01.12.2012 Relationships

Love Illusion

Distinguishing real love from romantic illusion is the secret of happiness, says Dr Charmaine Saunders

Falling in love. It has to be one of the most exciting, heady experiences in human existence.

Who wouldn't want to feel this as often as possible? Studies show that when a person is in love, actual hormonal changes take place that last around five and a half months. During this time, life feels intense and exaggerated, feelings are more magical, the beloved one is seemingly perfect and no end to this wonder is imaginable. But as many of us know, we can come crashing back to earth at a thudding rate, with egos bruised, hearts broken and disillusionment intact.

So, why does this happen and how can we look out for the warning signs? We certainly don't want to become so emotionally guarded and cynical that we no longer allow ourselves to dream, to trust and to get carried away with the adventure of falling in love. What we do want is to avoid addictive behaviour that leads to pain rather than fulfilment. Addiction to all manner of things occurs because of a lack of self reliance and basic insecurity. Addicts - and that's most of us in some form - get hooked on cigarettes, alcohol, sex, love, work, gambling and so on, because we convince ourselves we need these things, that we're more important when we're loving or working or having sex, smoking, drinking or gambling. These activities give us a high and get our blood rushing and adrenalin pumping, which is precisely how we feel when we fall in love.

Have you ever looked in the mirror when you're in the first flush of passion? There's a glow about you that wasn't present before, a distinct aura that makes you very attractive and that energy causes you to feel invincible and magical, as if everything is possible. It's very noticeable to others around you as well, so don't be surprised if you get lots of envious looks from women and hungry looks from men. I say enjoy every minute of it but be aware that this vision of life is what rose coloured glasses were made for, so that everything can take on a pink glow and have an unreal quality.

When this first stage ends and you suddenly see the world in an ordinary way again, it causes quite a shock and the resultant disappointment can make your lover seem very ordinary and even undesirable. That's why a lot of new relationships end after six months - they simply can't pass the reality check. You may have ended relationships yourself after this time or been at the wrong end of the break up. Either way, it's painful and confusing. It doesn't have to be if you learn to tell the difference between romantic illusion and real love.

Love Strategies
*The first thing you need to do is promise yourself you will never make a commitment in that first six month period because you are literally not thinking straight. Enjoy the ride for what it is without endowing either the object of your affection or the relationship itself with unrealistic qualities. Romantic illusion, by its very definition, implies a false impression, a fantasy, mistaken identity. How to tell when you've been stung by the love bug? The usual signs are the inability to think of anything but the beloved, heart palpitations each time you see them or speak on the phone, the desire to talk about them 24 hours a day, wanting only to do that which pleases them and listening with rapt attention to every word they utter. It isn't obsessive unless these symptoms don't go away in the fullness of time, despite day to day practical reality.

* Next, consider the laws of attraction which are basically two: No 1, We tend to be attracted to people who appear to possess qualities we think we lack and No 2, we tend to fall in love with people who have qualities of one or both of our parents. This occurs for purposes of healing past hurts and furthering self knowledge. The more self awareness we have, the more we can make healthy choices about which attractions we want to build on and which we want to let pass. Each one of us is perfect and complete in ourselves and, in fact, needs nothing outside to fulfil us. But we've been conditioned for decades by love songs, romantic fiction and social ideals to think that we need a mate in order to be happy. We are made up of polarities with all sorts of conflicting qualities; we are not one dimensional, black and white cardboard cut outs.

*Celebrate your diversity, insist on being contradictory, allow your contrasts for these are what make you a complex and fabulous individual. Then you will never think that someone you're in love with is superior to you or far more wonderful. Neither do you need anyone to stand up for you, speak for you or make you feel special. You have all the qualities you admire in others, particularly potential partners.

Until you realise this, you will choose people who reflect your opposite areas, such as a confident person if you think you lack confidence or a loud, boisterous partner if you're quiet and more internal. That way, you prevent your own growth, as you need never find the confident part of yourself or any of your other polarities. This creates what is known as a 'relationship pattern', often repeated and unsatisfactory.

*Come to love as you would a wonderful smorgasbord. Let your eyes feast but be selective so that you don't choose too much or the wrong selections, ones that don't agree with you or are too rich for your palate. If you do take something you're not sure of, feel free to experiment - try it, take a bite but also know you're allowed to say no, thank you, this doesn't suit me. In this way, you experience life and love fully but it doesn't control you as an addiction does.

For an addiction to be present, it needs to take over your life. You have to hand over your power to it and allow it to make you feel dependent upon it for strength, self esteem and a sense of value. Whether it's love or something else, we surely don't want to lose control over ourselves to that extent. Always hold your own power and trust that everything you want will come to you without your sacrificing your integrity or compromising your identity. Let love develop in its own time for, like a fine wine, true feelings need nurturing and space. Obsessive love is always in a hurry, seeking standard results and clichéd responses.

Risky Times
It is most likely to occur at these particular occasions in life:

*Early adult life when experience of life and love is limited
*After a break up where one person did not want the relationship to end
*In a marriage or other long term relationship where one partner is far more in love than the other or, in fact, love is unrequited from one side.
*When a person falls in love for the first time later in life and has no warning of the force of these feelings.
*When an individual came from a childhood background of emotional neglect.

I'll briefly explain each of these.
The first is self explanatory. Naiveté and lack of life experience is the cause of much emotional pain as the innocent person lacks the resources to make judicious choices in matters of the heart. While love is an emotional matter, good sense can still reign, if not in the initial throes of passion then certainly when a cooler head prevails.

After a break up, the rejected party can easily develop an obsession for the loved one; indeed many books and films have told this very story. It's about the inability to let go, causing the frustrated partner to feed on a fantasy version of events, often making up whole scenarios to replace the plain fact that the relationship is over. Sometimes, it can even lead to stalking, harassment and violent behaviour. The unwanted pursuer sees him or herself as a victim and without proper closure, the wound can take years to heal and in some cases, it never does, leaving the sufferer bitter and totally unable to trust again.

In the case of unrequited love, the lover interprets even the slightest sign as encouragement and in stories like the famous Fatal Attraction a casual sexual encounter is seen as a 'grande affaire'. Obstacles such as partners, business matters and family obligations are blamed for the failure of development in the relationship and never the lack of interest on the part of the loved one. The obsessed party feeds off the possibility of a full relationship in the future no matter how unlikely this is.

If one partner is more in love than the other, it doesn't have to pose any great problem unless the one who loves more insists on reciprocity to the same degree. In this case, the other person feels stifled and suffocated; all kinds of negative behaviours start creeping in, such as jealousy, possessiveness and paranoia. It's impossible for a healthy relationship to progress in this emotional atmosphere. Such a relationship is depicted in the famous John Galsworthy novels, The Forsyte Saga.

Innocence can be present at any stage of life, not only in youth. Some men and women lead very emotionally sheltered lives, safe and secure in contented marriages until something or someone shocks them out of their complacency. Two very famous classic films recounted such incidents, Brief Encounter and The Astonished Heart. In both of these tales, the very ordinary victims of sudden blinding passion had no warning of the ferocious depth of their feelings until they were already drowning in them and, in fact, I wonder if their very unpreparedness made them more vulnerable.

Those who were deprived in earlier life of love, emotional sustenance, praise and attention tend to grow up more dependent on others for their good feelings and self esteem. Such people are more likely candidates for obsessive love because they tend to love blindly and endow the loved one with God-like qualities. The rose coloured glasses simply never come off even in the face of harsh reality and everyday life. It's impossible for the object of this devotion to live up to such high standards and either they fall off the pedestal or the strain of this pretence simply breaks up the relationship.

Loving Yourself
The common denominator for all these types of obsessive love or love addiction is what we said at the start - lack of self value. Once we realise we're always 'safe', whether we're alone or in a couple, there would be no need to look to others for validation. We can praise ourselves, love ourselves and value ourselves, thus sharing a complete human being with those we interact with and care for. Emotional hunger can never be fed by others. Romantic illusion is a dream of the perfect person and this, of course, does not exist, except in fairy tales.

Love is not actually something we get from outside ourselves. Like inner joy, sexual energy, creativity and spirituality, love is part of our make up, a natural birthright and always available. When we feel this and know it to be true, we need never feel alone again for we carry love with us everywhere we go. It is part of our lifeforce and springs from deep within us. If you don't feel it, it's blocked, that's all - it's never truly absent. Universal or spiritual love is the kind we share with all mankind and indeed all living things and the universe around us. It makes us bigger than we are and connects us to all existence. Isn't that a liberating thought? And the irony is that when you feel this, the human type of love, the romantic kind, is more likely to come your way as a bonus because you'll be on a natural high and that's the one that never ends - that's the love affair with life you can hold onto forever and trust totally. It will not let you down as people can because we're all imperfect and cannot be responsible for the happiness of others. Thus, life becomes self loving and not self defeating.

"All we need is love," the Beatles famously sang and I agree, but not with the sentimental, superficial version. Love tends to creep up on us when we least expect it, when we're not desperate and needy, when we're alive with our own joy and enjoying our own journey through life. When it's real love that turns inwards as much as out, shares and doesn't demand, is given freely and stems from friendship, self respect and pure joy, then it is truly a song worth singing, a song without end.

Dr Charmaine Saunders

Dr Charmaine Saunders was a much loved relationships counsellor and speaker who wrote for NOVA for many years. She died in July 2013.