Falling in Love: Our Past is in our Present

Thanks to advances in neuro-biology and technology, we know a lot more these days about our “brains in love”. One thing we have learned is that our past is in our present.

What does that mean?

In terms of dating, it means that even when we think we’re dealing with the present moment of what’s going on here and now, our stored memories of everything that came before are present and activated. Even when deciding whether or not we’re attracted to someone, there are unconscious forces at work. Our brains are busy sifting through stored memories to determine whether or not this other person has enough similarity to our “love template” to make the cut.

This template, sometimes called our Imago (a term used by Harville Hendrix, PhD. in his book Getting the Love You Want) is our unique mental map of what love is supposed to look like.

The shocking news for some, is that this map holds the memories of all that was good and safe in our early lives as well as all that was hurtful and wounding. We are actually drawn to fall in love with someone who embodies both these positive AND negative traits of our early childhoods.

Why would we ever be attracted to, let alone fall in love with, someone who yelled like our moms or drank like our dads? We’d have to be nuts. Nuts or on drugs. Well, science has shown that we ARE actually on drugs in the early stages of love. Nature supplies us with a big dose of chemicals in the brain which allow us to exaggerate the other’s positive qualities and blind us to their negative ones. Through the work of the brain’s “chemical cocktail”—increased levels of testosterone, oxytocin, and dopamine—we experience increased sexual desire, bonding, and delight in each other’s presence. In other words, we fall in love. Possibly with someone who we will discover, after the cocktail wears off, yells like our mom or drinks like our dad.

I recently finished reading a very powerful, best-selling book by Wally Lamb, entitled, We Are Water. In it, we get to see up-close the love relationship of two very complex characters, Annie and Orion, who fall in love, marry, have three children and later divorce. That’s not a unique plot these days, but I mention it to illustrate the way in which the unconscious process of falling in love takes place. When these two fall in love, they have no idea why they choose one another.

He thinks it’s, perhaps, because she’s beautiful. She thinks it’s because he’s kind, serious and has a job. Upon further analysis, years into the story, we learn how each fits nicely into the Imago of the other. We find that both have grown up virtually fatherless: his abandoned him at birth, hers drank himself to death. Both have suffered deep levels of loss and rejection. Both have secrets that they keep from themselves and from each other. Orion has grown up “being the man” in his mother’s life. He spent his childhood rescuing her, in a sense. Annie has always needed rescuing…When they first meet he notices that she has a flat tire and fixes it. The Imago of one has met the Imago of the other and it’s a perfect match.

Okay, so falling in love is complicated, chemical and happens unconsciously. What’s a couple to do to ensure a happy relationship? Good question. The answer lies in a couple’s commitment to consciousness. By this I mean that couples must be aware that good relationships don’t just happen. In the marriages that last, both individuals are aware that the other is in their life to help them to heal the past and move forward together as mature adults. Without an exploration and understanding of the early Imago attraction, many couples get stuck in the power struggle which can ensue after the chemicals wear off and differences become more obvious.

Many simply give up and live their marriage as if it’s a life sentence of boredom, conflict and lack of connection. Others, about 50%, get separated or divorced. The problem with divorcing to solve the problem is that, often, couples unconsciously carry their Imago to the next lover and start the same dynamic pattern with a brand new face. In We Are Water, Annie leaves Orion and marries a woman. Different person, even a different gender, but again she chooses someone older, more powerful to rescue her. I couldn’t help but wonder how long it might be before she and her new wife experience disappointment and question whether or not the other is the “right person”. My hope is that Wally Lamb allows them to have a more conscious union where they can honestly explore the pain of their pasts in deep connection with one another.

When we show up with an open heart, curiosity and lack of judgement to the story of our partner’s life, we experience profound healing and intimacy. This is the antidote to the disconnection that proceeds divorce.

Relationship is an adventure—not a problem to be fixed. Sometimes it helps to have a guide along the way.  In my work with couples, I find that most people are protesting the lack of connection and clamoring to get back to the feelings they had early on in the relationship.

Most are trying to criticize, whine, cry or stonewall their partners into loving them the way they used to.  Of course, this doesn’t work!

I emphasize that passion and relaxed joyfulness are by-products of deep connection and that deep connection can only occur when both parties feel consistently safe—both physically and emotionally.  Safety comes from deep listening, full presence, lack of judgement and sustained curiosity about the world of the other. John Gottman, PhD, a leading researcher in the field of marriage tells us that couples who stay together are the ones who have a deep knowledge about the “interior landscape” of one another.

When the task of loving is made conscious, couples rise to a level of relational maturity only hinted at in the beginning of falling in love.  By making our pasts clear to ourselves and our partners, we are able to heal “then” in the “now”.  This is an exciting adventure and leads to long, lasting and deep love.