strong, we need to understand all of this. We need to have a realistic approach. This isn’t to say that we can’t enjoy the initial euphoria of infatuation, but we have to understand the a chemical rush, and like any drug it’s going to wear off. So the question is, can we embrace the reality? Can we also appreciate the relationship in its authenticity?
And I’m not suggesting that the reality has to be dull or bleak or boring. It usually only appears that way because we compare it to the grandiose illusions we have about love. It only appears that way when it doesn’t measure up to our expectations. If we hold someone to an unrealistic ideal, then naturally it’s going to disappoint us. But if we embrace the reality of the relationship, and truly accept one another with gratitude and appreciation, we can love very deeply. There can be a real joy in the stability and consistency, in the familiarity. There can be a real lasting intimacy.
We crave excitement. We want burning fiery passion. But if you want a fire that lasts all night, you don’t put all the wood on at once. A fire that burns too hot dies out quickly. And this is why so many relationships don’t last very long. There can still be passion in a long-term relationship. But to expect passion at every moment is unrealistic.
The problem isn’t that passion naturally withers from relationships as they evolve. The problem is that we want passion all the time. And more than this, we expect it. We demand it. But what we fail to realize is that anything we do regularly becomes regular. In other words if we were passionate all the time it would lose its excitement. It wouldn’t be passion anymore. Passion is exciting because it’s short-lived. It’s infrequent. It arrives in waves, rising and falling. But if we demand passion to remain constantly, we can actually end up killing it.
Imagine you have a machine that measures the frequency of relationship energy in waves. The nature of waves is that they rise and fall. If you get a peak, it will be followed by a trough, which is a low point equal to the amplitude of the peak. The peak represents excitement and spontaneity. The trough represents calmness and routine. Excitement and spontaneity are what creates a sense of passion. Calmness and routine are what we generally consider to be dull and uninteresting. And the higher the peak, the lower the trough. This means that if the passion is extremely hot, it will likely be followed by extreme coolness. And if we crave passion very strongly, we resist that coolness and create excitement through tension and conflict. So in other words, a relationship that is extremely passionate is also likely to be extremely dramatic and unstable. And these kind of relationships generally don’t last very long. There’s usually a lot of agitation, anger and fighting, which eventually leads to a sudden and dramatic break up.
Now we don’t want a flat line either. That would mean that the relationship is dead. What we want is a healthy pulse, a smooth fluctuation. There will be times in every relationship when we feel close and connected, and there will be times when we need space. There will be times when we agree and times when we disagree. There will be things our partner does that we enjoy and things that irritate us. The key is to maintain balance. But as long as we impose our ideals and expectations upon one another there will always be disappointment and tension.
Can we recognize and examine our illusions, to see them for what they are and to release them? Perhaps then we can truly be present with the reality of the relationship, with the actual instead of the imaginary. Then we can be in a space of acceptance and appreciation. And when we’re in that space, there is so much more room for genuine love to blossom.