Love Doc

Plumbing the depths of the psychology and neurobiology of love.

Too Little or Too Much of a Good Thing

How can too much of a good thing spoil love ?


The promise of loving and being loved in return is a universal wish. We all want that, yet for so many of us the promise of an enduring love escapes us. How so? Is it because we don't know how to maintain love? That we lose interest in our partners, that empathic or emotional attunement goes by the wayside? Or that the flame of desire dies?

When love is in full bloom empathy and emotional attunement ─ keys to a happy love life ─ move on a two way street. Past hurts, anger, resentment, dramatically alters this dynamic. Instead of empathy and emotional attunement moving back and forth between partners, empathy ─ the ability to step in someone else's shows ─goes awry.

In order to feel empathy and emotional attunement, you must transcend yourself to enter into someone else's inner world. If, however, you are preoccupied with healing yourself from pain, you turn inward and are unable to transcend yourself. In turn your partner feels unimportant, invisible, dismissed so that he either fights or flees. Romance and sex is on the rocks. Here then is one way that empathy and emotional attunement fail─ too little of a good thing.

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Another way that empathy fails is when it becomes too much of a good thing. Remember empathy is when you transcend yourself to enter into your partner's inner world, while at the same time, you hold onto your own inner world. In the case of too much empathy, you fail to hold onto your inner world and you lose yourself in your partner. By losing yourself in your partner, you land up feeling lonely and invisible. Not only that but when you lose yourself in your partner, you lose the courage to assert yourself and get your own needs met. For example take the case of Sari and Scott.

Sari was a giver and sure enough, Scott needed a lot of giving. A successful home builder, Scott was busy building empires until the economy threatened to crumble his world. Preoccupied with making money, keeping up appearances in the country club set, and garnering favor from his wealthy friends, Scott's empathic and emotionally attuned abilities were reserved for himself. Unable to transcend himself to enter into Sari's inner world, he neglected her needs and desires.

An attractive, demur, sensitive woman, Sari's ethos─ handed down over the generations of women in her family ─ was based on being "good". That meant empathizing with her husband's dilemma, stepping into his inner world and losing her own.

Eyes downcast, Sari murmured, "It's not his fault that he ignores me, it's that his friends and his community judge each other as to their finances. So all he does is worry and talk about money. I don't care about money at all, but I can feel for him." Turns out that Sari went along with Scott's needs and desires and lost track of what she really needed and desired. Other than the children, they had nothing else in common. It's not that Sari hated Scott; it's that she felt alone and dismissed. Needless to say the flame of desire was dying.

What pulled her out of her despair was an attentive, sexy man who empathized with her inner world. Emotionally attuned to her, her lover lit her flame of desire once more. Alas, good women have a problem being bad and to Sari, infidelity was a five syllable word for a bad woman. Her shame and guilt brought her into therapy.

Sari is learning to empathize with her unmet needs in the marriage that prompted her to step out of the marriage. She is also recognizing that what she did was a daring act of will and that she could use her powers─ that have gone underground in her relationship with Scott ─to assert herself and go for what she wants from him. As she does so, the interaction is beginning to change. Scott is now more sensitive to Sari's needs and desires ─ the greatest type of foreplay─ and she is feeling more sexy. Love and lust are again on the horizon.

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Frances Cohen Praver, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and relational psychoanalyst and author.

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