I’ll hold my hands up and admit I’m a hopeless romantic. Or at least I was. A particularly despairing breakup genuinely felt like the end of the world, and I remember a recurring thought popping into my head. How can I be happy without her? This contrasted everything I’d cultivated during my spiritual practice, including self-love, self-compassion and self-acceptance. Suddenly, I realised how much of my well being was placed on something, or someone, outside of myself.
Though heartbreak to some degree is unavoidable, I felt there was much to learn about romantic love, particularly from a spiritual perspective. And there was. What I learned and have since practiced has been of huge value to me, and I believe it can be of huge value to you. But before we break down romantic love and all its imperfections, I want to share my story.
Romantic Love — My Biggest “I’ll Be Happy When”
I’ve always thrived on having a significant other. It was my number one priority, the most important thing. I truly believed in the one and I chased it. In my teens I had a turbulent four-year relationship that defined my understanding of romantic love through direct experience. At university, I met one of the most incredible women I’ve ever had the privilege of bumping into (literally, in a club at god-knows-what hour), leading to a three-year relationship I’ll forever treasure — it was meaningful, boundlessly supportive and unconditionally loving.
Not long after moving to Berlin, I met someone who shook the tectonic plates of my being, flooding my veins with tsunamis of hormonal intoxication. In the following 18 months, I felt anything was possible, that love conquers all, that by loving her I was my best self. Whatever I was chasing, I found it in this relationship — an abundant feeling that floored me and made me feel frantically alive. A pupil-dilating, nothing-else-matters, unbridled passion.
Between these long-term relationships, I had what I’d define as mini-relationships. Dare I say it, I experienced the sickly sweet taste of romantic love in some of those relationships too. Sometimes fleeting, sometimes immediate. But it was there, and it was real. As real as Tom shimmying through the sunshine in post-coitus delight.
Each of these relationships shared similar DNA. Little did I know at the time I was looking in the wrong place, looking for the wrong thing. Though they contained many positive elements, I was searching for something, outside of myself, to give me meaning. Romance had become my biggest “I’ll be happy when,” and I was in denial. The warning signs for my end-of-the-world breakup were imminent.
When I discovered the myth of romantic love, my experience then made sense.
The Common Misconception Of Love
“It’s OK, everyone says it. I say I love Häagen-Dazs and my broadband provider, and I like Sophie more than them.” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show
There’s nothing quite as misunderstood as love. So much so, it’s almost impossible to define adequately. It’s mysterious, subjective, omnipotent, active. However you define it, love is part of the fabric of society. Or “the single most potent force in the universe,” as Roger Walsh says in Essential Spirituality. It’s the most human of human traits, a positive influence on evolution and fundamentally the best thing in the world. But it’s misunderstood.
Walsh highlights how most of us experience love as helpless victims. It’s something powerful taking over us without our consent. Walsh refers to this type of love as false-love, coming from a place of inadequacy and fear. False-love (romantic love, infatuation or attachment) is a form of craving, another “I’ll be happy when.” It’s what I was chasing all those years, unaware I was doing so because I didn’t feel adequate. I didn’t love myself, so I searched for that love from others as a way of feeling complete. Walsh summarises this misconception better than I ever could:
“One of the great tragedies of our times is that our culture has confused love with addiction. Of course, there are also more mature forms of love, and healthy relationships and families depend on them. Mature love is based more on sufficiency and wholeness than deficiency and fear. But fear-based infatuation and craving for affection are so common and fill so much of the media that we sometimes assume this is all love can be.”
In The Road Less Travelled, American psychologist M. Scott Peck agrees. He defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Peck highlights the importance of true love (mature love, unconditional love) being a willing, deliberate act. Further still, Peck argues romantic love impedes spiritual growth. To understand why, we need to look at the process of falling in love.
Falling in Love
Peck provides two reasons why falling in love isn’t true love. First, falling in love is exclusively linked to sexual attraction. Second, it is temporary. Ricky-of-the-past, as we shall refer to him, sought this temporary, fleeting sensation as if it were the elixir of life. It’s hardly surprising as this is one of the most addictive, potent forces known to the human race. Falling in love changes your worldview, it breaks down barriers.
And here’s the interesting thing — Peck and other esteemed psychologists refer to the process of falling in love as the temporary collapse of ego boundaries. Our ego boundaries are the limits of self. A newborn child has no ego boundaries; it sees the world as part of itself. It’s only when we mature these boundaries fall into place, giving us a sense of identity separating “I” from “everything else.” The downside to separation is that, as social animals, all of us want to feel like we connect, like there’s more than ourselves, that we’re not alone in this world.
Nothing erodes ego boundaries so ferociously as falling in love. The collapse of ego boundaries creates the illusion of your beloved becoming a part of you. Loneliness becomes a thing of the past as two become one (as cultural sages The Spice Girls acknowledge). Everything seems possible, every experience shared in blissful union. To your brain, the feeling of ecstasy created by falling in love is a real as, well, ingesting ecstasy or snorting cocaine.
Love Is A Drug, And It’s Addictive
“Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love.” — Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love.”
Prominent anthropologist Helen Fisher has spent her career exploring what happens to the brain when falling in love. Her 2005 study used an functional MRI scanner to analyse the brains of people who were wildly in love. The study concluded that romantic love is not an emotion but a motivation system, distinct from the sex drive, aiding mate-choice. Whereas the sex drive applies to multiple partners, the romantic love drive focuses all of our energies onto one lucky partner.
Fisher and her team at Rutgers University further break the brain’s chemical makeup of love into three distinct sections: lust, attraction and attachment. Lust is the sexual drive to pass on our genes, the chemicals released here are testosterone and estrogen. Attraction is the same as”falling in love.” Here, dopamine — the brain’s reward system — is released in huge doses.
Curiously, dopamine is linked to all kinds of addiction. The area of the brain most active when falling in love also ignites when taking cocaine or binge-eating. In essence, romantic love is a very real a chemical addiction… to another human being.
The final category, attachment, is the sense of connection. The key chemical here is oxytocin, released to help humans bond together — it’s released during sex, when a woman breastfeeds, during childbirth. It’s also known as the hug hormone. Combined with lust and attraction, oxytocin exacerbates the mind-fuck concoction of hormones released in the brain when falling in love.
Falling Out Of Love Is When True Love Begins
The collapse of ego boundaries is fleeting. People “fall out of love,” the honeymoon period ends, and ego boundaries return. Once they do, there’s a sudden realisation that you and your beloved are individual. You each have your own wants, needs and desires. For Ricky-of-the-past, this experience made me feel the relationship was a failure. I felt the need to chase the feeling of falling again. But this is out of our control, as Peck states:
“Discipline and will can only control the experience, they cannot create it. We can choose how to respond to the experience of falling in love, but we cannot choose the experience itself.”
Due to the potency of falling in love, falling out of love is sometimes seen as the beginning of the end. But Peck believes this is the opposite. Once ego boundaries have returned and delirium has settled, true love can begin. It’s the point where we have to make a conscious, willing choice to enact love.
True love is being capable of supporting oneself emotionally and feeling whole alone, but choosing to be with another. Peck concludes:
“All couples learn that true acceptance of their own and each other’s individuality and separateness is the only foundation upon which a mature marriage can be based, and real love can grow.”
A healthy, fulfilling and possibly life-long relationship is based in the foundation of two people choosing to be together while nurturing their own and their partner’s spiritual growth. If this sounds a lot like friendship, that’s because it is. If it sounds like the conclusion of a healthy relationship is essentially long-term friends with benefits, you wouldn’t be too wide of the mark.
The majority of relationships don’t evolve into true love, though. Due to the addictive quality of falling in love and the collapse of ego boundaries, many relationships easily regress to codependency. Dependency, or attachment, is not a form of love.
The Confusion Between Dependency and Love
“I can’t live, if living is without you.” — Harry Nilsson, “Without You.”
I’ll be brutally honest. Years ago, when experiencing depression, anxiety and perpetual existential dread, I had within me a overwhelming sense I wasn’t complete, that I was lacking. This is common. For most of us, when we experience this sense of lack, which can be so palpable and drip into everything we do, we look outside of ourselves to fill it — sex, drugs, adulation, adrenaline, success, Facebook likes… or someone else’s love or attention. We become dependent on these things to give us a sense of worth, to make us feel whole, to complete us. It’s the sense of wholeness I found in relationships that led to an emotional dependency, a sense of seeking validation from my romantic partner.Peck defines dependency in relationships as the inability to feel whole or function without the certainty of being cared for by another. More subtly, dependency occurs when your partner fuses with your sense of identity or self-worth. Dependency is linked to all sorts of suffering, and impedes spiritual growth. So why is this unhealthy trait confused with love, and even celebrated?
The Myth of Romantic Love In Culture
“I love you. You… you complete me.” — Jerry Maguire (1996)
Aside from the hangover left by the debauched orgy of hormones partying like it’s 1999 in the brain, the painful underbelly of romantic love, and all the unhealthy habits it brings, is enhanced by the myth that is perpetrated by our culture. The love songs, the movies, the poems, the art. This is by no means a modern creation. It stretches all the way back to Greek mythology. In Plato’s Symposium, playwright of the time Aristophanes presented the story of soul mates. The story says that humans were originally androgynous. Afraid they’d eventually threaten the Gods, Zeus split them in half. The two halves then spent the rest of their lives searching for the other.
Regardless of the concept of the one, the components of the myth and the way it has permeated our culture is responsible for creating unrealistic expectations of what romance is. I know my expectations have been high in the past. I watch too many movies. As Peck says:
“Millions of people waste vast amounts of energy desperately and futilely attempting to make the reality of their lives conform to the unreality of the myth.”
What’s The Answer?
Romantic love is often confused with unconditional love because it has similar traits. Though a cheap imitation, it pulls back the veil that deceives us into thinking we are separate, it allows us sip of the rich nectar of oneness, it gives us a free-trial of what the world can look like. Simply put, romantic love makes us realise the mundane, the day-to-day, the confines of mind and monotony of the daily grind isn’t all there is. It makes us believe in miracles and sample the mystery of the universe, and for that reason alone can be considered sacred.
“Whereas addictive love is based on a painful sense of lack and need, this greater love is based on overflowing fullness and joy. Spiritual love has no desire to get but to give, no goal except to awaken itself within others, no need except to share itself. Being unconditional, it never fails or falters; being boundless, it embraces everyone.” — Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality.
Romantic love remains mysterious and spellbinding. We know the brain’s chemical response, but not why that special someone triggers it. We don’t know why a glance or a touch or a smile or a shared moment can shake us to the core. The point being, romantic love isn’t something to be feared, but something to be understood. Best of all, it’s important to remember it contains a fraction of the power of unconditional love.
A love that when cultivated is assured, eternal, everywhere, available, now.