Why we mistake infatuation for love.
Why is it that some people make our hearts beat faster, make our stomach flutter, and bring a rosy glow to our cheek? And why is it that so often these same people disappoint us in the end?
The answer is that the ‘chemistry’ we feel when we meet our 'special other' might not be a sign of compatibility or love but an urgent and unconscious longing to re-live and to re-write our past. This misinterpretation of our emotions can lead to significant relational mistakes and regrets, so how can we become more accurate in our judgments and decisions? Most importantly we need to understand how emotions — which are our body’s response to experience — work. When that ‘special someone’ sets our heart racing what happens next – at least in terms of our internal response system – is that we ‘name’ these emotions. Thus, for example, we might name sweaty palms, a pulsing heart, and flushed skin as ‘strong attraction’. Usually, this naming of bodily reactions happens fast, automatically and unconsciously. However, the emotions that many of us associate with sexual attraction are very similar to those that occur when our threat brain is stimulated. For example, research shows that the stress hormone cortisol increases during the initial stages of ‘falling in love’. This is not so surprising when we discover that the emotions of our threat brain (danger/avoid) and drive brain (excitement/approach) are stimulated by the same part of our nervous system. Thus, when that special someone sets our heart racing we could interpret that emotional response as ‘love’ (approach this person) and we could also interpret it as a fear-based warning (avoid this person). Unfortunately, the heady cocktail of chemicals that are released when we encounter certain people shuts down our ability to think clearly or deeply and to make more informed choices. As cortisol, dopamine and adrenalin rise, levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin become depleted, and low levels of serotonin precipitate what Richard Schwartz, a medical researcher at Harvard, describes as the ‘intrusive, maddeningly, preoccupying thoughts, hopes and terrors of early love’. In other words, obsessive-compulsive behaviours associated with romantic infatuations. What is the function of these dramatic emotions then and why do we feel them if they are liable to lead us astray in love? One answer is that these emotions arise because this person has stirred activity in our unconscious. Our unconscious ‘sees’ in them an opportunity to express itself -which it is always trying to do, for example, in our dreams, our actions which seem 'out of character', our ‘unacceptable’ thoughts and our extreme emotional surges. Given that we mostly push unpleasant and painful memories into our unconscious, it is often these that the unconscious most wants to express and resolve. Thus people with whom we experience very strong emotional reactions are often those who enable us to re-experience the problems and challenges we faced when growing up. These experiential memories are stored as ‘higher value’ than happier memories because our brain is designed to prioritise and remember problems - and how to deal with them - as significant 'survival data'. Higher value memories are easily activated and with them so too are our childlike responses, needs and longings. This offers an explanation for why we approach rather than avoid these people and why we find them so mesmerising. And so we become spellbound by others for two significant reasons: The first is that we experience familiarity – we know how to be around this person because we have encountered people like them in our childhoods. Familiarity triggers emotions that we (mistakenly) interpret as a match or fit. This person, we think is ‘the one’. The second is that our unconscious sees an opportunity to rewrite the past. This special person, in helping us to re-create the patterns of our past, provides us with an opportunity to re-live those patterns and somehow, this time, to overcome them. When we are infatuated we work very hard to be kind, smart, adoring, and attractive so that this person (who is so like that person who once rejected or criticised us) will love us in a way we were not loved before. And, as if magic were truly at work, where once we were unloved we are now loved, where once we were incompetent we are now capable, and where once there was pain and disappointment there is now joy and fulfillment. Repetition compulsion – the tendency to revive and repeat past experience — is a very common relational dynamic. It is the dynamic involved when, for example, we marry people like our parents. Yet whenever we relate to others as figures from the past we fail to see them for who they actually are. Blind infatuation of this kind almost always leads to relationship problems. Once we understand that our bodily responses don’t 'mean' anything about the other but indicate a reality within ourselves we become more motivated to pay attention to and be curious about our inner lives and our true motivations. Whilst such discoveries can be painful at first, they eventually lead to greater self-awareness and clarity of perception when it comes to our choices and decisions in love.