What we talk about when we talk about love

'What we talk about when we talk about love' ~ Raymond Carver

'The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death' ~ Oscar Wilde

Romantic love often does seem mysterious to onlookers and even to ourselves. We recognise that what draws us to another seems elemental - the reference to 'chemistry' alludes to this - but the 'ingredients' of love can be difficult to define. The elusiveness of explanations for why we are drawn to love a particular kind of person might not seem an issue when we are feeling so elated; in fact, to paraphrase E.B. White, analysing love might be like dissecting a frog - few people are interested and the frog dies of it.

Yet to leave aside reflecting upon possible reasons for why we love in the way that we do may sometimes be a mistake. After all, love isn't always benign and it certainly isn't always easy. A little bit of reflection may help support and allow a relationship to flourish; likewise, it is arguable that some love relationships shouldn't survive analysis if they prove unhealthy and beyond the possibility of change.

In their excellent book, 'The Projection Principle', George Weinberg and Dianne Rowe offer a definition of some of the aspects of love when they wrote:

'Both our strivings and what we lack influence our picture of our ideal lover and predispose us to a certain kind of partner.'

What they mean here is two things. Firstly, what we have determined as our life goals and values influence the kind of person that we are drawn to, e.g. if we have striven to be a good artist, we may be drawn to those that embody taste, sensitivity and an air of romanticism. Secondly, what they are also alluding to is what is colloquially called 'opposites attract', where one person is drawn to another because they have an opposite trait, e.g. one partner is quiet and introverted, while the other is a party lover. The idea behind this theory is that what we lack but feel we need to become whole, we import from our significant others.

Much could be said about these two accounts of love. I want to focus here on how they can explain where romantic relationships can go awry, as it's useful to check for these tendencies in oneself.

Let's start with the first one: our strivings influence our choice of partner. Now, this is not inherently a problem, but where it can go wrong is when we have over-emphasised a certain quality. Here is an example: we might have striven to be educated and highly intelligent to such an extent that we erroneously believe our Romeo or Juliet, so to speak, must be highly intelligent as well. Indeed, this over-emphasis on a certain quality becomes problematic when it distorts evaluating a potential partner overall, as the person may have many other good qualities.

Secondly, opposites attracting is not problematic as long as each complements the other in a healthy way. Where it does become a real problem is when the person leans so much one way that they are drawn to an unhealthy extreme in another. For example, if someone is compulsively people pleasing, they might get into a relationship with someone demanding and there may be an unhealthy imbalance of power. Such a person may feel that they 'need' the exploitative other, when in reality they need more to address the imbalance in themselves (in the above example, learning to become more assertive would help).

If you notice such trends in yourself, one way of addressing them is to work with a counsellor to make some significant changes that will improve your relationships with anyone. 

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Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

I am a pluralistic counsellor in private practice in the city centre of Dundee. I am trained to help clients with a wide variety of problems and I am able to employ a number of different therapeutic approaches, so that the therapy process is always tailored to the individual needs of each of my clients.… Read more

Written by Dr Alexander Fox (MBACP, Masters in Counselling, PhD (Eng Lit.))

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