Many characteristics of a potential partner, as well as situational factors, can romantically attach us to another person even though the relationship may be unhealthy. Some qualities that are initially thought to represent the kind of emotional bond we call “love,” eventually lead to the deterioration of the relationship. First of all, what is love, anyway? For the sake of this post, let’s just consider the healthy version of love as involving two individuals who maintain their separate identities, yet intimately join together based on mutual interests, excitement, enjoyment, and the sharing of novel or stimulating experiences. They would also have a shared capacity to repair and learn from any ruptures to their bond.
Naturally, some of the relationship qualities that are found in a healthy partnership may also be present in an unhealthy one. Stimulating and exciting features of a relationship can motivate you to ignore the warning signs that it won’t meet your needs. Yet humans have an inclination to amplify what feels good and disregard disappointment, which may lead someone to believe it is love when it’s only confusion.
Finding a loving relationship that is based on reciprocity, mutual giving, and intimate understanding can actually be confused with a relationship in which drama in the life of one or both partners is shared. Drama makes a relationship exciting and intriguing, and therefore subject to confusion. If you happen to meet someone who has a very conflicted relationship with an ex-partner, for example, you may get pulled into being an advisor, confidant, or a better partner than the one who was left behind. Drama can attach us to another person, and thereby confuse nurturing, captivation, or competition with love.
Similarly, there are times when empathy, compassion, or pity is conflated with love. In this case you may misattribute the calling to help another person as a romantic attachment. In confusing the situation with love, your inclination might be to remedy your partner’s terrible circumstance with money, unconditional love, or encouragement that you imagine will help lead them to become who you wish they could be or who they are inside of your imagination. The stimulation of such a partnership can, for example, fulfill a childhood need to rescue a parent or sibling, which now guides your choice of a partner. Any turmoil in a new partner’s life that makes them appear vulnerable or victimized may become a shared and stimulating experience that further binds you together. Yet what remains in the end is more likely to be a void rather than continued fulfillment.
Love can also be confused with excitement when a relationship begins with the use of mood-enhancing drugs, heavy alcohol consumption, or intense sexual attraction. The relationship may lack the essential components of a healthy attachment, but in all the confusion you may avoid your real needs and also ignore what is absent in the relationship.