Love at First Sight
Many of us are romantics. We cry when the boy and the girl on the silver screen finally figure out what us movie goers knew all along; they are meant for each other. The scientific studies on attraction, evolutionary biology, and neuronal chemical flow fail to convey the experience of love that the romantic poets have uncaptured for centuries. A quick glance at the tabloids at the grocery checkout line reminds us that the creativity of movie and music stars does not lend itself to long and stable relationships. Yet love at first sight and happily ever after seem to be universal terms that we all secretly if not blatantly hope for.
We are drawn to the romantic stories. We desire the love at first sight, happily ever after experience. Most of us have experienced love a little differently. The pain, betrayal, and loss many encounter as a part of love sharply contrasts with the romantic stories we see at the movies or read in the beautiful prose of the poets. As children we believe in true love, we sense that with adulthood we will find our one and only and live happily ever after. We unconsciously assume the work to have a happy relationship is accomplished by finding the right person. This work does not seem all that difficult because of a companion belief that we will instinctively know the moment we see the “right-person.”
Throughout the decades, I have found many of the things I “just know” have turned out to be false. Some relationships seem perfect at the start but over time slowly begin to deteriorate. Other relationships may transform into chaos after the first brief moments of attraction. And still others may seem perfect but circumstances prevent the relationship from ever developing. Sometimes “just know” just isn’t.
Maybe my views on love have been tainted with experience. Divorce is an emotional experience. Deep emotional experiences do not disappear but forever color the lenses we view the world through. I still believe and enjoy some of the magical and poetic feelings of love. But as I am continuously exposed to the more sinister aspects of human relationships, I can’t ignore that pain is also a frequent part of romantic relationships.
Because of our idealistic views of relationship discord are seen as failure. An unhappy marriage is often judged as the result of the personal failure of the couple—they were doing something wrong. We are quick to attribute failure to psychological disorders, personal inadequacy, childhood attachment issues, or societal influences.
A happy and stable relationship is not a gift but a prize that needs to be constantly sought after. As much as we would like to be loved unconditionally, a loving relationship is always conditional. It is conditional upon our personalities, our willingness to work on the relationship, and complex factors which are beyond our control. The view that a happy stable relationship is the norm is radically wrong. Relationships naturally deteriorate overtime. The early moments of mutual attraction fade. We adapt to our partner’s presence and the feelings of love often fade with that adaptation. A relationship’s health depends upon the skill and effort of two concerned and involved partners.
It is natural to confuse strong emotional attraction with relationship durability. Yet it takes days, weeks, months or even years to get to know another person. I still struggle to know myself; how am I going to have a clear picture of the person I have been dating for only a few months? We invest significant time and energy to build a new relationship. During these early phases, we entertain hopes and dreams of a future with the new person in our lives. We become emotionally connected along with gradually forming stronger and stronger commitments to each other. Our knowledge of the other person does not always grow at the same rate as our emotional connection—it is possible to become strongly connected to someone we don’t clearly know.
Our painful moment of choice comes when we initially recognize that all is not beautiful in our emotionally connected and committed relationship. There is an inner conflict which arises when we notice our partner does not satisfy our needs. We might begin to notice undesirable character traits that were intentionally hidden early on or we conveniently ignored. It is painful a choice because commitments and dreams have been established. Do you move forward working on the differences, do you leave the relationship or do you quietly ignore the new insights with hope they will resolve themselves? There is no single correct answer for every situation. Our own insecurities, attachment patterns, the amount of time and energy invested, the emotional commitment, the severity of the new insight about our partner, our partner’s willingness to discuss differences, and even the level of difficulty we experience in establishing new relationships.
The direction of a relationship is not set from first attraction. Along the path there will be many new forks in the road where decisions need to be explicitly or implicitly made. The choices will lead to leaving the relationship, working on the relationship or staying in an unhealthy relationship. The first two options may be the appropriate choice while quietly staying in an unhealthy relationship usually is not.
We may understand that work and mindful choice are essential parts of developing a relationship but still hold to romantic notions of attraction. We believe attraction will reliably lead us to the right person. I am no stranger to the strength of this dilution. I never have purchased a supermarket tabloid. I do not watch Entertainment Tonight. But when the divorce of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt hit the headlines in 2005, I took note and had an uneducated opinion. I even expressed my opinion—Brad is a fool for leaving Jennifer for Angelina Jolie. The whole basis for my opinion was I am attracted to Jennifer Aniston and not Angelina. I knew nothing of the intimate aspects of Brad and Jennifer’s relationship. I knew none of the reasons for Jennifer and Brad’s divorce. Yet I felt I had a legitimate opinion based completely on attraction.
Having strong attractions is our biological inheritance. We are sexually and emotionally attracted to certain traits as a part of our human nature. It is not a skill. With only a few exceptions, we all come programmed to be attracted to others. This applies to both those who habitually fail in relationships as well as those who succeed. Being attracted to a person is not a sign that a relationship will succeed, it is just a biological drive which pulls us towards another person. A strong attraction may influence us to act in ways which builds a healthy relationship. But no matter how strong the attraction, if the partners do not behave in ways which builds trust, the relationship will deteriorate. A healthy relationship is built on behaviors not attraction.
Healthy relationship building behaviors are expressions of love. Healthy relationship behaviors—behaviors of love—include respect, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, encouragement, and support. David Richo, in his fabulous book How to Be an Adult in Relationships, identifies these behaviors as the five A’s—Attention, Allowing, Affection, Acceptance and Appreciation. These healthy behaviors do not only help the relationship grow but help the individuals in the relationship grow. A healthy dependence on each other fostered while the individual partners also grow independently. Individual growth includes developing characteristics, skills and habits which benefit the individuals as well as the relationship.
Relationships motivated by attraction but lacking love behaviors are motivated by fear. The fear motivated behaviors foster unhealthy dependence upon each other which discourages personal growth. Unhealthy dependence is perceived as a way to create security in the relationship by limiting a partner’s ability to leave the relationship. Our partner’s growth through other relationships, career development, and pursuing personal dreams is threatening because the growth prepares our partner to effectively survive outside of the relationship if the relationship were to end. Many unconsciously discourage a partner’s growth because of the insecurities it stirs. The same insecure partners will also engage in character destroying behaviors that deteriorate our sense of self-worth for the same purpose of making us more dependent on the relationship and less likely to effectively survive outside of the relationship.
Security never will fully be satisfied by a relationship. Unhealthy dependence is a product of lack of trust—in ourselves and in our partner. Trust of our partner comes from allowing a partner freely choosing to be with us without subtle manipulations. Trust in ourselves comes from faith in our ability to survive unforeseen obstacles in the future. The unhealthier dependence there is the more restricted is the freedom of choice for personal development. The unhealthy dependence does not solve the insecurity that motivates it. Secure individuals are less dependent on the relationship and therefore have more resources to devote to developing the relationship.
The initial moments of attraction are exciting. They are a beautiful part of our relationship experience. But the attraction only sets the connection in motion. True intimacy which supports security requires behaviors which encourages individual growth. The presence of these elements take time to discover. If our new partner does not encourage growth and is unwilling to change, quit chasing the lost investment and move on. If our partner is sincere then embark on the work of creating intimacy by freely giving and expressing loving behaviors. We can be driven by fear or motivated by love. Fear will inevitably lead to further deterioration of the relationship, while love will nurture the tender seedling of intimacy.
Ricoh, David (2006). The Five Things We Cannot Change (2006) Shambhala; Reprint edition .