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Relationships

Idealizing Others in Romantic Love

Part 2: Are you in love with a "Big O"?

Key points

  • Feeling loved for who we are—the good and the bad—is a powerful ideal which sparks the spell of, and belief in, the romantic Other.
  • The energy behind this spell is our unconscious need to re-find our parents, recreate our childhoods, and rewrite our past problems.
  • However, spells don't work. Illusory Others cannot solve our problems, enable us to rewrite our past, or make us whole. That gift lies within us.

This is part 2 of a series. Read part 1 here.

A "Big O" is a person, an Other, who generates strong emotion and attachment compulsion in us. They are different from others (small o's) who do not. We can be in "love" with all sorts of Big O’s, including our partners, children, celebrities, political and religious figures, and gurus.

In this series of blog posts, we will be exploring the problems that come with Big O love and how the over-inflation of Others diminishes and hurts us.

Love me, save me

Most of us believe and hope that there is someone out there "for us." An intimate partner with whom we will share our bodies, minds, desires, and fears. This belief is driven by an often unconscious yearning for someone who will discover and come to know the good and the bad in us and, through his or her acceptance of our whole self, will integrate, heal, and soothe that within us which has been invalidated, fragmented, and wounded by what I describe as the five curses of being human.

Redemption through the intimate Other is such a powerful ideal that it cannot fail to seduce us. What could be more liberating, joyful, and comforting than to be known and loved for who we are?

When the love spell works, sex and bodily intimacy (which is a compelling part of romantic love) help us to be less self-conscious. Intimacy of this kind brings oblivion, ecstasy, and a release from the curse of consciousness and the vulnerabilities that come with being able to think about ourselves. In love, we feel both unity and expansiveness that sweeps us far beyond the trivial, unpleasant, and tedious concerns of mortal life.

We yearn to be with this person, forgoing friends, work, and established routines. The mundane and limited thoughts of rational consciousness come into doubt. We experience ourselves beyond consciousness, floating, propelled, and compelled by sensations, feelings, and thoughts that now make the impossible feel within our grasp. With our beloved, we can realize our dreams.

Unfortunately, we know, probably from personal experience, that this spell doesn’t last very long at all. In a steady drip or a sudden shower, we start to notice that our beloved is not the perfect person we thought they were. They don’t fulfill all our needs or remove that sense of unease, doubt, and dissatisfaction that simmers below the surface of our life. They have annoying habits, smells, and beliefs. They frustrate and forget about us. They, or we, stop being the center of attention, and the vulnerabilities we shared in trust are now thrown back at us as failures and flaws.

Then, when sex is no longer novel or exciting, and we still have to be intimate with our Other, this bodily closeness starts to remind us again of the imperfect body (theirs and ours). The rolls of fat, the squinting eye, and the Roman nose which defined our lover and which drew us towards him, and only him, are now peculiarities which need fixing. We start to hint and suggest.

Why we fall in love with people like our parents

It is in our first experiences of relationship, particularly with our parents, that we learn what it means to be cared for, safe, approved of, and loved. When love, safety, and approval are highly conditional or absent, our first and most powerful memories of a relationship are about how to survive rather than thrive. And it is the problems in the parent-child relationship—the curse of the family—stored in our indestructible and easily activated threat brain, which then become our template for "love," and which compel us to unconsciously seek people, particularly in our most intimate relationships, who fit this problem template.

This is a complex dynamic, and on the surface, it seems utterly irrational. Why on Earth would we seek out and fall in love with people who enable us to repeat the problem patterns of our childhood? Yet so many of us do just that! Extreme examples are easy to recognize. Sexually abused children, for example, who end up with sexually abusive partners, or children of addicts who either become or want to "save" an addict, and those from violent homes who associate love with aggression, jealousy, and control.

One explanation for this seemingly irrational repetition compulsion is that our romantic Other enables us to feel the same feelings and challenges that we faced when growing up. This has two spell-like effects. First, we experience familiarity—we know how to be around this person because we learned this particular dance in childhood. Feeling "in step" with our Other creates the illusion of a match or fit, that this person is "the one."

Second, our unconscious sees an opportunity to rewrite the past. This is very compelling. The romantic Other, in re-creating the problem patterns of our past, provides us with an opportunity to re-live those patterns but somehow, this time, overcome them. By being kinder, smarter, more adoring, and attractive, we can make this person love us and, as if magic were truly at work, where once we were unloved as children, we are now loved, where once we were incompetent, we are now capable. The feeling of belonging, unity, and worth that we feel when we are with our romantic Other erases the pain and loneliness of the past.

Given that all of us are cursed to some degree, it is not only those who have had extremely traumatized childhoods who seek romantic Others to re-enact and resolve the problems of the past. When we set the "abuse" bar so high, we fail to see how we all make relational mistakes and how many of us have experienced the misery of waking up from the spell of romantic love.

Awakening

And when we awaken, we return with a thud to the unwelcome consciousness of the ordinary, the imperfect, and the mortal. We have come full circle from forgetting ourselves to awakening—and the awakening is always cruel.

In waking, as anthropologist Ernest Becker writes,

We get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings. Our interiors feel empty or anguished, our lives valueless, when we see the inevitable pettiness of the world expressed through the human beings in it.

This is why we end up, if we are not careful, destroying the Others we have once loved. We can’t bear to be reminded of our failed solutions—something Oscar Wilde contemplated at length during his lonely days in Reading gaol,

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

The idealized romantic Other does not exist. None of us lives curse-free, and the only people capable of delivering on this spell would need to be superheroes without a shadow. Instead, in every relationship, we are, to some extent, shadowboxing with the other person’s own unresolved issues and fears.

But because we are under a spell, we can’t see their dark side. And so we persist and pursue the intimate Other. Yet it is only a matter of time before the spell breaks, and the Other's ordinary needs and shortcomings appear.

We can learn from our cycles of illusion and disillusion by exploring our patterns of relating more deeply and honestly. Or, as many of us do, we can turn away from these truths and find ourselves once again in the same repetitive relational loops.

References

Wickremasinghe, N (2021). Being with Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillations. Triarchy Press.

Becker, E (1973). The Denial of Death. Free Press

Wilde, O (1898) The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Musson.

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