The awareness starts with unravelling one of the great mysteries of life: romantic attraction. During recent years, scientists from various disciplines have studied this phenomenon, and valuable insights have come from each research area. Some biologists claim there is a certain "bio-logic" to courtship behaviour that ensures survival of the species. According to this theory, men are drawn to classically beautiful and healthy women who have physical indicators that they are in the peak of childbearing years. On the other hand, women select mates for different biological reasons. They instinctively choose mates with "alpha" qualities, the ability to dominate other males and bring home the lion's share of the kill. Thus, an ageing corporate executive is as attractive to women as a young and handsome, but less successful, male.
Social psychologists explore the "exchange" theory of mate selection. The basic idea behind this theory is that we select mates who are more or less our equals. We seek potential partners on the basis of history, similar backgrounds, financial status, physical appeal, social rank and personality traits. A third idea, the "persona" theory, maintains that the way a potential suitor affects our self-esteem is an important factor in mate selection. Each of us has a mask, or persona, that is the face we show to other people. The persona theory suggests that we select a mate who will enhance that self-image. There seems to be some validity to this theory; we have all experienced some pride and perhaps some embarrassment because of the way we believe our mates are perceived by others.
These theories help explain some aspects of romantic love, but we are still left with unanswered questions. For example, what accounts for the intensity of romantic love, the "chemistry" of attraction? Or how can the emotional devastation that frequently accompanies the break-up of a relationship be explained? The theories of attraction outlined above suggest that a more appropriate response to a failed romance would be to plunge immediately into another round of mate selection.
Furthermore, we seem to be much more discriminating than any of these theories would indicate. Reflect on your own romantic history: in your lifetime you have met thousands of people; as a conservative estimate, let's suppose that several hundred of them were physically attractive enough or successful enough to catch your eye under the bio-logic or persona theories. When we narrow this field by applying the social-exchange theory, we might come up with 50 or 100 people out of this select group who would have a combined "point value" equal to or greater than yours. Yet most people have been deeply attracted to only a few individuals - and what's more those individuals tend to resemble one another quite closely. Consider the personality traits of the people that you have seriously considered as mates. If you were to make a list of their predominant personality traits, you would discover a lot of similarities, including, surprisingly, their negative traits.
THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND
TO understand what is going on in mate selection, we need to understand the role of the unconscious mind in the process. We organise our thoughts, our days, our homes and our routines into orderly and logical systems. The conscious mind, the organiser, is, however, only a thin veil over the unconscious, which is independent, active and functioning at all times.
Scientists who study the brain have concluded that the brain stem, which is the most primitive layer, is the part of the brain that oversees reproduction, self-preservation and vital functions such as circulation of blood, breathing and sleeping. Around the top of the brain stem is the portion of the brain called the limbic system, whose function seems to be the generation of vivid emotions. I use the term "old brain" to refer to the portion of the brain that includes both the brain stem and the limbic system. This is the seat of the unconscious.
We are unaware of most of the functions of the old brain. But we do know that its main function is to ensure our survival. Always on the alert, it responds to every experience or stimulus as if it were asking the question "Is it safe?" To fulfil its instinctive agenda it lumps people into six basic categories; its only concern is whether a particular person is someone to nurture, be nurtured by, have sex with, run away from, submit to, or attack. It is not capable of picking up on subtleties such as "this is a neighbour" or "my cousin". The old brain has no sense of linear time. Today, tomorrow and yesterday do not exist; everything that was, still is. Its memories, recent and very old, inform all of its decisions about people and situations.
Scientists who use this model refer to the cerebral cortex, a large, convoluted mass of brain tissue that surrounds the old brain, as the "new brain" because it appeared most recently in evolutionary history. The new brain is the part of you that makes decisions, thinks, observes, recognises people, plans, anticipates, responds, organises information and creates ideas. It is inherently logical and tries to find a cause for every effect and an effect for every cause.
SO HOW does this information add to our understanding of romantic attraction? We seem to be highly selective in our choice of mates. In fact, we appear to be searching for a "one and only" with a very specific set of positive and negative traits. Years of theoretical research and clinical observation have led me to conclude that we are each looking for someone who has the predominant character traits of the people who raised us. Our old brain is trapped in the eternal now and, having only a dim awareness of the outside world, is trying to re-create the environment of childhood. And the reason the old brain is trying to resurrect the past is not, I believe, a matter of blind compulsion or habit, as Freud thought. From my clinical experience with thousands of couples who have stated what they want from their partners, I have concluded that what is driving them is a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.
You may recall that you sometimes have feelings regarding your mate that seem alarmingly out of proportion to the events that triggered them. For example, let's suppose that you are a middle-aged man coming home after a hard day at work, eager to share your successes with your wife. When you walk in the door, you see a note saying she has to work late. You stop dead in your tracks; you had counted on her being there. Rather than sitting down to enjoy the evening paper, you head straight for the freezer and eat a bowl of ice cream, exactly what you would have done 35 years ago if you had come home to learn that your mother wasn't home yet. The past and the present live side by side within your mind.
The ultimate reason you fell in love with your mate is not that he or she was young and attractive, had an impressive job, had a "point value" equal to yours, or had a kind disposition. You fell in love because your old brain had your partner confused with your parents. Your old brain believed that it had finally found the ideal candidate to make up for and repair the psychological and emotional damage you experienced in childhood.
I am not suggesting that each of us had serious childhood traumas such as sexual or physical abuse or the suffering that comes from having parents who divorced or died or were alcoholics. Even if you were fortunate enough to grow up in a safe, nurturing environment, you still bear invisible scars from childhood, because from the moment you were born you were a complex, dependent creature with a never-ending cycle of needs. And no parents, no matter how devoted, are able to respond perfectly to all of these changing needs. Tired, angry, depressed, busy, ill, afraid - parents often fail to sustain our feelings of security and comfort.
Every unmet need causes fear and pain and, in our infantile ignorance, we have no idea how to stop it and restore our feelings of safety and wholeness. Desperate to survive, we adopt primitive coping mechanisms. As we grow up we continue to cope as well as we can with the world and our relationships by using the feeble set of defenses born of the pain of childhood. We may look adult, we may have jobs and responsibilities, but we are the walking wounded, with our old brains driving an unconscious desire to somehow restore the sense of joyful aliveness we began with.
FALLING IN LOVE
WE KNOW little about the dark mysteries of life before birth, but we do know something about the physical life of the foetus. We know that its biological needs are taken care of instantly and automatically; we know that it has no need to eat, breathe, or protect itself from danger, and that it is constantly soothed by the rhythmical beat of its mother's heart. It has little awareness of boundaries, of where it ends and the rest of the world begins.
As adults we seem to have a fleeting memory of this state of original wholeness. We seem to recall a distant time when we were more unified and connected to the world. This sense is described over and over again in the myths of all cultures. It is the story of the Garden of Eden, and it strikes us with compelling force. The closest we get to this feeling as adults is when we fall in love.
When we fall in love, we believe we've found utopia. Suddenly, we see life in Technicolor. Our limitations and rigidities melt away. We're sexier, funnier, cleverer, more giving. We believe that we can't live without our beloved, for now we feel whole, we feel like ourselves. For a while we are able to relax; it looks like everything is going to turn out all right, after all.
And so, for a reason beyond our awareness, we enter marriage, or make commitments in relationships, with the expectation that our partners will magically restore this old-brain memory of wholeness. It is as if they hold the key to a long-ago kingdom, and all we have to do is persuade them to unlock the door. Their failure to do so is one of the main reasons for our eventual unhappiness.
Inevitably, things start to go wrong. In some cases, all hell breaks loose. The veil of illusion falls away, and it seems that our partners are different to what we thought they were. We begin to see traits that we can't bear; even qualities we once admired grate on us. Old hurts are reactivated as we realise that our partners cannot or will not love and care for us as they promised. Our dream shatters.
Disillusionment turns to anger, fuelled by fear that we won't survive without the love and safety that was within our gasp. Since our partners are no longer willingly giving us what we need, we change tactics, trying to manoeuvre them into caring - through anger, crying, withdrawal, shame, intimidation, criticism - whatever works. We will make them love us. Now we negotiate - for time, love, chores, gifts - measuring our success against a quasi-economic yardstick of profit and loss. The Power Struggle, the natural second stage of every marriage, has begun, and may go on for many years, until we split, until we settle into a more or less satisfactory truce, or until we seek help, desperate to feel alive and whole again, to have our dream back.
Central to my work as a marital therapist is this dynamic driven by the old brain. That part of each one of us, our unconscious mind, is seeking situations and people to recreate its original wholeness. It is my belief that it does this by looking for people who resemble the original caretakers in order to replay the situations in which it was wounded, in order, this time, to reach a different ending.
Many people have a hard time accepting the idea that they have searched for partners who are like their parents. Sometimes, on a conscious level, they were doing the exact opposite. What most of us think we are looking for is people with only positive traits - people who are, among other things, kind, loving, intelligent, good-looking and creative. But no matter what their conscious intentions, my clinical experience has shown me time and time again that most people are attracted to mates who have their caretakers' positive and negative traits; and, typically, the negative traits are more influential.
In its search for the perfect partner, our old brain is carrying an image, a complex synthesis of responses to early needs against which it is defended. This image of "the person who can make me whole again" I call the imago (ih-MAH-go). Though we consciously seek only the positive traits, the negative traits of our caretakers are more indelibly imprinted in our imago picture, because those are the traits that caused the wounds we now seek to heal. In other words, we look for someone with the same deficits of care and attention that hurt us in the first place. So when we fall in love, when bells ring and the world seems altogether a better place, our old brain is telling us that we've found someone with whom we can complete our unfinished childhood business. Unfortunately, since we don't understand what's going on, we're shocked when further into the relationship the awful truth of our beloved surfaces, and our first impulse is to run screaming in the opposite direction.
And there's more bad news. Another powerful component of our imago is that we also seek the qualities missing in ourselves - both good and bad - that got lost in the shuffle of socialisation. If we are shy, we seek someone outgoing; if we're disorganised, we're attracted to someone cool and rational. The anger we repressed because it was punished, and which we unconsciously hate ourselves for feeling, we "annex" in our partner. But eventually, when our own repressed feelings are stirred, we are uncomfortable, and criticise our partners for being too bold, too coldly rational, too temperamental.
THE POWER STRUGGLE
WHEN does romantic love end and the power struggle begin? It's impossible to define precisely when these stages occur. But for most couples there is a noticeable change in the relationship about the time they make a definite commitment to each other. Once they say, "Let's get married", or "Let's get engaged", the pleasing, inviting dance of courtship draws to a close, and lovers begin to want not only the expectation of need- fufilment but the reality as well. Suddenly it isn't enough that their partners be affectionate, clever, attractive and fun-loving. They now have to satisfy a whole hierarchy of expectations, some conscious, but most hidden.
As soon as they start living together, most people assume their mates will conform to a very specific but rarely expressed set of behaviours. For example, a man may expect his new bride to do the housework, cook the meals, arrange the social events, and take on the role of family nurse - in other words be the nurturer. On the other hand, her expectation may be that he will help with the kitchen duties, share the shopping, pay the bills, mow the lawn and sort the laundry - ie, share in the nurturing.
What we need to understand and accept is that conflict is supposed to happen. It is what nature intended; everything in nature is in conflict. The hard truth is that the foundation for a happy and fulfilling marriage is incompatibility. Conflict needs to be understood as a given, a sign that the psyche is trying to survive, to get its needs met and become whole.
We also need to understand that divorce does not solve our relationship problems. We may get rid of our partners, but we keep our problems, carrying them into the next relationship. Romantic love is supposed to end. It serves as the glue that initially bonds two incompatible people together so that they will do what needs to be done to heal themselves. The good news is that although many couples become hopelessly locked in the power struggle, it too, is supposed to end. Real love does not give birth to marriage; marriage is born in the glow of romantic love, fuelled by the anticipation of our needs finally being satisfied. Real love is born in the heat of the power struggle, when the illusions fade and we discover the real person we are with. Now bonded by nature's trick, we are challenged to respond to our partner's real needs. Real love, if it exists at all, is born in marriage.
A CONSCIOUS MARRIAGE
TO MAKE this transition from conflict to healing requires a dramatic transition from an unconscious marriage to a conscious one. To achieve this new state of mind we must understand the goals of the unconscious in marriage and make them the conscious agenda in our relationship. That will challenge old defences and habituated ways of relating, for it is these very defences that re-wound our partner and catalyse their childhood experience. A conscious marriage which can break this cycle of wounding is not for the cowardly or timid. We must stretch to become the person our partner needs us to be. We must put aside defensive behaviours such as criticising, crying, anger, or withdrawal and learn more effective mechanisms. In the therapy I have devised to help couples, I suggest that people change to give their partners what they need, no matter how difficult it is and no matter how much it goes against the grain of their own personalities and temperament.
In order to achieve the valid and important objectives of the old brain, we need to enlist the aid of the new brain - the part of us that makes choices, exerts will, and knows that our partners are not our parents. We need to take the rational skills that we use in other parts of our lives and bring them to bear on our love relationships. Suppose your spouse suddenly criticises you for being late for dinner. Your old brain instantly prompts you to fight or flee. You might typically return your partner's critical remark with something like: "If I could depend on you to have dinner ready at a decent hour, then I'd be here on time." Or you might flee from the encounter entirely by going outside to work in the garden. Depending on your approach, your partner will feel either attacked or abandoned and will most likely lash out again.
Your new brain could come up with a less irritating response. An effective approach is to paraphrase your partner's statement in a neutral tone of voice, acknowledging the anger but not rushing to your own defence. For example, you might say something like: "You're upset that I'm late for dinner." Your partner might respond by saying something like: "Yes, I am! I'm tired of keeping dinner warm until you get home." Then, still relying on the new-brain tact, you could respond once again in the same non-defensive manner. "You're right, I have been late several times lately. From now on, whenever I'm running late, I'll call you." Your partner, disarmed by your rational tone of voice and your ability to think of an alternative solution, will probably calm down and become more flexible: "Good idea. And thanks for not getting upset. I had a bad day at work and I'm still edgy." Because you were willing to risk a creative response to anger, you have suddenly become a trusted confidant rather than a sparring partner.
Once you become skilled in a non-defensive approach to criticism, you will make an important discovery: in most interactions with your spouse, you are actually safer when you lower your defenses, because your partner becomes an ally, not an enemy. Through the integration of old-brain instincts and new-brain savvy, as well as lots of hard work and effort, it is possible gradually to leave the frustrations of the power struggle behind and grow towards a happy and fulfilling relationship.
Further information: Institute for Imago Relationship Therapy, 335 North Knowles Avenue, Winter Park, Florida, 32789, USA. (Tel: 00 1 407 644-3537)Reuse content