Anyone who’s ever been in love will easily remember the wave of powerful emotion that rushes towards us in the first few months. Countless unrealised needs and fantasies rise to find fulfilment through the heart of the beloved and we imagine everything we long for can be found in them.
Is it any wonder that when we fall in love, it can be hard to grasp the true nature of our feelings: Is this really love or the riptide of infatuation?
The answer to this question can predict not only our relationship’s outcome, it can also tell us much about the pursuit of personal happiness, both within and beyond the realm of romance.
So, what is romantic love? How can we differentiate it from infatuation? And what can these experiences reveal about our search for happiness?
- Romantic Love is the profound recognition of the extraordinary qualities we glimpse in the being of another.
- Infatuation by contrast is essentially about ourselves.
Infatuation is centred on the certain desire and unlikely belief that someone can make us ‘whole’ and results in a highly unrealistic expectation of what that person is capable of and how far they can determine our future happiness.
If we’re infatuated with someone, we think of them constantly, so can easily fool ourselves into imagining we wish the fulfilment of their private desires The reality however, is very different. Because we exaggerate that person’s power to determine our well-being, we will discourage any need in them which would leave us feeling separation, disappointment or lack.
They are the object of our subjective desire and as such their personal needs are entirely subordinate to our own. Any conflict which arises with our need to keep them close cannot be countenanced or even acknowledged.
In order internally to square the circle between professing love and acting out of self-interest, we often persuade ourselves we only have our lover’s best interests at heart when seeking to discourage them from something which doesn’t serve us.
It’s perfectly natural to pursue our own needs and life works best in an atmosphere of mutual reciprocity, but because we imagine our needs can only be met through intimate involvement with another, we essentially play a confidence trick on ourselves by denying our true motivations.
Romantic Love by contrast has at its heart the capacity for an extraordinary level of self-sacrifice.
For the first few months, the difficult, jaded and more cynical aspects of the beloved dissolve in the eyes of the lover and if circumstance demands, the lover is often prepared to forgo their own needs for the good of the beloved.
When both parties possess such feelings simultaneously it’s one of the most magical experiences we can have, but our admiration will inevitably become tempered by the reality of an imperfect world. As familiarity grows, our beloved must be recognised and acknowledged with all their fears and imperfections, as we recognise our own inadequacies.
And here we come to the central paradox: Romantic love and infatuation stand at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, but as they draw closer and start to mingle their purpose is revealed as the same.
To ensure our survival, we all possess a healthy amount of self-interest, and this includes an awareness that the needs of our partner, children, family and tribe are intrinsically interwoven with our own ability to survive. As such, we are often willing to put their needs before our personal desires and this creates an emotional landscape defined by complexity, nuance and doubt.
The balance we strike between blatant self-interest and the subtler self-preservation of altruism, is essentially mirrored in the balance our psyche unconsciously strives for between romantic love and infatuation. What matters therefore in a romantic encounter is where that balance lies.
If the primary feeling is infatuation, then the emotional outcome will be a difficult one. As the beloved’s character is more fully revealed, our fantasy of perfect happiness is replaced by a growing sense of disappointment. They have failed to meet our expectations, either through wilful disregard or by proving themselves incapable and we become increasingly disillusioned. The more extreme the infatuation, the more likely the person once doted upon now becomes the object of our rage.
Romantic love will also carry its tinge of disappointment. It’s rare we experience this profound emotion without also experiencing the fantasy of complete personal fulfilment. Self-interest in fact is an important component, as it prevents the possibility of too great a self-sacrifice.
In contrast, however, with infatuation, as the difficult aspects of our beloved become apparent, disillusionment is replaced with acceptance. A more mature love for the person develops, one which recognises them as a flawed human being.
In the pursuit of personal happiness, acceptance and empathy trump self-regard; for in seeking to meet the other’s needs in a balanced and compassionate manner, we more fully meet our own.
(An extract from ‘Such is Love: Romantic Games and Why We Play’ by Petra Hassall)