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IT'S NOT REALLY LOVE: Western Culture's Misunderstanding of Romantic Attachment

IT'S NOT REALLY LOVE: Western Culture's Misunderstanding of Romantic Attachment

By Bruce Atkinson PhD
Special to Virtueonline
October 17, 2015

The modern creators of cultural idols and ideals--especially Hollywood and television--have hoodwinked us into believing certain things about love. If we believe the message, then it is attraction, focus, and an intensity of feeling that define romantic love. Here is a common example of our deception: "falling in love" is a phrase that indicates we cannot help ourselves, that we have little control over the process and little choice about who we love. This is completely untrue. We may have little control over attraction but this does not equal love.

We now know that romantic feelings have little to do with loving the "real" other person. "Love at first sight" is a misnomer-- frankly impossible. It is often some combination of lust and idealizing the person (fooling oneself into thinking the person is 'the one'); but of course, these things are not really love. The main reason for understanding these realities is so that we will not let passion over-rule our higher mind and best judgment.

Michael Bolton sang, "I said 'I love you', but I lied-- this is more than love I feel inside." The part of what he felt that was "more than love" was unlikely to be anything good. In too many cases, what people call "love" turns out to be some combination of the following things which are often mistaken for love: obsession, dependency, possessiveness, idealization, a desire for control, in-love-with-the-idea-of-love, pity, and of course, lust. Another common (but problematic) ingredient in what many regard as love includes one's expectations about how the beloved is going to meet their needs and make them happy.

Out of deep insecurity and personal needs, people seek another to make up what they lack in themselves. Thinking that you need someone, either in general or in particular, can lead you to pursue another who you will then put in charge of your happiness. Since the other is almost certain to be looking for someone to be in charge of his or her happiness as well, we end up with two incompletes looking to be completed by another. While it might seem that two parts would make a whole, when it comes to human relationships, the combination of two partial (that is, immature) people makes for two people who are still incomplete but now also terribly disappointed. Power struggles and mutual manipulation (each trying to get their needs met by the other) are born of such relationships. Rather, the best relationships are made up of two reasonably whole and mature people who love each other but could be happy remaining single.

Common Things We Mistake for Love

1. Dependency: The meeting of our own needs and fulfillment of our own desires may be paramount in our seeking a romantic relationship. We may seek material security, relational security, sexual satisfaction, or a cure for loneliness. These desires may indicate some immaturity or weakness-- a lack of ability to be happy on one's own. These desires are common, maybe even normal, but they are not to be mistaken for love.

2. Possessiveness: Coming from deep psychological insecurity and interpersonal distrust, a person may compensate for their fears of abandonment by regarding the "loved one" as a possession. This often includes a desire for control and domination. Possessive persons tend to be jealous and to exert major efforts to keep the loved one "protected" from the influence of others through any means available (control via threats of abandonment, abuse, etc.). They rationalize such behavior by calling it "love" ("I can't help it, I love her that much."). But jealousy has nothing to do with love, rather it is made up of insecurity, distrust, possession, and self-protection.

3. Codependency: Codependency is a form of disguised dependency. It is a need to be needed, a desire to be the strong one, the responsible caretaker in control. Codependent people are attracted to others who are needy. Superficially, it looks like love; but actually it is an attempt to build self-esteem by having relationships only with people to whom they can feel superior and/or be the one in control.

4. Obsession: This is a matter of intensity of focus almost to the degree of worship. When one's attention is continually focused upon the loved one, when there are insistent demands on the other's time, energy, and attention--then you have an obsession. And it will eventually drive the other away. It is the motive behind the criminal act of stalking.

The media has convinced us that "falling in love" really happens. However, the common descriptions sound a lot more like addiction than it does love. Indeed, like codependency and possession, obsession is a kind of dependency-- it is needing and wanting one's own needs met in the relationship rather than truly loving the other and caring about their needs first. For example, "love at first sight" describes physical attraction and possibly lust, but can never be true romantic love -- which takes time to develop.

Research is revealing what marriage professionals have suspected for a long time: virtually everyone "falls out of love" sooner or later. However, we need to define what "in love" really means, because it has become clear that it does not mean the same thing as love. Thanks to Hollywood and the media, our culture has come to practically worship the addictive rush of feelings that occurs when we become intensely attracted to someone romantically. These feelings are the result of a cocktail of hormones and brain chemicals that are triggered by attraction plus our own psychosexual desires. We can become wrongly convinced that these feelings are communicating some very important facts. For example, we may believe that this is our "soul mate," the only person who can make us happy, the person who we cannot live without.

Using hi-tech brain imagery devices, researchers have found that a person who is in the midst of feeling "in love" and is thinking of his/her beloved -- is exclusively using the most primitive parts of the brain. Alligators in mating season have similar brainstem responses. The higher brain functions (cortex) which is where intelligence (and good judgment) reside, are not activated when we are experiencing the feelings of being in love. You might even say correctly, that being in love makes you stupid! Of course, this rush reaction has important biological and societal purposes-- to get people together and to propagate the species.

Maryanne Fisher PhD, in her article "The Science Behind Falling in Love" posted in Psychology Today in 2013 described the process this way: "Although people experience love differently, the chemistry behind the initial rush of attraction shows us that there are biological explanations to feeling giddy, for example, during those blissful early weeks.

"To start with, dopamine, which is created in the brain and adrenal glands, enhances the release of testosterone. Dopamine affects various organs, including the genitals, the sweat glands, and also the senses. Have you ever noticed that when you are in the early stages of lust or love, you sweat more? Or that the sky seems bluer? Dopamine, in this context of arousal, is partly responsible. As a consequence of dopamine being released, mood and emotions are also influenced, leading to feelings of excitement and happiness. Meanwhile, testosterone increases sexual desire, but also increases aggressive behavior and behaviorally, may push someone to overly pursue the one who is stimulating this intense response.

"After this step, the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and PEA (phenylethylamine) lead to focused attention. Individuals start to 'zero-in' on the person they desire, and at the same time, often have a feeling of euphoria. Norepinephrine is a stimulant, so it causes individuals to feel alert, potentially unable to sleep, and enables them to notice and remember even the smallest of details about their partners. PEA is responsible for the feelings of giddiness, and may cause the loss of appetite. If the relationship doesn't last, the PEA levels fall and are partly responsible for the feelings of depression that can be experienced.

"A feedback loop begins to form, with a brain reward system becoming involved. The reward system sends chemical messages, via neurotransmitters, to various parts of the body, including the stomach, skin, genitals and other organs, which causes them to send messages back to the brain. During the initial stages of love or lust, this reward system is stimulated through very simple means; a lover's touch, seeing their photograph, or even just thinking about this person can increase elevated mood and focused attention."

For the individual, a misinterpretation of what "falling in love" actually is can cause major problems. Real love lasts and is not about our initial biochemical high -- because that high can never last. I suppose its purpose is only to get people together. However, staying together is about a much deeper emotional intimacy and commitment, not brain chemicals and hormones.

5. Lust: Between the Hollywood/TV culture and the Playboy philosophy, lust has become virtually acceptable in our sex-worshiping culture. The epidemic of pornography is clear proof of this reality. Obviously, lust is not love. People lust after perfect strangers and it can lead to such things as rape and all kinds of sexual abuse. It is about extreme selfishness and a lack of respect for others' rights.

There is a difference between attraction and lust. We can be attracted to all kinds of things without it being sexual in nature-- art, flowers, cars, etc. I can find a woman beautiful without wanting her sexually. There is also a difference between temptation and sin. Everyone is tempted in many ways but we only sin when we act on it (even mentally). When we ogle and fantasize, we have crossed the line from attraction to lust. Jesus was clear about it being sin. "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). Of course, this applies to looking at a man lustfully as well. It involves at least two of the 10 Commandments; the 6th Commandment is about avoiding adultery and the 10th Commandment about not coveting what is not yours.

6. Romantic Idealism: In western culture it is not unusual for a person to be in-love-with-the-idea-of-love. This feeling is triggered by a cognitive abstraction that seeks and finds a flesh-and-blood object. It can easily become an obsession. We are conditioned to put romantic love on a superhuman pedestal--a position that cannot be sustained by a real life relationship. It leads to disillusion and disappointment. When we find what we think to be a suitable "object" for our idealistic affections (which is often what "puppy love" is), we invest more of ourselves than is appropriate-- to the extent of worship. Rarely do we really know the other person well, but imagination and desire make up the difference. The other becomes much more in our eyes than they really are. The reality is that everyone has faults and weaknesses and no one on this earth is worthy of romantic worship. And as it happens, once we get to know the other well enough, they always fall off of the pedestal we have erected, and strangely enough, we are ones who feel betrayed.

Each of these six psychological ingredients which I have described above are selfish substitutes for love and they tend to sabotage a lasting and mutually satisfying relationship. Although we may deny it in ourselves, much romantic love is actually based on fantasies of what we want the other to be-- that is, our feelings are triggered by our own desires more than by any characteristics of the other person. These intense feelings of being in love are really about ourselves, what we want and what we believe we are going to get. In other words, our "love" is really more selfishness than anything else.

So What Is Real Love?

Love is choice and action for the welfare of another. "Love is a verb" states the song. Love seeks to get to know the other person in increasing depth and breadth. Love is NOT primarily a feeling. If it is real love, it requires effort, patience, and even a willingness to let the other go if that is what is best for them. Sometimes it includes passionate feelings. But passion always comes and goes, and is influenced by many changing variables. But real love is about perseverance and the consistent activity of working toward the benefit of the other. Love is evidenced more by commitment and faithfulness over a lifetime than by emotional passion or sex (although these latter things can be valid expressions of love).

Romantic love does not necessarily mean that marriage is appropriate; we can love people in this way but still have a terrible marriage. Not everyone should get married and we should all be very "picky" about with whom we get romantically involved.

I believe that the Bible presents the highest form of love ('agape' in the Greek). Listen to the Apostle Paul's beautiful passage in 1st Corinthians, Chapter 13. This how God loves us. I quote a part of it here (verses 4-7):
"Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts,
always hopes, always perseveres."

So again we see that true love is not selfish. Love cares-- so much for the other that it often leads to the sacrifice of one's own needs and wants. True love is a giving thing. Remember John 3:16, the Good Samaritan story, and John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." Love can even give another the space they need and even can let go of the other if that is what the other really wants.

However, realistic self-acceptance also promotes mature love. A sense of being loved by God and by others and a belief in one's own worth make it easier to love others. Self-acceptance reduces inner conflict and increases the desire to share oneself with others, to be less defensive and less easily hurt by rejection. Self-acceptance and confidence reduces the need for constant proofs of another's love. The best partners are those who are self-accepting but also understand their own and their spouse's limitations (for example, understanding that one cannot make another person happy).

However, it should always be remembered that self-love can easily degenerate into narcissistic egotism with a "me first" sense of entitlement that prevents a person from truly loving others.

How Can We Make Love Work in Marriage?

Love should outgrow the need to depend on others for happiness. The Apostle Paul in Philippians 4 wrote that he had learned the secret to being content in ALL circumstances. We too can learn this secret (read Phil 4:4-13 for some good hints). We must learn to become emotional adults so that marriage can be a place to celebrate wholeness rather than a place to be made whole.

Love respects the other's choices. Love works for a fair and equal partnership.

Love learns to say "No" appropriately and to set proper relational boundaries. Abuse can destroy a relationship as does allowing oneself to be abused. We need to say "Ouch" when our feelings are hurt and be clear about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior in the relationship. Ideally, much of this is accomplished prior to the marriage commitment.

Love learns to share and to be accountable to the other person.
Love learns to negotiate differences and work for mutual goals.

One of my favorite "Peanuts" cartoons shows Charlie Brown and a friend playing ball. Charlie says, "My Grandpa and Grandma have been married for fifty years!" And his friend remarks, "They're sure lucky, aren't they?" Charlie answers, "Grandpa says it isn't luck, it's skill!" I agree. Faith, commitment, and the development of better relational skills can always overcome bad chemistry!

Conclusion: Love Is Responsible

We do not love because others are lovable.
We love because we choose to love.
We love because we are the type of people who love.
We love because we know that God has first loved us.

No one truly "falls" in love; attraction and lust are not love.
At every stage of the relationship we make choices:
to guard our hearts or open them to the other,
to commit to moving forward, or not,
to set proper boundaries, or not.

The emotional experience of "falling out of love" is common;
the initial biochemical rush of romance cannot be sustained.
However, it is impossible to "fall out" of real love.
We would have to choose to quit loving someone.
We may have resentments and unforgiveness
that have built up over time, or we may have a need
to blame someone else for our own unhappiness;
but when we have ceased to love someone,
we cannot honestly blame them.

Take responsibility for love.

References and Resources

Specifically Christian resources:

Allender, Dan & Longman, Tremper. Intimate Allies. Tyndale House, 1995.

Childerston, James & Taylor, Debra. "The Brain and Sex: The Science of Love and Relationships." Christian Counseling Today, Vol. 17, #2, 2010. [This entire issue is devoted to love, sex, and romance.]

Eggerichs, Emerson. Love and Respect Integrity Publishers, 2004.

Farrel, Bill & Pam. Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti. Harvest House, 2007.

Larimore, Walt & Barb. His Brain, Her Brain: How Divinely Designed Differences Can Strengthen Your Marriage. Zondervan, 2008.

Smalley, Gary & Trent, John. Love Is A Decision. Zondervan, 1989.

General resources:

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Viking Penguin, 2005.

Fisher, Helen, Aron, Arthur, & Brown, Lucy. "Romantic Love: An fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice." In the Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493:58-62, 2005.

Flora, Carlin. "Just Friends: Can Men and Women Be Friends?" Scientific American Mind, Jan-Feb, 2014.

Gottman, John. What Makes Love Last. Simon & Schuster, 2012. [This author has much good research and many books on love, marriage, and divorce.]

Hatfield, E. & Rapson R.I. Love, Sex, and Intimacy: Their Psychology, Biology and History. Harper Collins, 1993.

Hendrix, Harville. Getting the Love You Want. Henry Holt & Co, 1988.

Meyers, Laurie. "The Eternal Question: Does Love Last?" Monitor on Psychology, Feb, 2007.

Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P. Attachment in Adulthood: Structure, Dynamics, and Change. Guilford Press, 2007.

Munsey, Christopher. "Love's Not Sex." Monitor on Psychology, Feb, 2007.

Slater, Lauren. "This Thing Called Love." National Geographic, Feb, 2006.

The New Psychology of Love. Edited by R. Sternberg & and K. Weis. Yale University Press,


Dr. Atkinson is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a doctorate in clinical psychology and an M.A. in theology. He is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Atlanta and also works as a clinical supervisor training Christian counselors for Richmont Graduate University. He is a founding member of Trinity Anglican Church (ACNA) in Douglasville, Georgia

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