Cindy sinks down into the light brown armchair in my office on a sweet Santa Barbara Autumn day. The sun shines through the French doors, and a slight morning breeze caresses us with crisp, delicious airs. I swam this morning at sunrise at Los Banos pool outside by the harbor, and have that stoked sense of having worked out in nature—a feeling that usually persists throughout the morning. I’m glad to see Cindy, but worried about her obvious distress.
The pleasures of this day are lost on Cindy. She slumps in her chair, devastated and bewildered at what just happened with her lover, Tim.
Cindy’s face is drawn in pain as her voice quivers with frustration and—unknown to her at this moment—outrage, “I don’t get it! Everything was so wonderful for five months! We didn’t fight. We traveled to Bali and had so much fun. I don’t think I’ve ever been in love like this. Then, after just one argument, Tim says we have to break up! He really means it! Nothing I can say has any effect. He says, ‘We’re just not right for each other.’ How can he walk away from something so beautiful? It doesn’t make sense!”
A familiar combination of sympathetic grief and compassion rise up through my solar plexus and heart. I’ve been at this point hundreds of times with men and women throughout the last forty years. It’s comforting to know that I can help her grow through the crisis, but sad to know that Tim probably won’t make it back to love with Cindy. Totally rejecting a lover after one fight usually reflects profound narcissistic wounds that resist insight and change. There’s a good chance that Tim is a lost cause.
I start the process with the bottom line, “Cindy, one of the main risks of love is that—often—the closer you are, the weirder it gets.”
There are two forces (at least) that complicate love affairs and cause enormous confusion and suffering.
First, falling in love—romantic infatuation—is an altered state where you amplify your partner’s strengths and ignore their weaknesses. When you fall in love, a place in your brain stem called the ventral tegmental area sprays dopamine—an excitement/pleasure neuromodulator active in all addictions—into your brain like a sprinkler system, keeping you intoxicated with your partner. People in love notice that their lover isn’t perfect and has flaws, but generally aren’t particularly worried about it. Being in love feels like a state of grace where bad things that happened in previous relationships just aren’t possible with us.
When, after days, weeks, or months, romantic infatuation fades, character flaws and bad relational habits aren’t medicated away with sexy, romantic, dopamine-driven fog, and lovers find themselves pissed off, scared, or distrustful in ways that are alarmingly reminiscent of previous relationship nightmares.
A second force that complicates love affairs is that, as you get closer to another person, the levels of familiarity and intimacy keep rising until they recapitulate states we experienced with family members when we were growing up. Almost everybody’s first romantic infatuation was with Mom—holding, nursing, cooing, caring, and protecting. This wired our brains to love and act in specific ways, and—since no mother is perfect and human development always creates some form of crazy defensive habits (much more on that in future blogs)—when we feel certain levels of closeness with somebody, those old habits get cued. As we grow from baby to adult, the best and worst sides of our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters come out one way or another, and we develop patterns of dealing with them. When our level of intimacy with a lover feels as deep as those relationships, the habits we learned growing up—and especially the defensive habits we learned when we felt attacked, threatened, or misunderstood—automatically kick in.
With poor Cindy and Tim, after five months of bliss that one fight lit up Tim’s most primitive defenses. He was indulged and neglected by shallow parents, which contributed to him always assuming bad feelings were somebody else’s fault. The distress he felt during their argument was so intolerable he had to make Cindy wrong and gone. This is the signature narcissistic defense, demean and withdraw. Some of us (most of us) can sometimes blame others and want to take off, but we’re still able to hang in and work through problems. Deeply narcissistic people can’t do this, and tend to disappear like Tim did (see Blog #7, Charley Sheen—Poster child for pathological narcissism).
This is why I council people to take their time with lovers, and, rather than worry about problems coming, assume problems will show up to challenge your mutual problem-solving abilities. It’s a horrible sign if somebody goes crazy and leaves (like Tim did) or relentlessly attacks. It’s a fantastic sign when lovers can resolve problems back to love—legitimately warranting more confidence.
Eventually Cindy got all this, and became wiser in choosing lovers—Tim was just a little too good to be true. The road she had to travel to this new understanding was long and painful, beginning as it did with, “Cindy, one of the main risks of love is that—often—the closer you are, the weirder it gets.”