Idealize others in romantic love


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

A “Big O” is a person, an Other, who generates in us a strong emotion and an attachment compulsion. They are different from the others (little o’s) who don’t. We can be “in love” with all kinds of Big O, including our partners, children, celebrities, political and religious figures, and gurus.

In this series of blog posts, we’ll explore the issues with Big O love and how the overinflation of Others decreases 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, our minds, our desires and our fears. This belief is motivated by an often unconscious feeling aspiration for someone who will discover and come to know the good and the evil in us and, by their acceptance of all of our selves, will integrate, heal and soothe what in us has been invalidated, fragmented and hurt by what I describe as the five curses of being human.

Redemption by the Intimate Other is such a powerful ideal that it will not fail to seduce us. What could be more liberating, joyful and heartwarming than to be known and loved for who we are?

When the love spell works, sex and bodily intimacy (which are integral parts of romantic love) help us to be less complex. Intimacy like this brings oblivion, ecstasy, and a release from the curse of consciousness and vulnerabilities that come with the ability to think about ourselves. In love, we feel both oneness and expansion that draws us far beyond the trivial, unpleasant, and tedious concerns of mortal life.

We aspire to be with that person, giving up friends, work and established routines. The mundane and limited thoughts of rational consciousness are called into question. We experiment beyond consciousness, floating, propelled and pushed by sensations, feelings and thoughts that now make the impossible feel within our grasp. With our beloved, we can make our dreams come true.

Unfortunately, we know, probably from personal experience, that this spell does not last very long. In a regular drip or a sudden shower, we begin to notice that our loved one is not the perfect person we thought they were. They do not meet all of our needs and do not remove that sense of unease, doubt and dissatisfaction that simmers beneath the surface of our lives. They have annoying habits, smells and beliefs. They frustrate us and forget about us. They, or we, cease to be the center of attention, and the vulnerabilities that we have shared in confidence are now returned to us as failures and flaws.

Then, when sex is no longer new or exciting, and we still have to be intimate with our Other, that bodily closeness begins to remind us again of the imperfect body (theirs and ours). The bulges of fat, the squinting eye, and the Roman nose that defined our lover and attracted us to him, and alone him, are now peculiarities that must be corrected. We start to hint and suggest.

Why we fall in love with people like our parents

It is in our early relationship experiences, especially with our parents, that we learn what it means to be cared for, safe, approved, and loved. When love, security, and approval are highly conditional or absent, our first and most powerful memories of a relationship are how to survive rather than prosper. And this is the problems in the parent-child relationship – the curse of the family – stored in our brain of indestructible and easily activated threat, which then becomes our model of “love”, and which forces us to unconsciously search for people, especially in our relationships the most intimate, which fit this problem model.

This is a complex dynamic, and at first glance it seems quite irrational. Why on earth would we seek and fall in love with people who allow us to repeat the problematic patterns of our childhood? Yet so many of us are doing just that! Extreme examples are easy to recognize. Sexually abused children, for example, who end up with sexually abusive partners, or children of drug addicts who become or want to “save” a drug 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 allows us to experience the same feelings and challenges that we faced growing up. This has two magical effects. First of all, we experience familiarity-we know how to be with this person because we learned this particular dance in childhood. Feeling “in tune” with our Other creates the illusion of a match or adjustment, that that person is “the only one”.

Relationships Essential reading

Second, our subconscious sees an opportunity to rewrite the past. It is very irresistible. The Romantic Other, by recreating the problematic patterns of our past, offers us the opportunity to relive these patterns but in one way or another, this time, overcome them. By being nicer, smarter, more lovable, and more attractive, we can make this no one loves us and, as if the magic was really at work, where once we weren’t loved as children, we are now loved, where once we were incompetent, we are now able to. The sense of belonging, oneness and worth that we feel when we are with our romantic Other erases the pain and loneliness of the past.

Since we are all cursed to some extent, it’s not just those with extremely traumatized childhoods who look for Other romantics to replay and solve problems from the past. When we set the bar for ‘abuse’ so high, we fail to see how we all making relationship mistakes and how many of us have gone through the misery of waking up to the spell of romantic love.

Awakening

And when we wake up, we thudding back to the unwelcome awareness of the ordinary, the imperfect, and the mortal. We have come full circle from oblivion to awakening, and awakening is still cruel.

Upon awakening, as anthropologist Ernest Becker writes,

We are reclaiming a reflection of our loved ones that is less than the greatness and perfection that we need to nurture ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings. Our interiors feel empty or anxious, our lives worthless, when we see the inevitable meanness of the world expressed through the human beings therein.

This is why we end, if we are not careful, to destroy the Others whom we once loved. We cannot bear to be remembered for our failed solutions – something Oscar Wilde long contemplated during his lonely days in Reading Prison,

Yet everyone kills what they love,
Let everyone hear this,
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 live without a curse, and the only people who can deliver that spell should be shadowless superheroes. Instead, in every relationship we are, to some extent, shadowboxed with the other person’s unresolved issues and fears.

But because we’re under the 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 emerge.

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

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