“The mature response to the problem of existence is love.”
― Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
You all know that feeling. The butterflies in your stomach. The giddiness when they are near you. Fantasies about forever. Pining for the moment you will see them again. They can do no wrong and are the absolute embodiment of perfection. You never thought you could feel this way, but alas, that feeling is finally here. You’ve found your soulmate.
This is the stuff of romance novels and chick flicks. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, of real life. For those of you lucky enough to have fallen in love once or twice, you know this feeling well. You know how magical its inception is – and how painful its demise can be. I commend those of you lucky enough to stay in love, transforming the initial fiery burst of infatuation into the slow burn of true love. It’s not easy to do in our fast-paced, adrenaline-addicted, instant-gratification-oriented culture.
As a Manhattan psychiatrist who has treated over 1,000 patients (in many cases on love-related matters), I’ve learned a few things over the years about love vs. infatuation:
1. When it comes to infatuation, honesty is at a disadvantage
Let’s start with some neuroscience: the brain reserves its most delightful chemical concoction for the infatuation stage of a relationship. Infatuation produces a natural high. The euphoria is triggered by a number of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin. Dopamine floods our system with pleasure. Norepinephrine enhances our experience of joy. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, oxytocin, often called the love or trust hormone, amplifies the effects. For most species in the animal kingdom, this giddy romantic feeling lasts only a few minutes or hours – days or weeks at the most. For humans, these chemicals stay active in the brain for twelve to eighteen months, stoking our intense feelings of love.
In the throes of that glittering infatuation, it is nearly impossible for any of us to see clearly. Even if we did see warning signs in the other person, we would find it unusually hard to believe that these were reasons enough to forfeit such a positive and reinforcing feeling.
The trouble with infatuation is that it wears off. Unfortunately, before it does, many couples enter committed unions (marriage or otherwise), have children, and promise to live “happily ever after.” By the time the mist of infatuation clears, and any warning signs come into full view, people’s lives are intertwined in ways that have legal, social, financial, occupational, and emotional ramifications.
2. True love thrives on honesty and authenticity
In contrast to infatuation, true love invites honesty and authenticity. You can’t truly love somebody without really knowing their core essence: what makes them tick, their hopes and dreams for the future, the longings of their soul, the passion in their heart, and the values that make them who they are. When two people initially meet each other, physical attraction and the powerful brain chemicals of infatuation can actually impede any authentic connection. Both people are often on their best behavior, wearing their people-pleaser hats and trying hard to hide their foibles, quirks, and “unlovable parts.” Infatuation seeks connection yet fails to achieve authenticity. This is why Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, writes, “Infatuation is not quite the same thing as love; it’s more like love’s shady second cousin who’s always borrowing money and can’t hold down a job.” Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t love the feelings that infatuation brings (if only temporarily)!
But you’ll only know if the building blocks of true love are really there by showing somebody who you truly are, including the parts of you that you may fear are unlovable. Do you have shared values, open hearts, mutual respect, and a compatible vision for the future? Honesty with oneself and others brings truth. Otherwise, your “would be” self ends up having a fantasy relationship with their “would be” self, and nobody ever gets to truly know each other or develop an authentic connection. True love entails being comfortable and completely yourself with another human being – and being accepted for who you are without judgment.
3. Infatuation depends on projection
Many couples have a hard time transitioning from the infatuation phase of a relationship to true love. They get stuck in the idealism of putting the object of their desire on a pedestal, making it hard for them to see the other person as they truly are. An important part of infatuation is projection: where we take all of our hopes, wishes, dreams, and fantasies (also our fears, dreads, and emotional baggage) and project them onto the other person. When we do this, we see in the other person what we want and expect to see in them. We re-create this person in our own image of what he or she should be. In this way, we end up becoming infatuated not with the other person but with our own fantasies and projections.
As Susan Campbell, PhD, says in her book Getting Real, true love demands that we set aside our projections and begin to see what actually is. This is the only way we can have an authentic connection with another human being. By releasing the fears, expectations, and wishes we have projected onto our partners, we can truly embrace the here and now together with them. This means relinquishing our beliefs about what should or should not be going on, what we expect, what we are prepared for, and what we judge as acceptable. If we are reluctant to do this, then the connection we make is not with the person in front of us but with our own past – our own fears, expectations, and wishes.
4. True love makes peace with imperfection
If your relationship survives the test of time, the veil of love’s illusion will eventually be lifted as you begin to see the person in front of you more clearly. Standing beside the naked truth of one’s core essence, along with all the imperfections that are so easy to overlook while in the whims of infatuation, you have the opportunity to make a choice: is this the person you would like to love? If so, how do you open your heart to love and accept them fully and completely, exactly as they are? Can you love this person without trying to change them? Sometimes we fall in love with somebody’s potential, holding the space for them to step into the more evolved and “better” version of themselves. Our partners may indeed change over time, but they also might not. There are no guarantees, so expecting somebody to change as a condition of your love is never a good idea.
Everybody has quirks, insecurities, bad habits, and what you (or they) deem to be “unlovable parts.” To be clear, accepting one’s imperfections does not mean accepting abuse or poor treatment. Once you know your partner’s imperfections, can you accept these qualities in your partner and (all the while) support your partner in his or her own journey of self-love, self-acceptance, and growth/transformation?
5. True love is peaceful and drama-free
Not everybody will choose to pursue a relationship bound by true love once the infatuation wears off. For some, the first sign of dwindling passion signals trouble. I’m not feeling it anymore. I need to break up with her. He must not be “the One” after all. I need to find somebody with whom I can feel amazing ALL THE TIME. Such thoughts echo in the minds of people who love to lose themselves in passion, desire, and intensity. They live for the chase, thrive on conquest, love dramatic gestures, and often fall prey to painful longing. They are masters in the art of infatuation. But while deeply craving connection, their need for the constant “high” makes them unable to sustain a long-term relationship. Intense passion, often confused with true love, is usually associated with a strong and sometimes desperate attempt to possess or control the other person – sometimes to get something from them.
True love, in contrast, is relatively drama-free, calm, and peaceful. It is about loving and accepting another person as they are and not at all about trying to control them. Obsessive worries about the future – When will he call me again? Is he seeing other people? Where is this headed? – are replaced by honest, open-hearted communication and authentic connection. There are no secrets or games. This is a natural progression of a healthy relationship to a deeper level of intimacy and commitment where passion can be rekindled and stoked.
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As the Persian poet Rumi wrote, “Love is the bridge between you and everything.” When we achieve true love, it opens our hearts, gives greater meaning to our lives, and connects us more deeply to all of the world. Be true to who you are and enjoy the highs of infatuation, but do not fear when the infatuation begins to cease. Just remember – the death of infatuation often signals the planting of true love’s seeds.
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