True Love isn't Found. It's Built.

In just about two weeks Valentine’s Day looms on the horizon again! (Well, already been thinking about a gift for the loved one? Table reserved for the romantic dinner?) Sufficient grounds to tackle the subject Love once again. Love and the need for bonding with others is probably the feeling characterizing and having an effect upon us humans most of all. Today the subject will be the changes these eternally same and yet always new emotions are subjected to in the course of human life.

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With its first breath a baby already begins to look very actively for bonding with an important person of reference and establish contact with that person (for instance with eye contact, mimicking facial expressions, crying, etc.) Naturally it does that instinctively primarily because its life depends on this bonding to persons of reference. Thus this form of “Love” is entirely asymmetrical and characterized by baby’s total dependence on the person of reference, it has no equivalency (even though the person of reference naturally loves the baby in return). And yet sated and clean is not enough, the child’s emotional needs are just as important as his physical necessities. And: Studies have demonstrated that the child’s bonding experiences during its first 18 months impact its subsequent bonding behavior: If it experiences loving and reliable care it will later be better at building relationships and self confidence than if it had been neglected or even abused.

Then, beginning at the age of about 6 to 8 months the child begins to critically differentiate in its attachment between familiar or strange persons. Parents recognize the behavior following this forward leap in their developmental as the typical “stranger anxiety” stage. Toddlers already very clearly differentiate between individual relationships – in other words they bond to certain persons of reference more intensively than to others and they also interact and communicate differently with different persons. (“Aunt Sylvia is my very best aunt!” – „Uncle Stefan is stupid!”) and they “dispense” their affection accordingly. Nevertheless, their demonstrated “Love” is still relatively easily influenced and frequently situation-dependent, as well: Maybe Aunt Sylvia is simply the person with the most voluminous Christmas packages and Mom is always “nasty” when she once again refused the lollipop at the supermarket check-out. Obviously these apparent fluctuations don’t affect the fundamental bond with the primary persons of reference. At an early age it is already extremely stable and therefore loss- and separation experiences (for instance the mother’s death or the parent’s divorce) represent a serious childhood trauma.

With its advancing age the subject‘s autonomy and individualization as competitors for the need for bonding increasingly make their presence felt: The child resp. the adolescent always knows better, becomes more independent and more and more resents being “treated like a child”. (This already starts during childhood and increases with every year). Now he/she automatically ends up being conflicted because bonding and autonomy clearly represent opposite poles. Therefore childhood and adolescence - and particularly during puberty - are somehow a constant back-and-forth between these two poles, a constant balancing act between closeness with- and distance to the person of reference. This frequently makes the time of puberty (among others) for all involved extremely stressful and conflicted: One moment one is dealing with a cuddle-needy child and the next an unapproachable cactus in a lousy mood . . . By the way, among development psychologists particularly the time between 9 and 12 years is another very sensitive period dealing with caregiver separation- and deprivation experiences, i.e. when children lose an important person of reference it leaves particularly significant imprints and particularly in their later bonding behavior frequently destabilizes them for a long time to come.

At twenty most people are preoccupied by collecting their first “serious” relationship experiences. One experiments with oneself and a construct partnership, possibly experimentally moves in with someone, separates again, enters into a new relationship ... Generally not with nearly as much commitment than in later years, but then one also acts with the sense of having all sorts of time and additional possibilities. During this time love has a rather more playful component. The development psychologist Erikson indeed identifies this as the “Love Stage”. During this development stage the mission in life becomes to gradually develop true intimacy with other people (in the metaphorical sense relationships on equal footing, a good balance between the “I” and “us” in a partnership, self involvement - and allocentrism). Exaggeratingly stated: During this time we demonstrate whether we are truly capable of loving. We develop our very own personality profile.

According to Erikson, the period between 30 and 50 years turns into the stage of “Care”, the stage of “generativity”, creative power: the primary objective being to carry love forward into the future, have children, care for future generations, experience social engagement, expand one’s very own knowledge and capabilities and more importantly also contribute (in addition to parenthood, this can also by way of teaching, mentoring activities, artistic endeavors and similar activities). Therefore at best love in this stage tends to be something akin to outgrowing ourselves beyond ourselves, extending us as a person into the future. During this time love is not any longer as self-involved as in the early adult year – it now is rather more altruistic.

And then finally the “advanced” period of life, the time of 60+. Because the priorities have changed, in many respects now the tasks in matters of love require yet another reorientation: The job is less important, the children are independent and have flown the coop. That can be potentially wonderful and provide the relationship with a new spring (if one can deal with it, fill the resulting voids and support each other) or (if one feels depressed, faces a midlife-crisis and suffers from the empty nest syndrome) lead to a divorce after the silver anniversary. Either way, after a long-term relationship one has to seriously communicate with each other, re-define the new roles and learn to see each other with new eyes. Equally important is the phase of dealing with one’s own and the partner’s fugaciousness. This can also work very well or very badly (with women the latter can lead to scary weekend beauty-operations and Botox-parties and with men to hectic fitness activities, sport convertibles and occasionally the switch to a 25-year old blonde . . .)

Yes Love: the ever-changing feeling and yet it permeates our entire life from the cradle to the grave. Is it at all possible to even influence it, i.e. its permanence? Oh yes, we can - in three ways:

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First of all, to begin with by our choice of partners: by not just choosing according to romantic infatuation (even though the butterflies in the belly feel so good!) but rather and primarily by being aware of aspects such as similarity between ourselves and our partner (i.e. in matters of preferences and dislikes, interests and lifelong goals, habits and priorities, etc.). After all, research clearly demonstrates that on the average partnerships are much more stable the more two partners are alike. That is obvious and logical: More common ground automatically results in less conflict potential and more understanding for each other. Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he stated: “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.“

Secondly in ourselves: by being prepared to make a decision for a partner and then quitting to constantly second guess ourselves (except in case of serious problems or changes). Our multi-optional society tends to create the illusion that always and at anytime out there here is someone with whom things would be better and easier and that quickly turns into the trap, at the smallest conflict to immediately look for someone else, getting immersed in the fantasy that with that person everything would be just peachy. Or via Facebook to quickly check what the ex-partners are up to and whether someone just may be available again . . . instead of investing our energy in the present relationship and making the best of it. The key word is honest commitment for one partner without loopholes and reservations instead of constantly loving each other “on probation”, so to speak. And naturally letting go of romantic illusions (so much for: “something must be wrong unless after five years of marriage everything is as exhilarating as on the first day”) – and that does certainly NOT imply one should forget all about romanticism itself!

Thirdly in the relationship: By not assuming that a relationship continues to function on its own and remains the same it was in the beginning. Relationships don’t work that way – in the course of time and without our help they deteriorate automatically all on their own. However, if we want them to remain good, we must permanently invest (devotion, communication, respect, etc.). We don’t expect our car to run for ten years with no problems, that it shines and operates as on the first day without ever visiting a gas station or mechanic – although interestingly enough we do expect that of our relationship.

In Spain a fitting wisdom states: “El amor no se encuentra, se construye”, translated: “True Love isn‘t found, it‘s built”. By internalizing that, one has very good prospects for a lasting and happy relationship and a love for life. For that one doesn’t need to be a Mrs. Perfect nor marry a Mr. Perfect. Because that really works perfectly well with Mr. Okay!

With this in mind: Dearest Lovers, have a wonderful 2014 Valentine’s Day!

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