Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Falling In and Out of Love

A subject of great interest

I read another article this morning by a woman who fell in love and then was rejected, “breaking her heart.” Then she meets a man whom she falls in love with and marries. As she put it in her last sentence, “My heart was open, because I had finally let it break.” Does this make any sense? It would be nice to think so. Most people have had their hearts broken more than once, and it would be nice to think the experience served some purpose. If it is a statement that rejection is a necessary precursor to falling in love happily and forever, it is certainly not true. But the article was interesting, and I read it through to the end.

Love, as pedestrian and universal as it is, is a subject of fascination. I always knew this, but I don’t think I appreciated it until I started writing blogs for Psychology Today. When I write about the subject which I have wrestled with and taught throughout my entire professional life, namely the anxiety disorders, I am likely to find somewhere between one and two thousand readers. (A recent post on “The Fear of Fainting,” which is a common symptom of phobias, has currently about 600 views.) On the other hand, a post I wrote some time ago on “What Does It Take To Fall In Love?” is currently up to 170,000 views. I have re-read it a couple of times to see what made it popular, and the reason escapes me. I did not offer any practical advice to deal with falling in or out of love. Not in that post, at least. I would like to be able to command an audience of that size when I write, but it is all a mystery. If I write a funny, political post, I am lucky to get 500 views.

Is it possible to say anything new about love? I don’t know. Every once in a while, sitting opposite someone who is in a mist of a romantic passion, often in pain, I wonder about the details of what I am being told. So, it is certainly possible for a particular observer to be struck anew about one thing or another. Here are some random observations that have occurred to me:

On the basis of what a lover says about the fact of being in love, there is nothing to distinguish an adolescent in love from an adult, or from an elderly person. Yet, the adolescent love, “puppy love,” is spoken of patronizingly as trivial. Similarly, an elderly person in love is thought of as vaguely ridiculous, or “charming,” once again with condescension. Love is only taken seriously when it occurs to adults of child-bearing age; and I think that is the point. Love is a precursor to connecting permanently and having children. When that is not possible, it seems comically misplaced. On the other hand, to those who are smitten, it seems of paramount importance. It is also experienced, like other very strong feelings, such as grief, as likely to last forever, even though everyone knows that is not so.

Love is a very bad reason to maintain a destructive relationship, but it is often offered up in that situation by people who seem by every other standard to be reasonable and intelligent. I don’t think this is what is meant by “love being blind,” which is a statement of the irrationality of falling in love; but the tendency to hang on just because “I love him (or her)” is equally blind. This sort of clinging behavior is ill-advised and potentially devastating to self-esteem. And it can be fatal when the object of that love is violent, which is sometimes the case.

Love is a remitting and relapsing disorder. You might be desperately in love with a particular individual one day and a year later in love with someone else. Often it seems impossible to remember what justified that first love. The most extreme example of this that I ever saw was a woman who was convincingly expressing suicidal thoughts in the wake of a romantic rejection and yet spoke of being equally in love with someone else a week later. If I repeat this story to someone in the midst of an anguished love affair, I am invariably told that “That is ridiculous. The woman must be wacky.” But she was not obviously “wacky” in any other way. Everyone thinks that his or her particular love is special and will last forever, but it will not. The romantic passion that is involved in “falling in love,” tends to last a few years. If the couple’s relationship becomes permanent, that love matures into a different kind of love, something just as important, but less enveloping. Or if the relationship falls apart, that passion will be largely forgotten.  (Ex-lovers are likely to deny this also since forgetting implies that the affair was unimportant, which, of course, is not true.)

Love is sometimes given as a reason to justify unhelpful and intrusive behavior. I think of some over-protective parents in this context. Some parents (and in-laws) are commanding and demanding in ways that are destructive to their adult children. They justify that behavior to themselves and to their children as being excusable because it “comes from love.” Similarly, a boyfriend, or a girlfriend, can set out to instruct a lover on how to behave, using “love” as justification. Such a love affair is likely to be disappointing to both. One person will feel unappreciated for the person he, or she, really is. And the other will be disappointed discovering that the idealized version that he, or she, has of the other is not real.

There is one last observation I usually offer up unsuccessfully to patients: Despite the fact that you think you know yourself very well, it is possible that you will fall in love someday with a person who is not only not your type, but who may be disreputable and deficient in all sorts of ways. People get attached to others who are inappropriate (by their own standards) in terms of religion, race, ethnicity—and who may even be immoral. Falling in love can be completely irrational and unexpected. “Not me,” they say. “I know myself better than that.” Which illustrates a more general truth that everyone has trouble accepting: people do not know themselves as well as they think.

I suppose whether these observations strike you as original depends on how old you are. Some things can only be learned at the hands of experience. (c) Fredric Neuman Author of "The Seclusion Room." Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/

 

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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