by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on February 13, 2012

OK, here comes the last in a series of holidays that tortures many people – Valentine’s Day. A completely made up holiday to celebrate love and those we love in our lives. Great if you have love, horrible if you do not. That being said, I am going to take it as an opportunity to think about love and relationships, and the meanings that they take on for all of us. So here goes.

Sometimes it may seem as if love is better left to poets and books, who manage to access our feelings and emotions through their words. Or more unfortunately, to Hollywood and the images it flood us with –  of romance, marriage and the fruits of relationships. What makes poetry and movies so powerful is that they evoke deeply held memories, fantasies and wishes, some of which may have never been fully articulated.  I am going to try to speak about love from a psychological perspective, which, while it may not sound or be romantic or sexy, does, to my mind, help explain why all of us want and need to be loved. And perhaps why love can seem so elusive to some. Valentine’s day mourners take heed.

The need for love, along with the need for security and the need for food, is a basic one for all of us. And interestingly, love can be a means of providing emotional security and nutrition for the soul. Love is something that starts in our family of origin, at our mothers’ lap, in our father’s arms, and actually, even earlier, in the womb. At such early stages it has to do with creating an environment that supports life – what British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott  termed ‘good enough’ in referring to a mothers’ ability to care for her infant in life promoting ways. (See, not so romantic but definitely the seed of love forever more).

Within the mother-child couple, love takes on many meanings that will set the pattern for adult interactions and expectations in love relationships. These early interactions actually set down the neurological wiring that supports our thoughts, feelings, expectations and behavior, as well as our ability to engage others and experience ourselves as engageable. As children, our early experiences with the adults that care for us literally shape (neurologically and behaviorally) what we come to term ‘love’- what we believe it is, our expectations of it and how we understand and approach it. Few, if any of us can claim to enter adult life having received enough love, but many of us are fortunate to have had a‘good enough’ loving environment that provided what was needed. No wonder Hollywood and literature have managed to make a huge industry out of love, there is so much room for fantasy and longing to plug into! Hollywood does not settle for ‘good enough’, they go for the full monty and beyond. And they take us along.

Psychologically speaking, the receiving and giving of love is one of the ways in which meaning is created  and established in our lives. It happens relationally. Through our experience of being cared for, attended to, and recognized in relationship, we come to experience the other and ourselves in ongoing interaction. This interaction mediates many of our emotions and feelings about ourselves and others. It operates intra-personally (telling me about myself and who I am) as well as inter-personally (me in relation to another). Just as it was within the maternal dyad, love in adult relationships can co-create the space to support (or shut down) life. In this case intimate life. Who amongst us does not want to be known, recognized and acknowledged for who we really feel we are and be loved for it or despite it? Unconditional love. The stuff that Hollywood thrives on.

Enter romance and the notion of romantic love. And with romance, enter Eros and sexuality. This is the stuff that makes us feel robust and energized, the stuff that vitalizes us. The stuff of potential magic. Love, and our experience of it, along with its incarnation in romance, and its activation of our senses, has something to do with the feeling that life is worth living and meaningful. And this has something to do with why people seek romance to give their lives meaning- a slippery slope, and one that is likely to disappoint. Our ability to love another, and to experience ourselves as lovable is directly related to our early relational history. As such it has its own particular kind of chemistry, a specific combination of relationally driven elements that pre-determine our selection of partners, making some appealing and others not so much.  Such is the (neurological) imprint of early relationships and our experience of it later in life.

This is why the search for romance is likely to disappoint- it is not the other that repairs our early history, but our ability to engage and interact with the other openly, to survive the potential dangers of intimacy and our  personal vulnerability to those dangers, and to get to know the many ways in which we have closed ourselves to love, that holds the most promise for meaningful experiences of the loving kind- but you will not find that on a greeting card.

Some time ago I posted a quote from Rumi that seems appropriate here:

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it”.

Emotional barriers come about as protective envelopes that help us to negotiate early intimacy but keep us from engaging in depth later on. They too are borne within the early maternal matrix  and were intended to help us maintain an emotional connection – but at a cost. In adult relationships such barriers may continue to thicken in an attempt to protect us from the same kinds of vulnerability. This business of being human is complex and emotionally fraught, and yet, if we are to remain vital, engaged and present in our lives, Rumi was right, our task is to seek and find our barriers, creating a space that supports life.


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