In romantic depictions of love, cute little images of cherubs and cupids abound. But Cupid, in his real incarnation, is not so sweet and cuddly. His arrows can create deep and lasting wounds, and can strike you blind and irrational in a heartbeat. A few disaster-filled run-ins with Cupid’s dart and you can readily believe that love will never work for you.
Even if you take responsibility for your own life in most ways and successfully handle most work and social situations, when it comes to intimate relationships you may feel helpless and out of control. You may find yourself inexplicably obsessing on someone who isn't available or interested, or even feeling so needy and helpless that you are unable to protect yourself when you are criticized, abused or degraded. It’s a very painful experience when a romantic relationship with the partner whom you hope and expect will provide you with love, joy and fulfillment of our dreams turns into a miserable, disappointing and dismal failure.
A Dependent Image of Love
When it comes to love, it’s easy to forget how to think clearly, because we have all been bombarded with images that imply love and dependency are the same thing:
• Lovers should depend on each other to supply their needs, to take care of them and “make it better”, • Lovers should need each other “You are my happiness, I'd die without you” • Lovers are incomplete without each other, and that two should “become one”—losing their individual personalities, friends, interests and opinions in the process.
This dependent image of love has been reinforced for generations of songs, poetry, plays, books, movies and television soap operas that have celebrated a dependent model of romantic relationships that contains neediness, desperation and the idea that only love (from a perfect partner) can make life better. This “ideal lover” is supposed to: • Love you no matter how unreasonable you are, • Always be there when you want or need him or her, • Always know exactly how to sooth your hurts, • Always know (and be prepared to give you) precisely what you want (even if you’re not sure yourself), and • Put your needs before his or her own needs.
This “romantic” image of love sounds good, but although it seems exciting and fulfilling at first, such a relationship cannot flourish. Since no one else can ever care for you as well as you can yourself (they can't know your needs and wants as well as you do, they can't tell what their care-taking feels like to you, and they also have their hands full with their own needs), one or both of you will wind up feeling ripped off, used, neglected, unloved, and generally dissatisfied.
The romantic ideal creates dysfunctional relationships, in which the ground rules are: • You can't talk about it (it might upset the other person), • It's hopeless (since you can’t talk about it, you can't solve it together), and • We're both helpless (we can’t control our own behavior, or outbursts of anger, or make effective choices).
Partner as Parent
In part, we have unrealistic fantasies about love because our first experience (and basic model) of intimate relationships was with parents who took care of us as children (and perhaps did not encourage us to become self-sufficient and responsible); or with parents who were not fully there to take care of us (as we knew they should).
While, on the surface, we are looking for someone we can enjoy and have fun with, our dependent, romantic inner self is secretly searching for a substitute for a parent—someone who will take care of us make our old wounds better, care about our feelings, and accept us for who we are. If you, like so many people, come from a family where you suffered rejection or abandonment at an early age, when you begin to search for a romantic partner, all too often, you find a substitute parent who is like the real parent who let you down, and you wind up repeating the old, subconscious patterns.
If you and your partner are fighting over silly things, if one or both of you suddenly “blows up” or gets angry and the other one doesn’t understand why, or if you feel very unsatisfied and restless in your relationship, consider that one or both of you may have some confusion about the difference between parental love, and love between equal partners.
A Mature Model of Love
When you let go of the dependent, childish view of love, and use the more adult model, you’ll get a different picture of familial love. Mature love is mutually caring, mutually giving and mutually responsible, without the dependent, needy or controlling imbalance of power present in the child/parent model. When you take responsibility for making love mutually satisfying, and expect equal maturity, responsibility and respect from your partner, you increase your power to receive and give love at full capacity, while retaining your self-esteem and sense of competence.