No matter how it turned out, most people would agree that falling in love was the most euphoric, uplifting experience of their life. And one so ecstatic that it can be terribly tempting to seek to replicate later—after that blissful state of mind and feeling has worn off. That’s how compelling this rapturous (but risky) experience can be. As one author, with purposeful ambiguity, puts it:
The act of falling in love can be one of the most alluring, bewildering, seductive, and ultimately dangerous experiences that can happen to a person...The baffling urge to merge...The high pleasure of love is really hardwired into our genes for the simple reason that in that way, survival of the species is assured. (Theresa Griffin Kennedy, "The Dangers of Falling in Love")
The many problems of romantic love, merely hinted at here, are greatly expanded upon in Kennedy’s article. And they go considerably beyond the circumstance that actively pursuing such a state of ecstasy is unrealistic, elusive, or misguided. For this ultimate, amphetamine-like alteration of consciousness is fraught with risk and we’d do well, beforehand, to appreciate its hazards.
Nonetheless, before listing 15 irrational reasons that two people can lose their balance and fall “head over heels” for each other, let me at least mention two important qualifications:
1. Not all romantic love is without a rational foundation. Much research, for instance, has shown that people are likely to fall in love with another who shares their interests, values, cultural heritage, and is similar in age and attractiveness. And all this is quite reasonable. Also,
2. Most academicians who’ve published on this intriguing subject have focused on college students, so the generalizability of their findings is open to question. Although one can act irrationally at any age when their emotions and impulses overpower their sounder judgment, it may well be that undergraduates—with their limited life experience, impetuousness, and insecurities—are the most likely to make bad decisions when, heedlessly, they fall in love.
These contingencies notwithstanding, here are 15 reasons that it makes sense to exert caution before, ill-advisedly, you risk taking a fall—as in being extremely disappointed, or even devastated, from falling in love (and here, you might want to review a complementary piece of mine, “What Makes Romance So Romantic—and So Doomed?”).
1. For starters, any emotional state that rises to a bell-ringing level really can’t be trusted. So, for instance, if your anger intensifies into “blind rage,” your reaction is almost guaranteed to be an overreaction. And it typically takes the form of ranting against some annoying (but hardly cataclysmic) felt provocation.
Anxiety, too, when it begins to overwhelm you, when it escalates to downright consternation, is probably so exaggerated or disproportionate to the immediate stimulus that it must be regarded as overblown: One that suggests you’ve badly misperceived as a dire threat something that’s clearly manageable, or tolerable.
Doubtless, the complex mental/emotional state of falling in love is every bit as extreme (though definitely on the positive side!) as are the so-distressing states of bellicose fury or heart-pounding terror. But similar to other intense emotions, being in a fiercely romantic relationship will throw you off-kilter, undermine your equilibrium, and compromise higher brain functioning. You’re likely to oversimplify things, think in absolutes, turn a blind eye to flaws or warning signs in your partner, or ignore various other factors that could make the relationship finally untenable.
2. From Carl Jung onwards, much psychological literature (e.g., see Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want) has postulated that people are romantically drawn toward others who, literally or symbolically, remind them of their parents—particularly the one they may have had more difficulty with. For if the child inside you still has unfinished business with that parent, they’re still longing “to make it right.” Having felt not good enough to earn that parent’s love, the present-day prospective partner allows them the chance for a “do over.” And during this idyllic relational stage, it really does seem that this positive “revision” is taking place, another reason that helps explain why falling in love can be so alluring.
So if your father, say, was alcoholic and treated you harshly whenever he was inebriated, you might unconsciously find yourself attracted to someone who (however subtly) has already shown a susceptibility to drink excessively. Unconsciously, you may be drawn toward that person not in spite of this thinly veiled characteristic but because of it. And in doing so you could well be setting yourself up for an emotionally painful disillusionment.
During courtship it’s only natural to suppress our least endearing traits, so that what your “enchanting” partner may convincingly have projected is the father you never had—rather than what might turn out to be a most disturbing “mirror” of him. In such a relationship what seemed to offer the unconditional love you never received in childhood could eventually resemble the abuse or neglect you were victim to earlier.
3. Moving to more superficial elements involved in the not rationally based falling-in-love phenomenon, research has shown that a person’s height can play a major role in one’s romantic attraction to another—men preferring women shorter than them and women the reverse. (see Evolution & Human Behavior and Archives of Sexual Behavior, as cited by Rafi Letzter). But that’s hardly a reliable predictor of how much such a person can contribute to your happiness.
4. As regards physical appearance (and quite specifically, at that) researchers at the University of Texas found that men were significantly more attracted to women with a low waist-to-hip ratio than to those with wider waists, as reported by Jennifer Acosta Scott. And this biological preference, too, seems totally unrelated to a more “reasonable” psychological one. (Ah! if only couples’ compatibility were so simple to glean, besides the fact that such measurements are likely to change over time—which, presumably, could then put their relationship at risk.)
5. An Australian study (also alluded to by Scott) found that women preferred male faces that were symmetrical, the research author’s deducing that unconsciously such a visage was associated with good health and the likelihood of fathering strong, successful children. But does this “survival of the fittest” interpretation actually link to a more fulfilling relationship? Certainly, no evidence exists that I’m aware of.
6. Hardly surprising, another study cited by Scott, published in Current Anthropology, found that men from five different cultures demonstrated a preference for women with youthful features, such as large eyes, full lips, and a small nose. Complementing the 5th reason above, again the researchers suggested that this preference links to men’s subconsciously evaluating which woman would be most likely to bear them healthy offspring. But really, how much could this attraction meaningfully relate to their ultimate marital satisfaction?
7. Perhaps because the human brain craves novelty, unusual—and unusually precarious—situations can create a thrill or excitement that engender passionate, “in love” feelings. That is, if you lead someone to feel anxious, then under the right circumstances you may also lead them to fall in love with you. This curious (and rather scary) phenomenon was best, and most famously, illustrated by Dutton and Aron (1974). In their often-cited experiment, an attractive female interviewed male passerbys on a shaky (vs. a stable) suspension bridge, and found that this first condition generated feelings of passion. Discussing their results in terms of the “misattribution of arousal,” they noted the demonstrable, though “accidental,” tendency to mis-identify fear arousal with romantic arousal.
It’s often been noted that romantic love involves a chemical high. And Dutton and Aron argue that in the right context it’s easy enough to mistake increased levels of adrenaline for “in love” feelings. All that may be needed is to inject an attractive woman into the scene (!). And in general, it just might be that the thrill of romance lies in its “thrilling” scariness (cf. riding a roller-coaster). A humanly rational connection, yes—but reasonable in terms of choosing the right mate? Hardly. (And, indirectly, this may help account for the anomaly of “good girls” falling for “bad guys.”)
8. Closely tied to the above is the fact that the chemical high associated with elevated dopamine production must sooner or later be extinguished—like a fire destined inevitably to burn out. So to decide to make a commitment because the euphoria you’re experiencing is like nothing you’ve ever felt before is about as prudent as getting high on alcohol and then deciding it’d be a good idea to become alcoholic. Moreover, if you do a Google search, you’ll observe how frequently scientists have pointed out that falling in love has neurological effects virtually indistinguishable from cocaine.
9. “Uncertainty is the essence of romance.” (Oscar Wilde). Many writers have noted this unusually compelling aspect of romantic attraction. Here again, we see the perplexing relationship between anxiety and feelings of romance. Not able to feel assured that our beloved returns our ardor paradoxically makes them all the more beguiling. And while this might seem to defy logic, psychologically it’s rather typical of how we humans tend to operate. I’ve regularly encountered the word “mystery” as relates to falling in love, and much of this mystery appears to relate to not being able to fathom whether our feelings are as reciprocal (as we all-too-desperately need them to be).
10. Our very neediness makes us vulnerable to look to another in the hope they’ll make us feel more worthwhile and whole. And the younger we are, the more susceptible we are to “use” another person to feel better about ourselves. As Berit Brogaard, citing the research of Aron et al. (1989), notes, if another person is seen as potentially fulfilling our needs for “companionship, love, sex or mating,” it increases the chances that we’ll fall in love with them.
But if neediness is our primary motivator, we can’t help but lean heavily on our beloved for validation and support. And this can easily strain the relationship and prompt the other person to react negatively to such dependency. In fact, this neediness shouldn’t be confused with real love at all, which makes no such demands on the love object.
11. Related to the above are the unrealistically lofty expectations that people in love are apt to have of the one so enamored. And that’s a huge setup for later disappointment. Idealizing the beloved is actually intrinsic to romantic love, and eventually we’re forced to realize that this person was never quite so “special” as—in our “love-sightedness”—we made them out to be. What, dreamy-eyed, we’d projected onto them could well invert itself once our ocular focus returns.
12. Again referring to Aron et al. (1989), Brogaard addresses the “readiness” factor of romantic feelings, stating that “the more you want to be in a relationship, [and] the lower your self-esteem...the more likely you are to fall in love.” This account helps to clarify why so many of my own therapy clients, wretchedly unhappy in their marriage, have shared that years ago, feeling so ready to marry and start a family, somehow talked themselves into being in love. And obviously, that’s a poor formula for achieving a harmonious long-term relationship.
13. Another (though not commonly recognized) threat of falling in love is that you risk losing yourself in it. An independence you may have prided yourself on, comfortably affirming your separate, unique sense of self, is endangered when you’re “taken with” (by?) another. And if your romance fails to mature into a committed, lasting relationship, you may need to struggle mightily to retrieve your former identity. As one writer poignantly puts it:
“When he broke up with me...I felt as if the wind had been permanently knocked out of me. My concept of who I was and what I was doing with my life shattered before my eyes as I watched him leave my house and drive away, taking my confidence right along with him. (Katie Wilohelm, “The Danger With Falling in Love”)
14. Continuing with the above, what else is likely to happen when your coveted relationship ends? And this is something poets and song writers, lyricizing the “heartbreak,” have obsessed on for millennia. The one word that prose writers seem to favor is devastation. Breaking up is a kind of death, a woeful abandonment, a grief second only to losing one’s long-beloved life partner. And so it typically involves great emotional pain.
When we lose the one we’d cherished, it can be agonizing; we’re crushed by sorrow. Tragically, it’s not that rare for teenagers to kill themselves in the face of romantic rejection. When you’re in love, however inadvertently, you may be putting your self-image on the line. So if ultimately the object of your adoration “wants out” (or never “wants in”), it can have a calamitous effect on your self-esteem.
15. Although this study is hardly conclusive, in a piece entitled “Scientists Reveal How Falling in Love Can Seriously Damage Your Health,” researchers at Imperial College (London) caution that the various negative physical effects relating to the vagaries of romance can result in serious long-term bodily damage. One of the study’s experimenters notes that in such a state “our bodies are constantly going through a rollercoaster of emotions. Our pupils dilate, our palms become sweaty and the heart rate increases. We have large amounts of adrenaline running through our system and that [causes] problems for the body,” adding that stress-related illnesses in the workplace arise from almost identical physical phenomena.
And this is yet another reason not to fall head over heels—or get completely swept off your feet—with loving emotions.
That’s about it—though readers might wish to add additional reasons for being wary about making a long-term commitment when you’ve been bitten by this [possibly toxic, and definitely addictive] love bug.
And this is hardly to say that an amorous state of mind and feeling isn’t to be deemed precious, that it isn’t enviable. It could, after all, eventuate in a wonderfully fulfilling lifelong companionship. But for all the reasons I’ve provided (and possibly more), it’s still only wise to proceed with caution.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.