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             HOW LOVE GETS LOST

 By Benjamin B. Conley, M.Div., LMFT

Five Basic Threats

When we fall in love, we experience the loved one as the one who heals us, who makes us whole. This is a wonderful experience, and gives us a subjective sense of "completion" of our lives up to that point of our personal growth.

However, we tend to fall in love (or pick a partner in another way) with someone who is familiar, "my kind of person," similar to the people with whom we grew up. So we find ourselves in love with someone who has many of the same assets and limitations we experienced with our mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, teachers, the ones who were a significant part of our childhood world.

When this surprising reality becomes apparent, that our loved one is not as ideal as we once believed, we may be dismayed, as well as already married and perhaps with a child born or on the way. Then we have a dilemma, a new awareness that we fell in love with someone who is not, in important ways, the ideal we once envisioned.

In the primitive part of our brain, we then experience the other person as a threat to our well being, to the degree to which he or she does not match our expectations. We have a built-in response to viewing our partner as a threat: we get ready to fight for what we want, or we run away to escape the pain of unrequited love.

Fighting or running away creates, in turn, a threat to the other person, a threat to the survival of the relationship. We may fight by using physical force, by criticizing, by using contempt and ridicule, or by being intrusive and trying to manage the other person's life. We may run away by some means of rejection, such as leaving the relationship. As methods to achieve a warm, loving, close relationship, all of these methods fail. Let us consider the use of each method to get what we want from our partner.

1) Force-Attack

One temptation, when we are frustrated about getting what we want, is to use the primitive method of force. "I will make you be the way I want you to be and tell you it is the way you should be." A natural response to force by the other person is self-defense by pushing back in the opposite direction. "Don't tell me what to do. You're not my mother (or my father)."

A power struggle follows, to determine who will force whom to comply with what is sincerely believed by each person to be the desirable and "proper" way to be, to act, to think, and to feel.

One of the areas in which the power struggle shows up is in the care of children. Each of the parents may want to deal with a particular situation differently, including the use of more or less force, sometimes even physical force.

With step parents in particular, the children may not want to take direction from the step parent, and may frame the issue, fairly or unfairly, as one of force: "You can't make me."

While force can establish compliance based on fear, force never establishes loving relationships, whether it is the use of physical force or psychological force. We may try to force the other person through manipulation, an appeal to fear, or an appeal to shame and guilt. The result may be compliance in the short term.

However, force invites a response of self-defense and counter attack, not a loving or desirable response. The power struggle that ensues from the use of force turns the other person into an enemy, and destroys intimacy in the relationship, instead of creating love and mutual support.

2) Rejection-Withdrawal

Another primitive method of self-defense that threatens relationships is one we all have experienced: withdrawal, the other side of the fight-flight response to danger. Instead of fighting to force the other person to comply, withdrawal (flight) may be used to defend against being forced, or may be used as punishment to make the other person change (I'll reject you if you don't do what I want). Withdrawal involves the rejection of the other person and is usually perceived by the person being rejected as hurtful.

"If you won't be reasonable and be the way I want and need you to be, I will reject you." Whether the rejection is intended as punishment or as self-defense, the result is the same. Intimacy is reduced and emotional distance is increased in the relationship. Withdrawal creates more of the hurt associated with not being loved.

We may use other, related methods to attempt to gain the love we want, even though they backfire and create more pain. Three other ways to attempt to manipulate others using psychological and emotional force are

1)    use of contempt, devaluing the other person.

2)    intrusiveness and domination, taking responsibility for decisions that belong to the other person.

3)    Criticism and blame, telling the other person what is "wrong" with him or her.

All three may be used in the attempt to create closeness, but each one creates danger and enmity instead, in its own way. Let's take a closer look at each of them.

3) Contempt-Devaluing

With contempt, another method destructive of intimacy, we treat the other person as if he or she is not important, that what he or she says doesn't count, that we would rather not be bothered.

This may not be the message that is intended by the person communicating, but it may be the message that is communicated. It often happens because a person may be preoccupied with his or her own concerns, focused on his or her own point of view, to the exclusion of the other's concerns and point of view.

The implicit message we may communicate with or without meaning to is, "I am not interested in understanding your point of view, just in your understanding my own." Or, "I understand your point, but you don't seem to understand mine." Sometimes, of course, the message is a blunt, "What you say is not worth listening to. What I have to say is the important thing."

Ironically, this is the message many children have received from overworked and distressed parents who either could not or would not take time to pay attention to their children. In more tragic instances, parents have acted as if, or told their children outright they should not have been born.

When we use contempt as the method to get our partner to "shape up," we are encouraging self-denigration in our partner and conformity to our wishes as the price of interest and love. The result is more pain in the relationship on both sides, more hurt, and more bitterness.

4) Intrusiveness---Rescuing

Intrusiveness does create one form of intimacy in a relationship, but it also creates resentment that ultimately leads to rejection and a loss of intimacy. With intrusiveness, we treat our spouse as if he or she is incompetent to manage responsibility, needs to be rescued and told what to do, and should be given directions about how to do things and manage his or her affairs.

This takes various forms, like telling one's spouse what to do when driving (without an agreement to do so), or telling what the other "should" do, or making decisions that affect the other without consultation and agreement.

An attempt to control the other person by making decisions for him or her may reflect the relationship that person had with a parent who did not know how to encourage a child to grow up and take responsibility. Some parents try to control their children after they have grown up, since to do otherwise would seem to the parent that his or her life has no meaning after caretaking is completed.

Applied to one's partner, this technique of trying to make him or her "do the right thing" creates or contributes to a power struggle, resulting in anger, rebellion, and ultimately less intimacy in the relationship.

5) Blame and Criticism

Blame is a destructive element in relationships, occurring when one partner criticizes or places blame on the other instead of taking responsibility for what he or she has done wrong. The goal of the one doing the blaming and the criticizing is to get the partner to change and do what he or she wants instead. The goal is very desirable, but the method creates the opposite of what is desired.

As methods for getting one's needs met, blame and criticism do not work, and are destructive of the relationship, since the one being blamed or criticized will be likely to:

1)   become compliant, which will create resentment and later conflict, or become passively withdrawn, which creates a new problem of loss of closeness in the relationship,

2)   fight back, which escalates the conflict to a higher level of intensity, or

3)   leave outright, either physically or through emotional distance, which tends to create enmity and bitterness and will destroy intimacy.

Blame can be thought of as an attack on a person, as in saying, "You're stupid," "You're really messed up," or "You're a loser." This attacks the person's being.

Criticism can be thought of as an attack on a person's behavior, rather than the person as such, as in "You shouldn't have said that," or "You never do anything right." Both blame and criticism give negative results when a close and loving and cooperative relationship is the goal.


2002 by Benjamin B. Conley, All Rights Reserved

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