Friday, February 5, 2010

The Psychology of Love

As an undergrad psych major I took a course called The Psychology of Love.

My professor’s main observation was that the most powerful feelings of love seem to require distance, that love feels most poignant and exquisite when there is longing.

When people are in a solid, settled relationship, doesn’t the intensity of the love experience fade? And if so, why?

Art and literature are full of this same idea. How many more poems and stories and songs are written about longing and desire and painful, troubled love, as compared to those about contented, stress-free monogamy?

Is this because love is just so hard to get right?

Or is there something about the human psyche that often wants love to be hard?…something that wants and needs and creates that distance?

Freud thought that our heads contain all sorts of repressed urges and dark needs, which cause us to do harmful, self-defeating things. Looking at the choices people make in love and the painful relationships they often endure, it sure seems like Freud was right.

But I’ve learned to look for the underlying logic in the relationships people choose. I’ve come to believe that when there’s distance in a relationship, that distance isn’t an accident. The distance is serving some purpose.

* Distance allows room for fantasy.
* Distance protects privacy.
* Distance makes it possible to indulge, at least temporarily, in a mismatched or otherwise futureless relationship.
* Distance may feel safer; it may be an attempt at getting love without risking too much.
* Distance may feel familiar; it may be what you’re used to.

Can you think of other purposes?

Photo source: Lis Sur Mer

If you’re seeking guidance in coping with stress and difficult emotions, please consider getting a copy of A Mindful Dialogue, an ebook compiled by my fellow Psych Central blogger Elisha Goldstein. All proceeds benefit Hope for Haiti.

Biology, Evolution, Love

My last post, The Psychology of Love, netted this thoughtful and informative response from Beth. I’ve inserted my replies:

Beth: I honestly feel we are biologically wired to procreate and that this explains why the intensity of love fades after some time. “In love” feelings are based upon a chemical explosion put in place by nature in order to perpetuate the species… Once we are with someone and have a child with them, these intense feelings die down since they wouldn’t be advantageous in helping raise a child.

Leigh: And those intense feelings often begin to wane after about seven years. The “seven-year itch” is grounded in biological reality. The supporting theory says that because children are less dependent after early childhood, it’s OK (from a biological survival perspective) for their parents to wander off and seek new partners after about seven years.

Beth: The longing may very well have an evolutionary tie as well. We’re wired to want to be with that special someone and for it to be so painful that we will make every effort to meet up with this person and make babies. Isn’t it romantic, lol?

Leigh: We are social animals who can only survive thanks to our interconnectedness with others. And our children need nurturing for a very long time before they are grown. For these reasons, Nature makes it very painful for us to be alone or to leave people we love.

Beth: I guess maybe this doesn’t relate much with what you posted about the psychological reasons behind this, though. I’d have to think more on that.

Leigh: I am so glad for this last part of your reply, Beth, because it highlights the dilemma:

Why, despite all of our innate biological needs and desires to have reliable partners and stable, secure relationships, do so many of us seem to choose one painful, drama-ridden, futureless situation after another?

Photo taken at Lis Sur Mer

Luv n fantasy

Love and Fantasy
By Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Love drives us to seek partners and remain bonded to them and create safe, stable homes in which to raise children.

But love can also drive us in the opposite direction, towards unhealthy extremes of fantasy and into painful or impossible relationships.


Fantasy is a basic feature of the human psyche. It’s a mostly wonderful capability that enables so much pleasure and joy. And it has several important functions:

* Fantasy fuels creativity. It drives us to imagine, create, invent and strive.

* Fantasy energizes and empowers. It motivates us to act and try. It gives us strength and gets us going.

* Fantasy emboldens. It makes us brave enough to take risks and suffer some pain if necessary.

Yet fantasy can also spin off into dark places.

* Obsession can rob our attention and energy from other important areas of our lives.
* Delusion can take us out of touch with reality in extreme and harmful ways.
* Idealization (putting the loved one “on a pedestal”) can make us misunderstand our beloved’s real needs and nature and can cause us to hurt that very person we love so much.

Yeats wrote:

We fed the heart on fantasy
The heart grew brutal from the fare

Sometimes poets and other artists are the most astute psychologists of all!

What do you think?
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