The last thing you actually heard was a scratchy, excited message in your voice mail about a great first date, followed a few days later by a text in all caps and smothered in exclamation points. After a week, there were only rumors of a third and forth date. And then, silence.
You called. You texted. You accessed social networks. But to no avail.
Your friend has fallen victim to romantic love, swept up by that proverbial white horse into an even more proverbial sunset. You want answers, no doubt, and demand to know why your friend will not be returned. You would also like to know what it is, exactly, about romantic love that would possesses anyone to abandon their closest companions and focus so blindly, so hopelessly and so completely onto one person.
Well, let’s get into it.
The first thing you need to know is that your friend has constructed the perfect psychological mate. Wrought over a lifetime this flawless manikin shimmers with an ethereal, otherworldly translucence. If your friend is male, this visage is likely female, a woman who fits all of his specifications—weight, shape, height, hair and eye color. Better yet, she knows exactly when to leave the room, bring him a beer or allow him time to cry on her shoulder. She may even follow the NHL and participate, under no duress, in fantasy football. If your friend is female, her Adonis may resemble the Hollywood flavor of the month, but more importantly he listens, is receptive to her feelings, freely and easily expresses his own and remains continuously, fully and breathtakingly emotionally available.
So how does this apply to your friend’s situation? In a word: projection. Like looking through a lens, the glass manikin stands between us and our enamored, distorting their image. To complicate matters, there are aspects of our effigy of which we may not be aware—nearly invisible fabric festooned from its stiff, outstretched arms and tilted neck. This man may want a woman who moves and speaks like his mother. Here is a woman who unconsciously scores her potential mate by comparing his hands to her father’s. I do not mean to suggest the presence of a Freudian love affair, rather that since childhood each of us unconsciously compile criteria for what we believe is beautiful, masculine or feminine based on the models which are closest at hand. Conversely, say a woman had a terrible relationship with her father—perhaps she avoids men who even remotely resemble him. Even glasses and a mis-placed mole could be a deal breaker. And just to bewilder and truly upset you, she may actually find abusive men attractive. In fact, both men and women may unconsciously replicate an abusive past in order to re-experience and resolve childhood trauma. This can manifest in a number of ways. For example, a child abused by both parents may, as an adult, feel unsafe or simply unable to carryout intimate relationships. This person may seek out partners who are perhaps married, geographically distant, emotionally unavailable, or “just someone to sleep with”.
On a brighter note, sometimes we project onto our new partner qualities we love most about ourselves. Is this love of your life (the one you met five minutes ago) gorgeous, wise and brilliant? Loving, reliable and receptive? Has anyone ever said anything like that about you? Just as we may find ourselves inexplicably incensed with those who harbor and exhibit our own negative traits, so too do we occasionally become enamored when the opposite occurs. Just as we have a difficult time owning our negative traits, we may have just a hard a time owning the positive.
In summary, our ideal mate is an amalgam of human made of memories, ideals, traumas, hopes and dreams–all manufactured from the material deep within our own individual psyches. Which begs the question: When we are in love, who are we really in love with? When you look into your lover’s eyes, whose eyes are you really looking into? Picture your friend on a date. She is in a café, sitting across from her newly beloved. Two people transfixed, each with a mirror, gazing into their own reflection.
Finally, one day, usually around three months later, your phone rings.
She is contrite, possibly tearful. “We’re taking a break. I’m sorry I’ve been such a terrible friend. I don’t know what I was thinking.” You don’t need to ask what happened. Maybe they had their first fight, or moved into that comfortable, familiar stage of the relationship. Whatever the case, the projection has begun to crack and splinter.
Have you been here before? You awake one day to a human being laying beside you wrapped in 90% of the covers, a human you must listen to and compromise with (how to share a blanket for instance), who may also be experiencing their own sense of loss and deep disappoint as you fail to live up to an impossible standard. For a projection’s ephemeral nature is the source of its great paradox—for once you have found the one, you have found no one.
In his book “We, Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love” Robert Johnson, the great Jungian philosopher and psychotherapist, likened the sparkling quality of romance to a religious experience. In addition, he discusses how many religions converge on the point that the deepest experience of God, the universe, the great mystery, or whatever label you wish to lay upon it, exists ultimately within ourselves. Johnson feels that romantic love operates as a modern gateway to this deeper experience, or a road sign indicating the direction towards our true Self. He maintains that part of the reason we become so swept up in projection is that we are missing this aspect in our lives and are left craving an intense experience of the numinous and of the Self.
So is the secret…church? Hell no. What Johnson is advocating for is a deeper, more fearless excavation of who we are as humans. So long as we are unable to access the greatness and mystery that is ourselves, we will continue to project all this material onto our partner. Just think of what romantic love requires your significant other to hold—a life time of your own material, your hopes, dreams, unmet expectations as well as unearthed and unresolved traumas. If we do not learn to lighten the load we place upon our significant other we will be continually disappointed with our intimate relationships.
So what do we do once the projection has lifted and our experience of the numinous has evaporated? Relationships have the potential to move into a deeper form of love—real caring, quiet. Johnson states
Love is the power within us that affirms and values another human being as he or she is….Therefore, when I say that “I love,” it is not I who love, but, in reality, Love who acts through me. Love is not so much something I do as something that I am. Love is not a doing but a state of being— a relatedness, a connectedness to another mortal, an identification with her or him that simply flows within me and through me, independent of my intentions or my efforts. (We, Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love 2013)
I will not attempt to improve on that statement. Though I will add that there is no need to reignite the “spark” in the relationship, when what we truly want are embers, buried deep within the ash and charcoal. Why not a red hot, steady heat? For what better thing is there in life but the simple joy of waking up next to someone you love and who loves you back?
Nine months later, you listen patiently as your friend complains and hems and haws, those three months of deafening silence replaced now by appeals for advice, hand-holding and “just someone to talk to” over a beer, coffee, lunch, or anything else that will take up an afternoon away from their a-little-less-than-before-significant-other. You hang up the phone. You scheduled a coffee date, but you know that your friend doesn’t need your help now any more than she did in the beginning. She needs to dedicate the time, do the work and face some serious self-excavation.
Still, projection has served a purpose for your friend. Have you ever “gone too fast” and ruined something that seemed to have great potential? It is as though the projection needs time to build up—like a kind of ethereal charge. And as the two of you dance your dance, leave secret notes, take just enough time to return each other’s phone calls and allow the mystery to propagate, the more your own desires, dreams and imaginings can wash over your new partner and thicken the excitement. Projection is the psychic glue that keeps two people together long enough to decide whether or not there is something real to salvage once the winds of reality have set in and the fairy dust has cleared. So if I had to bring religion or spirituality into this, I would say that during the first glowing phase of a relationship, it is God or the great mystery that takes care of us. After that, we are on our own.