While highly desirable, romantic love has many risks.
Written about and touted in art, music, and literature over the centuries, romantic love–emotional intimacy and sexual attraction–is the most controversial of all versions of love.
With maternal, paternal, filial love or love of country, most people agree that they are highly positive emotions, but when it comes to romantic love, we are caught in an approach-avoidance conflict. Romantic love feels so good, but prickly thorns hidden in its rose-filled branches can create quite a sting.
There are many benefits to romantic relationships. People in long-term romantic unions are happier, healthier, and live longer. The mutual showing of care, respect, and support boosts the immune system and improves the overall physical and emotional functioning of both partners. In addition, loving partners often encourage a healthier lifestyle for their partners, that is, eating more nutritious foods, reducing alcohol consumption, and exercising more, all of which reduce health risks.
When we find love, our brains get filled with chemicals that produce an emotional high, especially during the first blush of romance. The love hormone oxytocin rises, the neurotransmitter norepinephrine spikes, and we lose track of time, adrenaline goes up, which makes our cheeks rosy, and serotonin levels go down as we become more obsessed with our new love.
Romantic love also promotes a positive outlook on life. Because a person feels cared about, understood, and supported, the whole world looks better. Whistling a happy tune, the person in love often is kinder to others as well.
“God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world,” says the poet and lovers all over the world.
Even after the honeymoon phase, there is often a deep sense of contentment, connection, and companionship in long-term, romantic relationships that are free of significant conflicts. This sense of contentment can lead to pain suppression, better memory, and greater creativity. In addition, we all benefit from the increased self-esteem that occurs when we receive ongoing affection, attention, and concern from a romantic partner. We feel validated and worthwhile.
Unfortunately for most people, the romantic “being in love” feelings diminish after the honeymoon phase. Because novelty and fantasy are the prime ingredients that nourish these exciting feelings, romance fades as humdrum reality sets in. In addition, unrealistic expectations accompanying romantic love regularly lead to disappointment and hurt feelings when they’re unfulfilled. Desires for an unconditionally loving partner–an ideal parent–or a perennially pleasant, never angry companion are expectations very likely to go unmet.
The most widespread fear and risk in romantic love is rejection, which can take many forms and threaten our very identity, emotionally and/or physically. While a few people can withstand rejection without much discomfort (e.g., salespeople), being rejected is a painful experience for most of us. Rejection often feels like an indictment, a criticism, a sign that something is wrong with our personality or appearance– we are not sexy enough, pretty enough, masculine enough, interesting enough, and so on. And so, we worry, wondering what’s wrong with us that we couldn’t hold onto the person we cared about.
Besides the basic fears of being hurt, disappointed, and/or rejected, there are other risks that threaten intimacy in romantic love. While not everyone has the same fears and risks (the specific ones are dependent on family-of-origin issues and/or earlier romantic experiences), the most common fears are: 1) Exposure: Fear of exposing a personality or physical flaw that is shameful and may lead to ridicule.
As one young man fearful of romantic intimacy said, “I’m afraid she’ll find out that underneath all that tinsel is more tinsel, that I’m a phony.” 2) Loss of control: Fear of losing control and behaving in a needy, childish, or irrational manner. As one woman in therapy said, “It’s like I have no emotional brakes with which to slow my feelings down once I’m involved.”
Other fears and risks: 3) Loss of Autonomy: Fear of being suffocated and having no time to pursue one’s own interests because of a demanding partner. “I need more space” is a frequently heard cry coming from an embattled partner. 4) Attack: Fear of being assaulted physically or verbally. This fear is common in domestic violence situations and in families where parents were emotionally abusive. 5) Betrayal: Fear of being lied to or having important confidence disclosed to the world. Occurs regularly in infidelity and adultery where trust was lost, either temporarily or permanently, by sexual betrayal, and finally 6) Guilt. Fear of being blamed for any problem that may occur in the romantic relationship. Common in families where one child, often the oldest, was blamed for most of the family’s mistakes.
Finding the pot of gold in romantic love is not easy, but some cautionary words may reduce the risks.
1. Identify what turns you on sexually and emotionally. Is it character, cockiness/narcissism, courage, creativity, a different cultural/ethnic background, empathy, extraversion, gentleness, intelligence, liveliness, looks, money, power, prestige, self-confidence, sense of humor, rebelliousness, risk-taking? Once you have identified two or three qualities, ask yourself what other traits usually accompany these characteristics and whether you could live with the combination. For example, rebels, while exciting, are often rule-breakers who push limits: drive too fast, take too many drugs, and run over other people in their drive for success. Also, examine whether the traits that turn you on sexually with your values. If not, then those sexual desires will need modification.
2. If you have a pattern of unhappy relationships, it is important to figure out what “unfinished business” from the past is getting in the way of your healthy desires. For men and women who had an unhealthy relationship with a parent or caretaker, either because of abuse or emotional unavailability, the search for a similar partner to get it right this time frequently occurs. The woman who finds one alcoholic lover after another and the man who keeps choosing unfaithful women as life partners are trying to rewrite their personal love stories with happy endings. Unfortunately, this repetitive behavior doesn’t work. Because these partners have the same tragic flaws as the original offender, such relationships don’t bring happiness.
3. Get to know a prospective partner well before making a commitment. Find out as much as you can about him/her from friends, relatives, and colleagues so you won’t be blindsided by destructive behavior. A year-long dating experience is minimal.
4. The more you have in common with your partner, the better. Similar values, shared interests, and good communication skills, especially the ability to resolve conflicts successfully, are important. That way, no matter the disagreement, you‘ll emerge unscathed and full of loving feelings to continue the journey.