Love is such an elusive term. Some refer to it as an emotion, but it seems to me that it’s more of an experience that is characterized by the full spectrum of emotions.
Having said that…I will still attempt to capture the lived reality of it here…
Love is often experienced as feeling seen, understood, and admired. Someone gets you and cares about getting you. There is an air of tenderness and desire to be in physically and emotionally proximity to a person you love as well.
In romantic love, there is an added physical attraction and physical desire that accompanies the definition above.
What about falling in love?
When you are falling in love:
- Your primal brain encourages you to bond more deeply with your new/potential mate.
- You experience a flood of stimulating, feel good, and bonding hormones that drop your guard and focus your attention on the perfection of your partner (this is a strategy to encourage procreation and occurs regardless of your gender or desire to have children). The physiological effects of being in love can feel quite intoxicating and have been likened to that of addiction.
- You fall in love with yourself!
- Yes, you are attracted to the qualities in the other that are underdeveloped or “missing” in yourself. This is often why you feel a sense of wholeness and aliveness when you are with this new/potential mate.
What I am getting at here, is that a lot of pair bonding is occurring at an unconscious level. Not every bit of it, but more than we would like to think it does, because it kind of kills the romantic vibe of it all right?
The classic princess/prince dynamic from my childhood keeps coming to mind here…Damn you Disney! Uggg
Let’s not forget that we are still animals 🙂
The IN LOVE phase of romantic love, also referred to as the honeymoon phase, typically begins to dissolve by 6 months to 1.5 years. When the high begins to dissipate, conflict arises, and how could it not? We come from various cultures and have different conditioning. Toss an ego in to boot and voila…conflict. It is unfortunate conditioning to think that conflict is inherently wrong or bad. Conflict is a natural aspect of relationship AND a perfect opportunity to deepen into intimacy. This is where you can begin to create the long lasting love you want.
It is common that people equate LOVE with FALLING IN LOVE. So when the love drunk feeling begins to dissipate the thoughts that pervade are “this can’t be love because it shouldn’t be so hard or I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable” or “love is not possible or doesn’t exist.” This leads to undue suffering, and to protect yourself from that suffering, you arm yourself with skepticism.
How childhood dynamics impact how you love.
Another factor that impacts romantic love is your childhood experience of love itself. Your primal brain (the oldest part of your brain) desires to rest in a sense of wholeness as a means to safety. In attempts to restore wholeness, it seeks partners similar to caretakers with whom you experienced stress and trauma in order to resolve it (look up Imago theory for further research).
Notice how you seek out similar partners, or find yourself in similar relational dynamics? It is not by accident, your body/mind is trying to protect you from your inner child’s experience.
Let’s explore this one layer deeper.
You see, as a child, you don’t know how to protect yourself from the pain and fear caused by unmet needs, so you develop coping strategies to keep you safe. One such strategy is disowning the pieces of you that aren’t deemed loveable by your caretaker and replacing them with new ways of being that are. This gets you love and also stops the pain and fear. These disowned pieces are what is referred to as your shadow.
You continue to dislike, deny, and dismiss your shadow self well into adulthood even though this strategy for safety is no longer relevant or supportive. This unintegrated shadow leaves you with a sense of unworthiness and not enoughness (the feeling of being incomplete or unwhole). Just think about the places where you carry shame in your life. Why do you feel that shame? And if you’re having a hard time identifying where you carry shame, get curious about where/how you judge others – that is likely where you carry the most shame.
To sum it up, the way you were loved as a child will reflect how you love as an adult. Even in the best of scenarios, our caretakers were not perfect and most of us experienced some level of stress and trauma that is looking to be resolved.
The 2 types of relationships: projectional and courageous
In projectional relationships, partners project (or blame) their emotional experiences on each other. This is a coping strategy that is meant to preserve or gain self-worth (sound familiar?). When you blame someone for your experience, you are discharging the uncomfortable emotions that you would have otherwise felt had you taken personal responsibility for your experience. The success of this strategy is only short lived because self-worth can never be given to you, it is an intrinsic quality that you have to believe in and own. A couple in a projectional dynamic will often find themselves looping in the same patterns in an unconscious quest for worthiness/enoughness/completeness.
This kind of relationship is common when we first begin to date because we are still very unclear about who we are and what we want. You likely had some of these relationships in your teens and early 20s. However this kind of relationship can persist into adulthood as well, especially if you had moderate to severe stress or trauma in your childhood.
People in projectional relationships will sometimes describe their partner as their twin flame or soul-mate. If the relationship starts off with an intense obsession with each other that is accompanied by a lot of anxiety and jealousy when separated, you are often in this category of relationship.
While you may learn a lot about yourself over the duration of a projectional relationship (herein lies the value), the romantic love will often come to completion. The foundation of this kind of relationship is typically unconscious, based in fear, and inherently disempowering – a recipe for breakup.
It isn’t impossible to transform a projectional dynamic into a courageous loving one, but it takes conscious intention and serious commitment from both partners, and often outside perspective and help from a coach/therapist.
In courageous loving relationships you choose your partner because of the epic human they are, differences and all – not because you need them to save you. This implies then, that you are also taking responsibility for your emotions and needs (self-regulation). Yes, when you pair bond, you are looking to get needs met on both sides, but the supportive dynamic you are looking for is interdependent as opposed to codependent. Interdependent relationships are ecological and collaborative whereas codependent relationships are out of balance, because the partners rely heavily on each other to maintain their sense of self-worth (as in projectional dynamics). In courageous love, you are creating a safe space of presence and vulnerability which naturally promotes the self-actualization of each individual and of the relationship itself. This is an opportunity to rise in love.
Courageous loving relationships aren’t about finding “THE ONE.” I don’t believe that there is only one person out there for you. I believe courageous love is created through conscious intentional choice – And while there are many biological factors that are influencing pair bonding, there are many ways we can actively attract and sustain courageous love.
How can you attract and sustain courageous love?
- Chemistry match. Pheromone chemistry that is. If you are put off by your partner’s smell, you are not a match. I am referring to their natural smell here. Not their crazy, I haven’t showered in a week, and am wearing too much cologne smell. Please do not deny this one. There are many messages we are communicating about on a genetic level through smell. Trust your body’s wisdom here.
- Shared goals and values match. This is huge! If you do not have a shared vision for your future and a similar path you want to take to get there, you will be incompatible. You can have a lot of differences in your relationship, but this can’t be one of them. When you hear people talk about incompatibility, this is what they are talking about.
- Conflict resolution style match. Conflict is an opportunity to learn and grow, to deepen in your intimacy as a couple. If you are not aligned in your conflict resolution style, you will stunt your growth and feel depleted as you loop and loop and loop. You want to feel expansive and energized, not stunted and depleted.
- Practice presence and vulnerability. There is a natural tendency to put your best foot forward during the IN LOVE stage of romantic love. You may omit some of your true nature during this phase in doing so, but you may continue that behavior even once that phase has ended for fear of rejection. If you want to attract and sustain soul level love, you MUST practice presence and vulnerability. You are a beautiful, powerful, and sacred being. The world wants to see you. This relational pattern is the path to peace, clarity, and soul connection.
- Do your work. Much of your work is practicing presence and vulnerability with yourself. Your work as a human is to integrate your shadow and come into your wholeness. To own your power – your bigness. You can be supported by a partner along the way, but they can not be responsible for your work.
Barriers to attracting/sustaining/ soul level love:
- Certainty trap. We want to be certain that our partner is “THE ONE”, but there is no way of ever knowing this. This is the nature of the world. Nothing is certain, only death. This keeps us with one foot in and one foot out of life – in our relationships and elsewhere. Also, in developed countries, we experience the paradox of choice. When we have a plethora of choice, it can cause anxiety and overwhelm. Ultimately you have to choose – with intention. You have to take the risk. What if you fall you say? I say, what if you fly?
- Mismatched. Are you mismatched in your chemistry, goals/values, conflict resolution style (as discussed above)? Revisit the section above.
- You are not practicing presence and vulnerability. I am telling you, if you can not fully show up, you will never be fully seen.
- Your work. Are you doing your work???
Barriers to moving on from/ or moving into friendship with previous lovers:
- Unfinished business. If your primal brain feels that it didn’t get the download or healing wisdom it was supposed to receive from the relationship (typically projectional relationships), it will keep gasping energetically for your past lover in attempts to retrieve it. Remember that this part of your brain is concerned about restoring wholeness as a means of safety. Your past lover may be experiencing this as well which makes it even more difficult to move forward, as their energy is pulling at you. It is crucial in this case to get clear on what lessons you have learned from the relationship and encourage your past lover to do the same. Write them down and revisit them often.
- Failure. Do you equate moving on with failure? What if you considered it a completion instead?
- Chemistry. Here I am referring to sexual chemistry. Is it still palpable? Oxytocin, the bonding chemical, can continue to bond you to your past lover. It can be released in your body merely in the physical presence of that person, making it difficult to be “certain” that uncoupling was a good idea. It can be useful to take some time and distance from this person in this case.
- “Can you ever be certain they are not THE ONE?” What I think is most useful here is to revisit shared goals/values (you were likely mismatched here), after chemistry (smell), I think this is truly the only other place you CAN be incompatible. Again, you can never be 100% certain about anything. Trust your intuition here.
- Worthiness (Your Work). Are you not moving on because you don’t feel you are worthy of up-leveling to a higher vibration of relating? Reality check this one. You will attract/sustain relationships that reflect your self-worth.
- What is your attachment style? If you have an anxious (or wave-like relating style as Stan Tatkin describes it) attachment style, it may take longer for you to integrate an uncoupling experience. I recommend researching attachment theory to better understand how the love you received as a child is impacting how you now love as an adult).
This is no by no means a comprehensive understanding of love. As I mentioned, the lived experience of love is elusive to say the least. But diving into the biology and human nature of it all is fun, insightful, and well , maybe even gets you a little more love.